Sandra Oh is probably stealing your scene right now. The inimitable actress, known best as Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, has been slowly emerging from the background in movies and TV for years. No matter who she’s playing – a best friend, a vice principal, another best friend, mostly just best friends – Oh manages to bring a richness that makes her stand out in the crowd.
In honor of her small role as Kathy Bates’ lover in this past weekend’s Tammy (it makes sense in context), we’re taking a look at Oh’s previous work making the most out of very little.
No conversation about Sandra Oh's consistent greatness can begin without first thinking of Grey’s Anatomy’s Cristina Yang. Witty and warm, vulnerable yet vicious, Cristina was the master of the Shondalogue at Seattle Grace long before Olivia Pope was a twinkle in Shonda Rimes’ eye. Consider the above speech, about how Cristina felt after her fiancée’s departure. Oh is impassioned, emotional and fiery – yet it all comes from a genuine place. As we’ve learned in the past season on Scandal, Shondalogues can quickly veer into high-octane mediocrity in hammy hands. Through 10 seasons, Oh never lost her character to caricature, no matter who was sexing ghosts or dying on islands around her.
We all come to Alexander Payne’s Sideways for different things. Some of us love Virginia Madsen talking about wine. Some of us wonder why Paul Giamatti didn’t get a Best Actor Oscar nomination. I’ve heard (unconfirmed) rumors some people think Thomas Haden Church is good in the film as Jack. But no matter what we came for, we stayed for Oh’s Stephanie giving Church – excuse me, Jack – the beating he so richly deserved. Stephanie’s fury echoes even a decade later, long after the merlot shame has faded and we’ve stopped drinking pinot noir.
Oh’s Vice Principal Gupta steals the story of suddenly royal Anne Hathaway away with ease. In her introduction, she underlines exactly what a nobody soon-to-be-Princess Mia Thermopolis is with shady ease (“Good morning, Lily! … Lily’s friend”). She’s as starstruck as we would be when the Queen of Genovia walks into her office. But nothing beats how Oh turns a five-second phone call into a simultaneously hilarious and tense beat, one of the best in the film. “The queen is coming,” indeed, and her name is Sandra.
There’s a lot to love about John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of Rabbit Hole. Nicole Kidman gives her best performance since her Dark Days of Botox period, for instance. But considering the subject matter of the story – two parents overcoming their grief after their young son’s death – the movie is understandably heavy. That’s what makes Oh’s turn as Gabby, a fellow group counseling attendee, such blessed relief for the film. When she and Eckhart’s Howie deteriorate into pot-fueled giggles at a meeting, you can feel the weight of the story being lifted off our shoulders and onto hers, if only for a brief moment. But Oh never lets the weight – nor her character’s grief – burden her. She carries it beautifully, up until her final moments on screen.
Tammy has its problems. Our own Esther Zuckerman thinks it “doesn't quite amount to the sum of its parts” – but one such part that inarguably works is the lovely relationship between Lenore (Bates) and Suzanne (Oh). As soon as they join the narrative, the movie opens up from being a tonal mismash of misery and comedy and begins to tell a truly original story. While much of that credit belongs to Bates for bringing such a unique, rare character to life, Oh is positively sunny as her partner. You truly believe in their relationship, largely because their chemistry radiates in a quiet, lovely way. Tammy – and Tammy – may be loud, but Oh’s softness still impresses.