What Oscar-Winning Actresses Can Teach Us on Trial
The season two finale of Big Little Lies featured Nicole Kidman’s character Celeste eviscerating that of Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise in a brutal cross-examination. And wow, these two Oscar winners truly created a historical silver-screen moment. While I still have some burning questions that I can only hope will be answered in a yet-to-be-announced third season, what I do know for certain is that lawyers should take note; these women have much to teach on how to triumph on trial.
Cue the catchy crooning theme song and the dramatic sweeping shots of the Bixby Bridge!
I’ll quickly catch you non-watchers up to speed.
On the series, Celeste (Kidman) is the defendant in a fierce custody battle for her sons, twins Max and Josh, and the plaintiff hoping to take them away from her is her steely mother-in-law, Mary Louise (Streep). A lot has gone down in season one that causes Mary Louise to deem Celeste an incompetent mother, and possibly a murderer…but that’s too much drama for us to get into here.
Mary Louise wants to take her grandkids away from her daughter-in-law; but unfortunately for her, Celeste not only wears the hat of the defendant but also that of highly adept lawyer. At the last minute, Celeste decides to ditch her hired counsel and take matters into her own hands, cross-examining Streep on the stand herself. She’s fighting for her kids after all.
Acting for Lawyers
Generally speaking, lawyers are charged with responsibility that often overlaps with that of a stage or screen actor: they must have a commanding stage presence, a resonant vocal quality, and an arsenal of impactful gestures that further drive their arguments home. They must make searing eye contact with their “acting partner,” or in their case, a witness, the judge, the defendant or even the jury. They must deliver an air-tight performance to persuade the deciders that their perspective is the right one.
THE PERFECT PROSECUTOR
Kidman’s portrayal is rife with lessons for lawyers, both in and out of the court.
Courage in Conviction
Celeste knew that she had to step in to defend herself, at the behest of the lawyer she hired to do that very job. Of course, we would like our clients to leave the lawyering to us! But Celeste teaches us here to have courage in conviction and to trust our gut with respect to cases and clients. Non-traditional is not synonymous with wrong; there are times when we must do away with convention to best serve our clients.
Be Composed Yet Tenacious
Celeste, as a character, is soft-spoken and timid. Rather than alter her personality and put on an inauthentic performance, Celeste works with what she’s got to deliver a cross-examination that still packs a punch. A great quote from Jake Roberts comes to mind: “If a man has enough power, he can speak softly and everyone will listen.” Celeste proves that sometimes, speaking softer rather than louder can actually be a more impactful strategy. Her hushed words are pointed and colored with pauses for dramatic effect, and we’re hanging on every word she says. Lawyers can remember here that you can still dial up the drama without necessarily dialing up the volume.
Escalate the Drama
Celeste does start to increase her volume in parallel with her argument’s ascent. As her questioning reaches its zenith, she has become impassioned and resolute. The escalation of drama in her tone and her questioning proves sound as she neatly makes her point. And though the average lawyer doesn’t have award-winning television writers and directors behind him or her, it may be helpful to look at the cross-examination as a dramatic narrative with the common structure of any story: exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement.
The best lawyers are the ones who understand how to incorporate drama, acting, storytelling and narrative structure into their arguments. Case closed!
I loved watching Nicole Kidman in this role, and spoiler alert…she won.