Marcia, Marcia, Marcia: On Sarah Paulson's Heartbreaking, Powerful Work As O.J. Simpson's Embattled Prosecutor

The underappreciated actor's star turn on 'The People v. O.J.' is Emmy-worthy, and last night's episode showcased why

One of the most affecting scenes in last night's brilliant Marcia Clark-centric episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story took place not in the courtroom but in the hair salon. After months of being humiliated by the press about her looks, the embattled prosecutor (played by Sarah Paulson) is elated, even enthralled, by her hairdresser’s promise to remake her into "the new, real Marcia Clark" — never mind the innate contradiction of those two descriptors. Her curls — and her future — in someone else’s hands, Clark lies back into the wash basin, and a series of visual cuts reveals her emotions: hope, curiosity, anxiety, anticipation. She suppresses a giggle. For the first time in the FX drama, Marcia Clark is cute.

For two decades, the real-life Clark — best known for losing the case that defined her career — has been a pop-culture punching bag. Just last year, Tina Fey played a corkscrew-maned cartoon of prosecutorial incompetence on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In its hindsight-enriched retelling of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, The People v. O.J. Simpson vindicates Clark as a human being, specifically a civil servant wholly unprepared for the media circus that developed around "the trial of the century," as well as the sole prominent woman in a courtroom where her reasonable feminist objections are met with pitying silence.

Last week, the show nimbly explored many of the trial's racial issues by focusing on Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance). With "Marcia Marcia Marcia," director Ryan Murphy and writer D.V. DeVincentis heartbreakingly illustrate how sexism derailed Clark’s pursuit of justice and turned her personal life inside out. The prosecutor says of Simpson’s Dream Team, "They’re flashy hotshots. They’re used to [the public scrutiny]." But she’s wrong; no tabloid would publish nude photos of Cochran or F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) or Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) for the simple reason that they’re all men. Paulson — a staple of Murphy’s American Horror Story and a brave, under-sung supporting player in films such as Carol and 12 Years a Slave — seals her Emmy nomination (at the very least) with a bravura performance that showcases how many different ways she can grimace, glower, and teeter on the verge of tears.

With the media eager to exploit any and every aspect of Clark, her existence becomes a series of masks. She’s brashly impatient in divorce court at the start of the hour and stripped raw by the end with co-prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), but nearly all her energies in between are devoted to never letting anyone else see the real her. Coming home to her young son, she puts on a happy face. Back at the D.A.'s office, she stifles her anger and hurt when her boss (Bruce Greenwood) suggests she meet with a consultant about her appearance. On a call with her soon-to-be ex-husband, she plays nice to ensure he’ll babysit their kids. At the supermarket, she swallows the insult that she should’ve hurled at the cashier who casually thumps her with a menstruation joke. Even alone with Darden, her one ally, she pretends to be less charmed than she is by his late-night flirtations, her smiles self-protectively small. Ironically, it’s her makeup — the heavy, black eyeliner and the severe copper lipstick that constitute her facial armor — that suggests her truest self: as the legal warrior that she is.

If all accounts of history are really commentaries on the present, "Marcia Marcia Marcia" makes the best case yet for American Crime Story’s necessity by revisiting how Clark (and Nicole Simpson) were put on trial despite never having committed a crime because of their gender. Clark struggles to stand tall as more slings and arrows than she could have ever imagined are aimed her way; Paulson bares both the wounds and the overwhelming effort it takes to keep them under wraps.

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