Although the Memphis-set "The Blind Side" was shot in Atlanta to take advantage of Georgia's generous economic incentives, the producers did cast a noted Memphis actress in the small but key role of football star Michael Oher's mother.
Tony Award-winner Adriane Lenox -- a Memphis-born Hamilton High School graduate -- was cast as Denise Oher in the fact-inspired film about the African-American inner-city football prodigy adopted by well-to-do white East Memphis parents, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy.
Lenox's scene with Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy is a brief but memorable study in contrast between the neat and privileged Leigh Anne and the sad, struggling, drug-wracked Denise Oher, who seems somewhat embarrassed by the presence of an upscale "fine Christian lady" in her messy "C Block" apartment in the Hurt Village public housing development. (After letting Leigh Anne inside her home, Denise disappears for a moment to don her wig.)
"Adriane Lenox makes every moment count in her brief but layered cameo as Michael's crack-addicted mom," Joe Leydon wrote in his Variety review. "Best performance, minute for minute, comes from Adriane Lenox, whose cameo as Michael's drug-addled mother is the film's standout," wrote Peter Rainer in The Christian Science Monitor.
That's a lot of press for a part that lasts less than 5 minutes onscreen.
"Somebody told me, 'You were about 4 minutes short of a nomination,'" joked Lenox, in a recent phone interview, referring to her chances for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. (In 1977, Beatrice Straight won that Oscar for her 8-minute, 260-word performance in "Network," while Best Supporting Actress Judi Dench had about 10 minutes as Queen Elizabeth in 1998's "Shakespeare in Love.")
Lenox, 53, is used to making a big impression in a short period of time. In 2005, she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play for an intense, 10-minute scene in the original Broadway production of "Doubt." "Memphis is in the house!" Lenox announced when she collected her award. (The role in the 2008 film adaptation went to Viola Davis, who -- wouldn't you know it? -- earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination.)
Audiences no doubt are noticing Lenox, too. "The Blind Side" appears to be a hit with staying power: The film earned $40 million at the U.S. box office during its second weekend in release, or $6 million more than it collected on its opening weekend -- a sure sign that the movie is benefiting from good word-of-mouth. (In comparison, the box-office for the much-hyped mega-hit, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," dropped from $142 million to $42 million during those same two weekends.)
Although not as well known as former Memphian Kathy Bates, who appears in "The Blind Side" as a tutor, Lenox may be familiar to moviegoers for her roles in the Memphis sequence of "My Blueberry Nights" and in "Black Snake Moan," directed by Craig Brewer, in which she again makes the most of her limited screen time in a powerhouse scene opposite Samuel L. Jackson, who plays her eager-to-reconcile husband.
Lenox occasionally returns to Memphis, to visit her two older sisters, Billie J. Cowley, an administrative assistant with the Tennessee Task Force One urban search-and-rescue effort, and Lena McCaulley, a Missionary Baptist minister. Lenox most recently was in town in March, to see her daughter, Crystal Joy, perform in the touring musical version of "Legally Blonde" at the Orpheum.
Lenox said John Lee Hancock, director of "The Blind Side," was surprised to learn the woman he'd cast to play Denise Oher was herself a product of inner-city Memphis, having grown up in LeMoyne Gardens.
"My first day on the set, I said, 'Oh wow, this kind of like takes me back.' When I looked at that project, my heart just sank." However, she said, the LeMoyne Gardens of her youth "didn't look as bad" as the Hurt Village of the film.
Lenox, who majored in theater at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and now lives in Brooklyn, said she won the role through a typical audition process. "I auditioned, and the next thing I knew I was down there (in Atlanta)."
Unlike some of the other performers, who spent time with their real-life counterparts, Lenox said she never met Denise Oher. But she said Michael Lewis, author of the nonfiction book that inspired the film, told her at the New York premiere that her performance was "spooky, in the essence of the performance," due to the resemblance to Mrs. Oher.
In the film, audiences are told that the 7-year-old Michael was "forcibly removed" from his mother because Mrs. Oher was "on that crack pipe." (Lenox appears in some chaotic flashback shots, struggling with police as they remove Michael from her home.)
When Leigh Anne Tuohy asks a social worker how many children Mrs. Oher has, he replies: "At least a dozen, probably, if not more. With her drug arrest record, my guess would be she can't even remember."
Nevertheless, Lenox makes Denise Oher into a sympathetic character, because, as Leigh Anne tells her, "you'll always be Michael's mama." And she must have some good qualities because, as the script states, Michael was a "runner" who would sneak away from foster homes to reunite with his mother.
"I believed this was a person who would prefer to not be a drug addict, but it takes a real strong will and strong support to get out of that life," Lenox said. "And you also need that thing inside of you that says, 'I can't go to the bottom any more.' I wanted you to think that this was a woman who wanted to make a better life for herself."