'The Act' Review: The Truth is Strange Enough

If you've seen the documentary 'Mommy Dead and Dearest,' you know the story, but now you get to see it impressively acted out by Joey King and Patricia Arquette.

The Act

Few stories fit the claim that “truth is stranger than fiction” better than that of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Dee Dee Blanchard. They were con artists of a certain stripe, the latter probably more knowingly than the former, passing the daughter off as a wheelchair-bound sufferer of many chronic diseases and afflictions as a way to collect on benefits and public sympathy. Gypsy Rose was also a victim, however, of the physical and psychological abuses of Dee Dee, who maintained the illusion of having a sick child by falsifying records and documents and even inducing her daughter’s medical symptoms herself, an effect of her own mental illness. In the end, she paid for her mistreatment of Gypsy Rose with her life.

The 2015 murder of Dee Dee Blanchard first received major attention through a Buzzfeed article by Michelle Dean published more than a year after the incident. That was followed by an HBO documentary in 2017 (in which Dean appears) titled Mommy Dead and Dearest, and now this shocking tale has been dramatized in two separate forms. Marcia Gay Harden and Emily Skeggs portray renamed fictionalized versions of the mother and daughter for the unnecessarily amplified Lifetime movie Love You to Death, which debuted in January, and Patricia Arquette and Joey King play Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose in Hulu’s eight-part series The Act, which was co-created by Dean and is based on her article.

At the end of each episode of The Act, which will continue in subsequent seasons as an anthology series with new true crime stories, viewers are told that while based on real events, the program has scenes that are dramatized or fictionalized. That’s to be expected with any adaptation of nonfiction events, the full details and the dialogue of which are not often known. For the most part, The Act sticks to the main facts of the case and keeps the primary names of the involved parties. Many of the additional characters, though, including neighbors played by Chloe Sevigny and AnnaSophia Robb, are inspired by real people but are changed or are original creations, presumably in part to fit the storytelling arc of the show.

The Act doesn’t need to be any more outrageous than what actually occurred, but those unfamiliar with the story will likely find it not only hard to believe but also depicted in an over the top manner. Not for camp or comedy, but if there wasn’t already a Lifetime treatment (one that fails in both its attempts to be artsier than is necessary and its unfocused interests in the original material) you’d think this was made for that channel of cheesiness. It’s just hard not to come off as being John Waters light when the truth veered awfully close to his wheelhouse. Even the HBO documentary knew, based on its title, that the reality of the Blanchard case recalled a certain ridiculous biopic starring Faye Dunaway.

At first, King’s portrayal of Gypsy Rose, in particular, seems an exaggeration, but that’s because the emotionally and psychologically stunted young woman is a kind of caricature of herself created through her mother’s manipulation to make her believe herself to be and to also appear younger and intellectually disabled. Yet, Gypsy Rose was also not what she appeared to others, especially to doctors and charities and the media. She was responsible for some of the lie. It’s a complex role, consisting of a cartoonish facade and the pain beneath that deception, and King navigates it impressively. This is next-level work from the actress as she makes a break of her own from beyond the confines of the typical young adult career she’s had till now.

Arquette does an okay job opposite King, although coming right after her portrayal of another real woman with shady morals in Escape at Dannemora, the performance seems like a step back, void of the same nuances displayed in that award-winning part. I never buy the character here, especially in comparison to King’s Gypsy Rose, and perhaps there’s just not enough of an understanding of Dee Dee Blanchard’s behavior given that she can’t be studied as well as her daughter can be. And who can possibly comprehend what someone with Munchausen syndrome by proxy or whatever else led to her neediness and abuse was like simply from hearsay? Arquette has a tough task of her own in the role, and she does as well as anyone can — certainly better than Harden’s surface-level Annie Wilkes-like version in Love Me to Death.

There’s no need to embellish too much with a story like the Blanchard murder. No need to try to out-strange the truth with more fiction. That’s what the Lifetime movie does, poorly. The Act does some good with its tweaks, however. Sevigny and Robb’s mother and daughter duo offer a more grounded counterpart literally on the other side of the fence (well, the street) from Arquette and King’s craziness. The fact that we never really see Sevigny’s character interact with her other children is key to her and Robb’s purpose. Their familiar parent-child drama might seem cliche if they were off in their own movie, but that normalcy provides a necessary contrast here, as well as a reminder that we’re seeing something taking place in the real world.

Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee reside in a fantasy land of their own creation. The daughter is encouraged in her obsession with Disney and princesses and fairy tales by a mother who doesn’t even recognize the irony that she’s herself filling the role of a kind of wicked matriarch. No need for an evil poison-bearing adoptive guardian or step-parent when your real mom is so literally toxic. Hopefully, there’s more depth, though, to Gypsy Rose’s supposed prince charming, Nicholas Godejohn, who is so far (with only the first five episodes available to the press for review) perfectly awkward as portrayed by Calum Worthy (American Vandal, Bodied) but will need to be more than just cringeworthily odd as his part grows toward mother-slayer.

Either way, though, I’m more interested in seeing how King plays her character in relation to that secret online boyfriend’s titular act in an effort to give Gypsy Rose a happily ever after. The actress has done a terrific job playing the manipulated innocent daughter with a dichotomous personality of mostly feigned innocence clashing against newfound maturity, and now she has to add her own manipulative streak, which will be matched with a whole new sort of innocence act, in her defense as the blameless victim of extreme child abuse. An argument used in considering the real Gypsy Rose’s circumstances of guilt. If done right, King should, by series end, leave us unsure of what to think of Gypsy Rose and her fate.

Given the existence of not just the sufficiently shocking Mommy Dead and Dearest but also another documentary released last year (Gypsy’s Revenge, which I have not seen), what is the need for the drawn-out dramatized version of the events as depicted in The Act? Aside from milking some of the more astonishing parts of the story for a cliffhanger effect — of course, the fact that Gypsy Rose could walk is the reveal at the very end of the first episode (this isn’t a spoiler so much as it’s the premise of the show) — and laying into the tension of the built-out scenes where the two main characters are in direct conflict or secretly betraying the other is compelling television, especially with actresses who can play the required range of behaviors. As long as The Act steers straight as far as sticking to the truth, the show will be as confounding and entertaining as it needs to be.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.