The Hulu miniseries The Act recounts the real life story of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard — a story filled with abuse, egregious lies, and murder. As a child, Gypsy was the victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy at the hands of her mother, who lied to both her daughter and to the public at large by creating the fiction that her daughter was mentally and physically disabled. Forced to eat through a feeding tube and confined to a wheelchair for the entirety of her childhood, Gypsy realized as she got older that her mother had lied to her about her illness, her upbringing, and even her age. In 2015, Dee Dee was gruesomely murdered by Gypsy and her boyfriend, Nick Godejohn.
In addition to the media frenzy that the murder caused, the tragic events adapted by The Act also inspired the memorable HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest in 2017. The peculiar nature of the case, as well as the drastic lengths Dee Dee went to in order to keep Gypsy under her control, are enthralling to say the least, and provide rich material for lead actresses Joey King (Gypsy) and Patricia Arquette (Dee Dee).
King delivers an exceptional performance in a role that demands a full command of emotions that range from docility to rage, often in a matter of seconds. The real life woman behind the complex character of Gypsy Rose was forced to do her own share of acting under the watchful eye of her mother, and though the meta nature of a performance within a performance might have felt gawky in the hands of a less capable actress, King embodies the emotions and contradictions of Gypsy effortlessly.
Similarly, Callum Worthy is magnetic as Nick Godejohn, the online boyfriend who has a direct hand in Dee Dee’s death. With his hair dyed black and trimmed in severe bangs, Worthy looks almost unrecognizable in comparison to the wacky teen he played on the Disney Channel show Austin and Ally. If Worthy took this role as an opportunity to distance himself from his Disney roots, he certainly went above and beyond in establishing himself as a young talent to watch. As Nick, Worthy teeters between stuttering innocence and an aggressive, darker persona as a man suffering from untreated multiple personality disorder. While the actions Gypsy and Nick take to escape Dee Dee’s abuse are drastic, King and Worthy both elicit sympathy for the people they portray in different ways.
Patricia Arquette’s turn as Dee Dee proves that her already well-established credibility as an exceptional actress is no fluke. Arquette’s role puts her in the unenviable position of portraying a woman who did revolting and unimaginable things for acclaim and money, but the actress transcends the base levels of Dee Dee and brings her to life as a flawed, but fully realized person. By the end of The Act viewers can hardly sympathize for her, but we understand the foundations of who Dee Dee is. Come awards season, Arquette will no doubt garner an abundance of nominations, if not wins.
Because The Act focuses not only on Dee Dee’s murder but also Gypsy and Nick’s escape and subsequent sentencing, Arquette is not as prominently featured in the series following episode five, titled “Plan B.” However, the creators still found ways for Dee Dee’s shadow to hang over the proceedings through flashbacks and the surprising amount of grief Gypsy carries for her mother.
This brings us to the heart of the story itself, which is the twisted and profound love Dee Dee feels for her daughter. The physical and psychological abuse Gypsy suffers is inexcusable, and The Act goes to no lengths to defend it. Through incredible writing and acting, the story compounds on Dee Dee and Gypsy’s relationship as the strongest and most intimate bond either of them have. Dee Dee has isolated Gypsy to a degree where she truly is her daughter’s best friend, but Gypsy still finds an odd comfort in that. The complicated nature of their relationship only hardens after the murder, and leaves Gypsy reeling with denial.
The camera direction and cinematography elevate each episode, neatly packaging the daily lives of the Blanchard women — good and bad — into beautiful moments of mise-en-scene. The camera works to heighten Gypsy’s perspective, making the house seem more and more claustrophobic as she gains independence from her mother. In one notable scene in particular, Gypsy looks downs an elongating hallway towards the front door where the sun outside shines invitingly; behind her, Dee Dee calls for her in the back bedroom. The house seems to come alive around her as she considers leaving, and then returns to dusky normalcy as she wheels her way back to her mother’s voice.
Overall, The Act does well in capturing the tumultuous dynamic between Gypsy and her mother without cheapening their love or glamourising the macabre aspects of Dee Dee’s death. It’s a shocking — and somehow endearing — depiction of motherhood that establishes itself as a premiere drama to reflect on for years to come.