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The Glorious, Complicated Humanity of Jean Smart

From Designing Women to Hacks, the surface simplicity of her characters belies the nuance of her performances.
  • (Photos: FX, HBO, HBO Max)
    (Photos: FX, HBO, HBO Max)

    By now it's well-established that Jean Smart is having a moment, with a string of recent appearances in Fargo (2015), Watchmen (2019), and Mare of Easttown (2021) bringing her some much-deserved recognition. The women she portrays in these dramas are all complex individuals, hard-bitten and world-weary on the outside, with tangled emotions seething just beneath the surface. Nowhere is this more the case than in Deborah Vance, the cynical comedian at the center of HBO’s Hacks. In Smart’s hands, Deborah is much more than just a caricature of an aging star; she’s a woman of incredible texture, constantly surprising us with new aspects of her character. 

    Smart's ability to convey the complicated humanity at the heart of seemingly simple characters has been a hallmark of her  career going all the way back to her star-making role as Charlene Frazier in the '80s hit sitcom Designing Women. While Julia (Dixie Carter) was the political firebrand, Suzanne (Delta Burke) was the debutante, and MaryJo (Annie Potts) was the single mom, Charlene reminded us that, as one writer put it, “sometimes it's okay to just like the Rocky movies and dream of dating a pilot.” But while it was her surface simplicity that made her so charming, there was far more to Charlene than initially met the eye, and it was Smart's nuanced portrayal that ultimately made it clear that beneath her folksiness and naivete, she was just as much a feminist as her more outspoken friends.

    Take, for example, “How Great Thou Art,” the season two episode in which Charlene confesses to her pastor (Patrick Tovatt) that she can't understand why he remains so opposed to women joining the ministry. During their conversation, she moves through a dizzying number of emotional registers, allowing us to see her sadness at having never become a minister, her joy in her faith, and her disappointment (and perhaps even anger) at Reverend Nunn’s obstinate refusal to understand that women could play a key part in sharing God’s word. Smart’s wrenching performance keeps the scene — with its slightly overdone and schmaltzy scoring — from slipping into caricature or kitsch.  

    A similar dynamic emerges in Smart’s portrayal of Hacks' Deborah Vance. As the series begins, it’s clear that Vance has grown more than a little dissatisfied with her life; while her career as a standup comic continues to bring her wealth and stability, she yearns for something more fulfilling. On some level, she recognizes that her routines have lost their luster, and so she reluctantly agrees to hire a young writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), to help her punch up her act. 

    From the outset we see that the two women are far more alike than either would like to admit, which leads to numerous disagreements and several all-out fights. Matters come to a head when Deborah, thinking that Ava is going to abandon her to return to Los Angeles, decides to jettison their work together and retreat to her old act. When Ava confronts her, Deborah seems more sad than anything else, but it’s not long before hurt turns to righteous fury, particularly after the younger woman criticizes the elder's career choices. 

    “You don’t get to tell me what’s important,” Deborah says, her anger boiling over. “This is my life.” Her eyes glint with increasingly incandescent rage at what she sees as Ava’s betrayal, and it’s only after she slaps the younger woman that she seems to snap out of it. When Ava storms out, Deborah gazes briefly into the distance, her eyes bearing witness to her sadness at the loss of a protege and a friend. 

    Deborah has a similarly fraught relationship with her daughter, DJ (Kaitlin Olson), and although she demonstrates throughout the season how much she loves her, she’s also frustrated and impatient with what she sees as her poor choices and chronic instability. In an emotionally resonant toast at DJ’s birthday party, Deborah reveals that she took her on the road with her in an effort to make the most of their time together. “For better or worse,” she says, “for me, at least, it was always better.” Smart’s performance in this moment -- the slight tremble in her voice, the faintest bit of fidgeting with the champagne glass, and the tender look she shares with DJ -- conveys the depth of Deborah’s love for her only child. Matters quickly turn toxic when it’s revealed that DJ isn’t going to sign a prenuptial agreement with her fiance, and soon the two of them are hurling vicious insults at one another, with Smart’s face conveying Deborah’s fury and despair over what she perceives as her daughter’s marital folly.

    In less capable hands, this scene could easily have become yet another instance in which Deborah shows herself cold and unfeeling toward the emotional needs of others, always more apt to throw a pointed verbal grenade than to offer the gentle hand of acceptance. But Smart allows us to see that, beneath her brittle, haughty, and at times cruel exterior, Deborah really does want the best for her only child. A lifetime spent fighting for every last crumb of success — and ultimately having so little to show for it beyond a failed marriage and a flagging career -- has made her into the person she is: flawed, yet piercingly, poignantly human.

    Given the richness, complexity, and strength of both Charlene Frazier and Deborah Vance, it’s not surprising that both have come to be seen as feminist icons. They are in some ways mirror images of one another: one embracing the joy of life and the other falling into cynicism. Both, however, illustrate Jean Smart’s extraordinary ability to convey the glorious humanity at the heart of her characters. 

    Season 1 of Hacks is now streaming on HBO Max, while Designing Women can be seen on Hulu, Tubi and PlutoTV.

    Dr. Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B's podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

    TOPICS: Jean Smart, Designing Women, Hacks, Mare of Easttown, Watchmen