BIRD BOX (2018)
In Susanne Bier’s dystopian thriller, Bird Box, Sandra Bullock delivers one of her grittiest and most committed performances, playing a mother who will do anything to protect her children. In this dark future, a cruel, unforgiving – and unseen – presence has decimated the world’s population, with all who make the mistake of glimpsing it prompted into a suicidal frenzy. With all of the major characters blindfolded in order to survive, Bird Box ironically strips Bullock of most of her actor’s tools, while providing her with an expansive showcase in which to thrive as a performer. “I became very agitated, very angry, very frustrated, and very short tempered,” the actress told Reuters. “I didn’t realise that it was a result of having been blindfolded until like halfway through. I didn’t have my tools of expression as an actor. But in the end, it helped give a really jagged feeling to those scenes rather than if I had holes cut in my blindfold and I could see and I was pretending to stumble and be blind.”
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015)
In a telling sign that Hollywood might be shifting in a positive direction, the lead character in the drama, Our Brand Is Crisis, was actually written as a man, but director, David Gordon Green, and screenwriter, Peter Straughan, were happy to switch it up when Sandra Bullock showed interest in the project. The swap was worth it, because the actress anchors the film expertly, giving weight, humour and authenticity to the character of “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a notoriously on-the-money political strategist dragged out of semi-retirement to run the campaign of an unfancied nationalist candidate, Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida), in the forthcoming Bolivian elections. It’s one of Bullock’s gutsiest and most aggressive performances, and she may have tapped some demons to make it happen. “I think that a lot of actors, comedians, musicians, and artists are drawn to this world because you’re allowed to excavate whatever it is that you’re struggling with, and hopefully turn it into art,” she said upon the film’s release.
On paper, nobody would have picked that Gravity – starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut hopelessly lost in space – would have become a critical darling, an Oscar winner, and a box office smash, but the film’s mix of human drama, seamlessly groundbreaking special effects, and tightly paced thrills made it a true breakout. And it was Bullock’s deeply emotional turn as the hopelessly lost but always defiant Dr. Ryan Stone that gave the film its beating heart. Largely shooting alone on a sound stage surrounded by (often malfunctioning) technology, the actress channeled the experience into her performance. “My situation was somewhat like the situation that my character was in,” Bullock told The Guardian. “There’s no one around, you’re frustrated, nothing works, you’re in pain, you’re lonely, and you want someone to fix everything for you but they can’t – all those things, I was feeling!”
THE BLIND SIDE (2009)
In one of those moments that The Academy Awards can seemingly conjure up on a regular basis, Sandra Bullock went from credibility-starved sweetheart to celebrated Best Actress Oscar winner with the otherwise unassuming drama, The Blind Side. Her performance in this heartwarming effort from the underrated John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder) is arguably the perfect Bullock on-screen distillation, with the actress getting to hit all of her famous grace notes. As the real life Leigh Anne Tuohy – a suburban mother who took a homeless, profoundly damaged African-American teenaged boy into her family home and turned his life around – Bullock is sassy, sweet, funny, uncompromising, earthy and snappy…in short, everything that we want the actress to be. “Leigh Anne is a one-of-a-kind human being, and I didn’t know if I could do her justice…that was my main concern,” Bullock told Digital Journal. “She’s an incredible woman and I knew that playing her would be an incredible challenge. But it was just the kind of challenge that I needed.”
Sadly overshadowed by the far more fancied Capote, Douglas McGrath’s Infamous – which also charts the storied and highly complex creation of author Truman Capote’s legendary “non-fiction novel”, In Cold Blood – is actually the better of the two films, digging deeper into the bedrock of the subject matter and more effectively establishing its central relationships. One of the most important of those relationships is the powerful bond that exists between Truman Capote (Toby Jones) and his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, who penned the American classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, and helped Capote while he was researching In Cold Blood. Bullock is brilliant as the reserved, spiky, yet warmly funny Harper Lee. “I don’t ever confess to play Nelle Harper Lee,” the actress said upon the film’s release. “I’m playing a culmination of all that people claimed were facts, and things that I felt were true compared to what other people had said. If two or more people said something about her that knew her, I went ‘okay, this seems right’.”
Set on the streets of racially torn Los Angeles, the Best Picture Oscar wining Crash – a richly assured directorial debut from then screenwriter, Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) – tracks through the lives of a disparate pack of characters to mark out a portrait of a city defined by pain and disconnection. It’s a strong film punctuated by flashes of explosive dialogue and cutting violence and boasts uniformly excellent performances from the big ensemble cast. Among a gallery of excellently against-type turns, Bullock is a standout as Jean Cabot, the icy wife of Brendan Fraser’s district attorney. In a shocking about-face from Bullock’s whole “America’s sweetheart” deal, Jean Cabot is a foul-mouthed, angry, abusively racist snob. “They signed on despite the drastically reduced fees,” Paul Haggis told FilmInk of his impressive cast, “because they wanted to do good work. There were no trailers and they barely had a place to change! They were excited about playing against type, which many of them do. Sandra Bullock is a revelation.”
MISS CONGENIALITY (2000)
A fine comedienne (see the above Our Brand Is Crisis) who often finds herself in horribly sub-par material, Bullock got the perfect vehicle in the silly, slight, but ultimately utterly charming Miss Congeniality, a fish-out-of-water gut-buster that allows the actress to play to all of her abundant strengths. In this box office smash from journeyman, Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza, Grumpy Old Men), Bullock is scruffy, awkward, tomboy FBI agent, Gracie Hart, who is charged with catching a vicious serial killer. The hitch? This hot mess has to go undercover in a chintzy beauty pageant in order to catch him. Cue Bullock tripping over herself and hopelessly trying to get her smile and walk down pat. “The one thing me and this character have in common is that we’re both slobs,” Bullock said upon the film’s release. The actress’ earthiness was perfect for the role of Gracie Hart, but even Bullock’s natural charm wasn’t enough to save the film’s execrable 2005 sequel, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous.
28 DAYS (2000)
Though a major disappointment as a film, the sloppy, cliched 28 Days does boast a strong turn from Sandra Bullock, and indeed one of the actress’ most boldly against-type. “I knew for sure that she was going to be a nice person,” the film’s director, Betty Thomas, told The Austin Chronicle. “To me, she represents that accessible star. But it turns out that she’s strong, complex, humorous, fights back, and believes in things.” It’s all there in Bullock’s performance as Gwen Cummings, a wildly out-of-control party girl whose excessive boozing finds her sentenced to 28 days of rehab in lieu of prison time when she wreaks havoc at her sister’s wedding. A brave move for the actress, the film was an early indicator of Bullock’s desire to switch it up. “It’s fun to go back and forth,” the actress told UPI. “Any actor will tell you once they get done doing one thing, they want to do exactly the opposite. I tend to go, ‘I will never do a comedy again’ and then I do something else and I’m like, ‘I’ll never do a drama again’, so it’s just variety.”
“I don’t think anyone had any idea what was going to happen…I certainly didn’t feel it,” Sandra Bullock has said of the surprise smash hit, Speed. “I think we were sort of ridiculed a bit for being the ‘low budget bomb-on-the-bus movie.’ Not that I cared. I was just so happy to have a job and that I got to work with Keanu Reeves.” The film in which most of the world was introduced to Sandra Bullock (even on TV’s Seinfeld, crotchety Frank Costanza refers to the actress as “that girl from the bus”), Speed is an electrifying thriller of the first order, with Keanu Reeves’ cop desperately trying to prevent a bus full of passengers from exploding. Bursting onto the screen in a flurry of spirit, sass, and self-deprecating humour, Bullock is a true scene stealer as the charmingly unsure of herself Annie, who has to get behind the wheel and help save the day. “Sandra’s this energetic, wonderful, positive, talented person,” Keanu Reeves has said of his co-star, and it was all on display in the action classic, Speed. But even Bullock’s natural charm wasn’t enough to save the film’s execrable 1997 sequel, Speed 2: Cruise Control. Wait a minute, that sounds familiar…
WRESTLING ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1993)
In her best before-she-was-famous, pre-Speed performance, Sandra Bullock is an utter delight in this underrated and sadly neglected comedy drama from the equally underrated director, Randa Haines (Children Of A Lesser God). Though the film is well and truly owned by magisterial veteran actors, Richard Harris and Robert Duvall – who play mismatched retiree buddies in sunny, somewhat broken down Florida – Bullock brings in a major haul of sunshine as Elaine, a perky, big-hearted waitress at a local diner. Robert Duvall is chastely, charmingly in love with her, and it’s easy to see why. The actress literally glows in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, a major stepping stone in her journey to stardom. “When I saw you in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, I looked at you the way I looked at my wife for the first time,” TV host, Jay Leno, earnestly and memorably told the actress when she was a guest on his show in 2014. “You just popped and I went, ‘Oh my God, this person’s gonna be a big star’.”