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Allison Janney: A masterclass in portraying real women on-screen

On Allison Janney’s 62nd birthday, here’s a throwback on her illustrious career spanning television and films.

Shreya Paul
Nov 19, 2021
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In a career spanning film, television and theatre, American actress Allison Janney has established herself as a blockbuster star. Over the years, she has garnered a solid reputation with critically acclaimed roles in Neil Coward's Present Laughter (1996), Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge (1997), The West Wing (1999-2006) and Juno (2007), amongst many others. Janney’s acting prowess has been globally recognised and the talented actress has received numerous accolades that include an Academy Award, a British Academy Film Award, six Critics' Choice Awards, a Golden Globe Award, seven Primetime Emmy Awards, and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Allison Janney’s career is a testament to the fact that Hollywood can be credited for producing nuanced portrayals of ‘real’ women. The acclaimed actress is known for backing roles that spoke of women driven by ambition, unfettered yet grounded, and most importantly, aware of their agency. In fact, even her stint with maternal roles edged towards witty, no-nonsense truth sayers who’d often be unabashed about their political incorrectness.

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Janney’s first breakout role came with the 1999 series The West Wing. As CJ Cregg, the White House Press Secretary, Janney’s character was the perfect blend of adorable and nerdy. A diligent and focused worker, Cregg was never shy of her femininity, charming her way with men. Neither was Cregg hesitant of displaying slapstick humour, with Janney’s seamless acting only drawing in more laughs. In fact, The West Wing writer Eli Attie famously said in a podcast that Janney had a habit of bursting into peals of laughter on set. Attie followed that up with instances of Janney’s consistency since the actress was known to never give a first take “that you couldn’t have used in the show.”

Janney’s roles ranged from the totally inappropriate guidance counsellor Ms. Perky in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), to the edgy, racist mother Prudy Pingleton in Hairspray (2007). Her memorable roles catapulted her to the kind of performer who was hard to miss and her uniquely vibrant and bawdy characters evoked emotions like none other. Her subtle, yet off-beat approach to acting was deceptively charming and never failed to make a lasting impression on the audience. In Troop Zero (2019), she fitted perfectly into the role of the prudish and heinous troop leader. The film follows the story of a raggedy girl-gang of misfits who are offered a chance to be recorded on NASA's Golden Record. In the film, Janney’s character works as a force against these girls but ends up redefining “weird” and immortalising this bed-wetting, guitar-smashing oddball crew. Pushing unconventional roles has been a recurring pattern throughout Janney’s career and her repeated attempts to push the envelope with her acting is indeed admirable.

Janney’s global reach as an artiste transcends the boundaries of her acting career. A vocal champion of anti-opioid addiction, Janney has often spoken about losing her beloved brother who died by suicide after suffering from the addiction. The actress, when picking up the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2018, for playing LaVona Golden (in I, Tonya), saved the concluding section of her speech for her brother Hal. In fact, in 2016, Janney made a surprise visit to then-President Barack Obama’s White House press meet (as her character from The West Wing) and spoke about the addiction and what measures were being taken by authorities to combat the problem. "This is a disease that can touch anybody, and all of us can help reduce drug abuse through evidence-based treatment, prevention and recovery. Research shows it works, and courageous Americans show it works every day," Janney had said.

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The actress’ role in the considerably popular 2013 series Mom sees her as Bonnie, a single mother, always erratic and reckless. The same year, the show delved into a sub-plot that involved the depiction of tween drug use. But the show’s nuanced portrayal of the subject was hardly a surprise since it had both its leads – Janney and Anna Faris (who plays Christy, Bonnie’s daughter) – playing recovering addicts.

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Janney’s easy affability and low-maintenance vibe immediately attracted a considerable fan base for the actress. Whether it be her role as the simple-hearted white supremacist mother in The Help (2011) or a concerned yet supportive stepmother in Juno (2007), Janney was always belting out compelling roles that were both relatable and felt personal. Speaking about her need to find multiple avenues as a performer, Janney had said in a Vanity Fair interview, “After I finish a project, I kind of love to do something completely opposite of what I’ve just done. So after I finished doing West Wing, I went to do a Broadway musical. And now that this [Mom] is ending, I’m about to go do an action thriller movie in Canada. I have to start working out with a fight trainer for two hours every day. I must be out of my fricking mind, but I’m going to just try that.”

Janney’s career, spanning over three decades, has given many ‘a wondrous women who have lived and breathed like us all. Like she very succinctly said about her profession once, “I'm an actor. I can make anyone believe anything. I don't have to know what the hell I'm talking about.”


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