[Marxism] The Wall Street Journal: "Women Acting Badly"
walterlx at earthlink.net
Sat Feb 24 06:58:06 MST 2007
(The only one of these which I HAVEN'T seen is THE DEVIL
WEARS PRADA, and the rest are excellent dramas covering
a range of human experiences. THE QUEEN and VOLVER are
particularly terrific! NOTES ON A SCANDAL was somewhat
tedious, but the acting was spectacular.)
The Wall Street Journal
February 23, 2007
Women Acting Badly
An adulteress, an evil boss, an emotional predator: Our reporter on
why mature, flawed and powerful women are at the center of this
year's Oscar race
By MERISSA MARR
February 23, 2007; Page W1
Judi Dench has played some dark characters in her time, but few have
been as toxic as Barbara Covett in "Notes on a Scandal." A dour
schoolteacher with a bad haircut and thick ankles, Ms. Covett
describes herself as "chronically untouched" as she prowls after a
younger female colleague. She refers to a portly colleague as a "pig
in knickers," and confides in a voiceover: "Lasagna tends to disagree
with my bowels."
Ms. Dench's diabolical character is in good company. She is one of
five Academy Award contenders for best actress in a field dominated
by women behaving badly. From the bitchy fashion editor depicted by
Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" to Kate Winslet's adulterous
wife in "Little Children," this year's nominees depict women who are
flawed, sharp-edged and often morally unattractive. Perhaps most
uncharacteristic for Hollywood, three of the best actress nominees
are in the AARP demographic -- Ms. Streep is 57 years old, Helen
Mirren is 61 and Ms. Dench is 72.
The year's field is a sea change for an industry that has been
criticized for relegating women to roles that are secondary, docile
and often younger than 40. The Academy Award for best actress is
nearly always reserved for something more traditional. In the past 20
years, the winners have included lightweight romantics (Gwyneth
Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love"), heroines (Julia Roberts in "Erin
Brockovich") and sympathetic crusaders (Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man
This year's ladies are in a beastly league of their own -- starring
as the powerful centerpiece of women-driven movies. The best-actress
rivals also include Penélope Cruz in "Volver," a portrayal of a
working-class mother who covers up the murder of her husband by
dumping him in a freezer. The favorite is Ms. Mirren, who plays
Elizabeth II in "The Queen": She depicts a stern monarch who is
determined to maintain a stiff upper lip after Princess Diana's
death, despite criticism from the British public that she was cold
The parts reflect audiences' desire for a greater sense of reality
and complexity in movie roles. As Hollywood has struggled in recent
years to draw crowds for its high-budget and often formulaic
"popcorn" movies, audiences have shown they're more receptive to
edgier stories and unflattering characters, filmmakers say. They also
say viewers want to see women playing roles long reserved for men.
Looks Like the Queen
That has filmmakers courting a pool of talented leading actresses,
many of whom came to fame in the 1960s and 1970s and are eager to
take on more challenging characters. Writers are creating roles
specifically for them. "The Queen" was developed after one of the
producers noticed how much Ms. Mirren looked like Queen Elizabeth II.
"Filmmakers are writing roles for women that don't fit into the
standard boxes of romantic comedy or sidekick to the male lead," says
Amy Israel, head of production and acquisitions at Paramount
Pictures' specialty arm Paramount Vantage, who has a number of movies
starring strong, aggressive females rolling out this year.
There have been such roles before, of course. In 1950, Bette Davis
rocked Hollywood with her gritty performance as an aging actress in
"All About Eve." Ms. Davis was in her 40s and had long complained
about being considered a Hollywood has-been. The same year, Gloria
Swanson made a splash with her role as a washed-up movie star in
"Sunset Boulevard." At the 1991 ceremony, Kathy Bates's obsessive
wacko in "Misery" trumped Ms. Roberts's hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold
in "Pretty Woman." More recently, Charlize Theron received a nod for
her fierce prostitute-turned-serial killer in "Monster." But rarely
has there been such a concentrated group as this year's Oscar bunch.
Audiences can expect to see more of the same. Ms. Mirren is expected
to return in "Angel Makers," about women turning murderous in a
British farming community after falling for German POWs while their
husbands are at war. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh act out a
thorny relationship between sisters in "Margot at the Wedding." In
"The Other Boleyn Girl," Natalie Portman plays the ruthless and
scheming Anne Boleyn, who steals King Henry VIII from her pregnant
sister Mary. Viewers will also see another familiar name, Julie
Christie: In "Away From Her," she plays a woman with Alzheimer's who
torments her husband by falling for a wheelchair-bound mute.
It's a shift from the conventional wisdom of even a few years ago,
that Oscar-hungry actresses should play victims or heroines with
unassailable morals. Ms. Winslet herself spoofed the stereotype in a
guest turn in 2005 on HBO's "Extras," a comedy about actors'
behind-the-scenes life. Ms. Winslet figures she's a shoo-in for a
statue for playing a pious nun in a World War II film. "If you're
doing a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar," she
says. Later in the satire, she sees a girl with cerebral palsy and
advises another actor to take note. "That is another way you win,"
the character says. "Daniel Day-Lewis in 'My Left Foot'? Oscar.
Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man'? Oscar."
Patrick Marber, who adapted "Notes on a Scandal" for the big screen,
says audiences are bored with the artificial perfection that
Hollywood has historically portrayed. "Audiences don't want the
defanged version," he says. When it came to the role of Ms. Covett,
Mr. Marber didn't hold back. Instead, he ramped up the character from
the Zoë Heller bestseller. "She's white-hot vicious," says the
writer, who is nominated for his screenplay.
Ms. Dench didn't hold back on the physical transformation, either. In
one scene, she's shown slumped in a bath, her flabby, liver-spotted
arms rolling over the top of the tub, as she draws on a cigarette.
Ms. Mirren, meanwhile, layered on the wrinkles, padding and dowdy
outfits. The most striking scene in "The Devil Wears Prada" shows Ms.
Streep's character -- the haughty, controlling and immaculately
turned-out editor of a fashion magazine -- looking haggard and devoid
of makeup after learning that her latest husband wants out of the
marriage. Ms. Cruz filled out her behind with padding and takes on an
"ugly beautiful" appearance. Even Ms. Winslet's afternoon lover in
"Little Children" describes her as having eyebrows that are too thick
and a far-from-perfect body.
"Babel" scribe Guillermo Arriaga says moviegoers are drawn to
complex, too-human characters as their real lives become more
sanitized -- meeting people online instead of in person, for example,
and becoming detached from how their food is raised. "People are
hungry for real human experience," says the Mexican-born writer, who
is nominated for his screenplay. He believes viewers still want to
feel a sense of hope but they're willing to go to "dark places" to
Other factors may have prepared viewers for imperfection. The boom in
reality TV shows -- such as "Beauty and the Geek," in which socially
challenged men humiliate themselves in learning how to win over women
-- has shown that unflattering characters sell. The rise of DVDs,
especially through Netflix, has boosted audience sophistication by
making more movies available to more people. And studios have
perfected their indie-movie marketing chops, becoming adept at
selling tougher material.
The fact that many recent women-driven movies don't follow the
so-called feminist narrative seen in 1970s movies such as "Alice
Doesn't Live Here Anymore," which portrayed strong women improving
their lot in life, also suggests an evolution in the female role in
cinema, says Linda Williams, a professor of film studies at
University of California at Berkeley. In "Little Children," for
instance, Ms. Winslet's character doesn't break free of her unhappy
life. Instead, she returns to it. Similarly, Ms. Dench's role as a
scheming, repressed lesbian would have been deemed politically
incorrect 20 years ago. Now it is simply "complex."
Still, there's a Hillary Clinton aspect to these roles: A more
empowered female audience wants to watch empowered women.
Interestingly, men do, too. "These are strong, powerful, edgy,
opinionated women," says producer Beau Flynn. "Guys find that sexy."
Adds Mr. Marber: "Men enjoy watching the active, protagonist women
more than the passive weepers."
This year's field also is a shift for female actresses who have long
complained they couldn't find decent roles once they hit 50. "The
baby boom is hitting 60," says Robert Sklar, professor of cinema
studies at New York University. "It's partly demographic but this is
a group that is also particularly self-aware -- narcissistic, some
would say -- and they're interested at looking at themselves in
movies as older people."
Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and director of the
Stanford Center on Longevity, notes that an aging population is
naturally more female skewed. Older people also look for something
different in their entertainment. "People's motivation changes as
they age," she says. "They look for more meaning."
The Academy is aging as well, which could work in older actresses'
favor. Still, Ms. Dench may not relish her chances against Ms.
Mirren, who has walked away with the usually predictive Screen Actors
Guild award. Ms. Dench is having an operation on her knee and won't
be attending the awards ceremony this weekend.
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