It’s ironic that, during this film of all films, I’d be sitting in front of loud talkers. It was two 60-something women, women who looked immaculately put together. I asked them to please stop talking; they didn’t. I tried turning around and glaring at them; I shushed them. Other people shushed them. One of them seemed to get louder, as if to spite us. Who does this? Who feels self-righteous about talking in a theater after being shushed?

Talking in a theater may be one of the smallest of rudenesses, but it’s ironic because Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret treats such a tangle of related topics I almost wondered whether the women had been planted behind me as a form of performance art. This film is a poem about guilt and self-righteousness, childishness and alienation, bad behavior and misplaced blame in a chaotic universe. Its subject matter is so apt for our world, encompassing everything from spats between mothers and teenage daughters to the very largest questions about 9/11 or Israel/Palestine, that I feel gutted upon leaving it.Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a teenage asshole in the vein of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, whose lawyers recently tried to argue in court that he wasn’t homophobic when he set up a webcam to catch his gay roommate inflagrante with another man; rather, they argued, Ravi was only guilty of being a typical college-age asshole. That defense didn’t save Ravi from being declared guilty of bias intimidation. In Lisa’s case, being a typical teenage asshole means she’s accustomed to such mundane thoughtlessness that she has no idea what to do with the consequences of her own actions when they are shown, uncontrovertibly, to make her guilty of the most serious crimes.

It won’t spoil anything to tell you that very early on in the film, she witnesses — and is partly responsible for — the gruesome death of a woman crossing an ordinary street in New York. Like any typical teen, Lisa tries to suppress the event, returning to the usual business of an overprivileged private-school kid: lazy performances on tests and in her debate class, boys, snapping at her mother. But gradually that business takes on an edge it didn’t have before. She jerks around one boy by messing with a different one; her sharp-tongued takedowns of her mother have a bitterness she can’t control; her debates in class turn vicious. Lisa becomes the human manifestation of Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi pullyu, simultaneously grasping for and pushing back at everyone around her. It’s so frantic, this pushing and pulling, that it starts to look almost sociopathic.

That neurotic quality of her own behavior is not lost on her. So she belatedly decides to mourn the woman who died in her arms, and those feelings ultimately morph into something more complicated — feelings Lisa clearly cannot handle. Does she want some kind of retribution? Is it enough to drag other people along with her on these emotional highs and lows? Will she feel better if she just wins a few arguments with her mother or in her debate class?

You can’t help but fret when she forms an attachment to the dead woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) — a beautiful woman about the age of Lisa’s mother with an appealing, deliberate pattern of speech that contrasts sharply to Lisa’s patter. Is it the woman’s grief that draws the teenager, or is it the illusion of calmness in her carefully-chosen sentences?

One of her teachers asks her early on whether she’s ever found herself suddenly fascinated by something she’d never shown an interest in before. “No,” she says, like the asshole she is, like the teenager who feels bound and determined to be contrary, independent. Yet something eats away at her edges. When her English teacher (Matthew Broderick) reads the Gerard Manly Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall/ To a young child,” we see a glimpse of something — is it interest, or is it recognition?

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Does she hear that poem, its warning words about mortality, about self-recognition, about the cruel side of such understanding? When her teacher asks her to comment, she snaps back at him that she has nothing to say.

Between Anna Paquin’s talent and Kenneth Lonergan’s perfect dialogue — this man has reproduced teenager talk like no one I’ve ever heard — you find yourself spending 150 minutes with a person who is, unlike Hopkins’ Margaret, neither truly a child nor very likeable, yet still somehow riveting to watch. She’s so reckless with that force of will, so angry. No one escapes her lash, least of all herself. You can’t watch this film without decrying the fact that Paquin has settled in for wallowing in all that campy True Blood TV nonsense (and let’s not forget the blonde dye job and the nasty tan), because in this role she shows a crazy genius for being way too smart and mean and unhinged, so much so that she comes close to despising herself.

Perhaps the most famous thing about this film (and the reason for its stingy limited release to only a few theaters in the U.S.) is the battle between director Lonergan and the distributors at Fox Searchlight. After completing the film in 2006, Lonergan embarked on a years-long battle with the distributor over its length. Whereas the director’s cut was nearly 3 hours long, the distributor demanded that it be cut by at least 30 minutes. Only after the intervention of Martin Scorcese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who together produced a 150-minute version that the director signed off on, did the film finally get released late last year — and then only in a tiny number of theaters. A grassroots movement of critics quickly grew up to keep the film in theaters and earn it a wider release (to limited success).

Even if I hadn’t known this back story, I would have noticed the film’s choppiness. I opened by calling this film a poem about guilt, and I mean it seriously — but it is a broken, choppy poem whose breaks and abrupt transitions feel increasingly messy as the film moves along. Anyone who knows and loves Lonergan’s perfectYou Can Count On Me(2000) knows that he is capable of laser-like poetic focus, unity, and subtlety, perhaps more than any other director you can think of. This is a broken poem, one that forces you to see its jumps and awkwardnesses.

But how is it possible that the film’s editorial choppiness nevertheless has a poetry of its own? It somehow nails down the film’s overall themes, and underlines them. Someday I want to see Lonergan’s own director’s cut; I can only hope he finds a way to release it on DVD when the time comes. But no matter how beautifully that version might flow from scene to scene, I won’t forget the way this version told me something else about the emotional pinball engendered by traumatic events, and the way a person might intermittently compartmentalize her own responses to the world around her.

My greatest fear is that Lonergan’s fight with Fox will embitter him to the screenwriting and directing he’s so extraordinarily good at. And if there’s anything I learned from watching Margaret, it’s that we need Kenneth Lonergan to help us through our ugly world. The film’s conclusion (resolution?) is so real, so simple, that it cut through the loud, rude chatter of those women behind me, such that I couldn’t muster much more anger toward them. Life is too short; as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder.

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cotton-snowflakes-north-and-southThat’s right, bitchez — period drama-palooza.

The ladies are coming over tomorrow for the conflict of social and economic mores that is North and South, and I’m planning to win over new converts. This has happened before.

North-and-South-north-and-south-32024170-1920-1080I find it helps to offer cocktails, spicy food, and some kind of creamy and fruity dessert.

(Because it is four hours long.)

north-and-south-endingSo by the time the ending arrives, and fortunes have shifted, and new reconciliations made, we’ll all be full and happy and less inclined to think that the moody Thornton will likely make a difficult husband for Margaret, and that the stern and judgmental Margaret will closely resemble her mother-in-law.

We’ll just focus on that kiss. Ahh. Summer is here.

Look at those old photos of your parents, when they were young and trim and beautiful. Mysteries inhabit those images. Were they as happy as they appear, before the children came? Were they compatible back then? Were they self-conscious of the camera?

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Sarah Polley’s brilliant film Stories We Tell doesn’t try to answer those questions. Rather, she lets her own family tell stories to the camera, stories full of wishful thinking and contradictions — all told by the charming members of her family, expert storytellers all, even if they’re a bit nervous and self-conscious before her camera.

This is the best film I’ve seen in 2013. It might be better than everything I saw in 2012, too.

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Polley specifically focuses on her mother, who died from cancer when Sarah was only eleven. Diane Polley was lovely and vivacious and is captured in an almost too perfect series of super-8 home movies (later, we learn why so many of those perfect home movies exist). Diane dances through those scenes so quickly and magically that we can hardly get a glimpse of her except to feel drawn to her like moths. No wonder Sarah, blonde like her mother, is so riveted.

But those shots are intercut with interviews with her siblings and her father, Michael Polley (a British-Canadian actor I know from the wonderful series Slings & Arrows), interviews that reveal not just contradictory views of their home life but also some secrets only half lurking in Diane Polley’s history.

02In fact, Sarah lets her father tell a goodly portion of this story; knowing very little about the film, I was nevertheless surprised to see it open with him in front of a microphone, reading his own prose about his wife’s brief and complicated life.

This is surprising because (and I’m not really spoiling anything here, I promise) a goodly portion of the story ultimately revolves around the question of whether Michael really is Sarah’s father.

Screen-Shot-2013-04-02-at-3.22.13-PM-620x328But let me assure you, you’re not going to see this film out of prurience. Rather, it’s because ultimately 1) Sarah’s family can tell some fucking stories; 2) her family’s history has the most wonderful, literary twists and ironic turns that it’s downright better than fiction; and 3) she ultimately crafts a film that gets at something larger than the truth of her parentage.

If it sounds pretentious to say that she’s more interested in the stories we tell, let me assure you it isn’t. Maybe because I come from a family of storytellers; maybe because my academic work is preoccupied with stories; maybe because I’m fascinated by family stories in particular — for all these reasons the film entranced me. I thought simultaneously, “I’ve got to show this to my students” and, “I’ve got to show this to my family.”

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But in the end, I found Sarah Polley’s own place in the film to be the most interesting. On the one hand, the story is very much about her parents. But on the other, she removes herself as an emotional character, stepping back and appearing only to show herself crafting the film, making decisions about its narrative, and asking her father to repeat a line for emphasis, or to give it a nicer reading. That restraint (modesty? honesty?) is so beautifully conveyed that it feels like a masterful work of analysis. She even allows Michael Polley to read one of the best lines (his own prose):

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood … It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

[Updated, 8:47 pm: Aldine reminds me that this isn’t Michael’s prose — it’s lines from the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace. This is what I get when I neglect to write about a film until 2 weeks after seeing it!]

And you know in your most gut level how hard it must have been to sit in her position during the creation and telling of this story. What a smart, delicate film this is. The bar is very high.

The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

The magnificent La Jefita statuette, featuring a gen-yoooo-wine Spartan female athlete

There’s nothing like the La Jefitas, is there? No, really, there’s nothing like it. This list of the best 2012 films by and about women — designed to celebrate those female bosses of modern film and subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry — is exactly what we need during years like this one, when not a single female director was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival or at the Oscars. I mean come on.

Plus, the La Jefitas feature much better statuettes.

Just to bring you up to date from yesterday’s winners:

  • Best Actress: Anna Paquin in Margaret
  • Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen: the abortion scene in Prometheus
  • Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass: Gina Carano taking down Michael Fassbender in Haywire
  • Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the YearWhere did all the roles for Black women go?
  • Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012: 2012 was the Year of Fierce Girls Onscreen
  • Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Most Feminist Film: Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?

Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.

Before we finish the awards ceremony, I feel it incumbent on me to discuss the sad fate of my favorite category: Sexiest Scene in Which a Woman Eats Food. This year’s films did not have a single contender for this prize — a sad state of affairs and a sure measure of the state of our world. To be sure, I had a couple of films in which a woman ate food in an incredibly unsexy way (winner: Shirley MacLaine in Bernie) but that’s not the kind of prize I want to offer at all. Filmmakers: fix this, please.

And now on to the exciting 2012 winners!

Best Female-Directed Film:

This was absolutely the hardest category to determine — I even toyed with breaking my films-only rule and awarding it to Lena Dunham for her series Girls. But in the end there was one film I couldn’t get out of my head: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles, which (inexplicably) I never got the chance to write about last year. (Also was inexplicably ignored by the Academy Awards. Do you see why the La Jefitas are so vital?)

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Now this is brilliant filmmaking with a healthy dose of sheer karma. When Greenfield began, she simply wanted to create a documentary about a couple in the process of building the largest house in America, which they had already named Versailles. “In a way, it just seemed like this incredible microcosm of society that showed our values. Both Jackie and David [Siegel] had rags-to-riches stories,” she told Vanity Fair

But after the financial crisis hit and month after month passed by with increasing stress for the family, the director realized she had to change the story of the documentary. If it started out as a story about self-made Americans and their desire to symbolize their success in a house, by the time “they had to put [the half-finished house] on the market, I realized that this was not a story about one family or even rich people,” Greenfield continues. “It was an allegory about the overreaching of America and really symbolic for what so many of us went through at different levels.”

If you haven’t seen The Queen of Versailles, run — don’t walk — to your television and load it up right away. It’ll make you laugh and cringe, but most of all it’s a fascinating cinema insight into our culture’s obsession with wealth and display. Also, just for those scenes of the chaos in the Siegel household after they are forced to let go of so many maids.

Best Uncelebrated Supporting-Supporting Actor:

Jeannie Berlin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. As the best friend of a woman killed in a bus accident, Berlin attracts the attention of the young Lisa (Anna Paquin) for all the wrong reasons. But you can see why she would appeal so deeply. Prickly and no-nonsense, independent but capable of deep love for her friends, and — most important for Lisa — lacking a need for male attention, she seems perhaps to be the perfect replacement for Lisa’s actual mother. Best of all, she wears her Jewishness on her sleeve rather than push it to the side. Her self-possession is most of all marked by the way Berlin chooses to enunciate her words slowly and methodically, which has a surprising power over the emotional mess of a fast-talking teenager, like a balm to her soul. No wonder Lisa feels so suddenly invested in connecting to this woman.

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But she also sees Lisa’s selfishness clearly, and refuses to play a role in Lisa’s mini-drama of denial. It’s a beautiful performance that seems all the more meaningful because the film was so utterly shut out of Oscar competition this year, in part due to its complicated production. Here’s hoping a La Jefita ensures that Berlin gets a lot more work and recognition from here on out (is there a La Jefita bump? let’s find out!).

Best Role for a Veteran Actor Who Is Not Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren:

Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Michael Haneke’s Amour. I only wish I’d seen this film with friends so I could debrief about it and Riva’s performance at length. It’s hard to believe that this magnificent, beautiful performer has only made 14 films since her début in 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I tried many times to write about it here but found myself inadequate to the task; suffice it to say that even with a grim story like this one, the amour triumphs in a way that the inevitability of mortality does not.

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Amour is such a perfect portrayal of a good marriage in its final stage that it’s difficult for me to speak of Riva’s performance separate from that of Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne’s husband Georges. Indeed, I don’t know how the Academy overlooked Trintignant for a Best Actor nomination; the scenes between them are so tender and honest that we’re left with powerfully mixed feelings. On the one hand, it made me desire with all my heart that I will have such a companion when I’m in my 80s (and oh, I’m almost terrified to hope it is my perfect, wonderful partner of today); on the other hand, I hope we will get mercifully hit by a train together on the same day. When it came to playing the role of a woman wrestling with rapidly-advancing debilities of age, Riva gave the role such realistic tenderness and brutality that I swear it must have taken part of her soul. As I watched so many of those scenes, I marveled — how did the 85-yr-old Riva make it through the filming, considering that she must have these same fears of aging on her mind?

Riva’s achievement is all the more impressive because of the stiff competition by veteran actresses this year. Just think of Sally Field in Lincoln and you’ll know whereof I speak; I also include Shirley MacLaine’s comic turn in Bernie and Nadezhda Markina in Elena. Truly: it was a great year for veteran actors.

Best Breakthrough Performance By an Unknown Actor:

No questions here: Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know this film didn’t work for everyone; indeed, the naysayers include big names in cultural criticism. But I believe this film constitutes a visionary outsider’s statement from a child’s point of view — a lovely statement about belonging and existence that ties together deep poverty and wild imagination.

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Wallis is so good that it makes me fret about her future — is she really a major acting talent, or a disarmingly wonderful child whose acting will vacillate as she grows older? Nor am I the only one to ask those questions. It makes me nervous about her Best Actress nomination from the Academy.

But in the end all this second-guessing is unfair to the performance as it appeared in this film, a performance that was just perfect. No child, much less any other 6-yr-old, could have gotten it so right this one time. And with that, I’m looking forward to the next role as eagerly as any of her other fans.

Performance So Good It Saves a Terrible Film … well, no, but almost:

Eva Green in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. I don’t have anything good to say about this film except that every time the evil witch Green showed up, I started having a good time again.

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That blonde wig! The facial twitches! The sex scene in Green’s office! Her gift for physical comedy!

What can we say about the film overall, except that it was confused and that it had a very few funny lines (all of which are helpfully compiled in the film’s trailer)? Yet Green was fantastic. Give this woman more work.

Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films:

They stop what they’re doing and start dancing. I can’t even remember how many times various films this year just stopped what they were doing and featured a great dance number — and I’m not even speaking here about explicit dance films like Pina, Magic Mike, or Step Up 4: Revolution. Remember the weird finale to Damsels in Distress, in which Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody sing the deliciously goofy “Things are Looking Up” and dance awkwardly through a pastoral scene? Or the final act of Silver Linings Playbook, all of it hinging on the goofy routine worked up by two (ahem) non-professionals? In Take This Waltz?

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Or the scene at the homecoming dance when the three leads let their freak flags fly in The Perks of Being a Wallflower?

Once you start to put them together, you find a lot of mini-moments onscreen when films adhered to the old theater maxim, you sing when you can no longer speak, you dance when you can no longer walk. Dancing has the capacity to take us out of the fictional magic of the narrative one step further and launch us into true fantasy. Is it a narrative shortcut? oh, who cares. I love it.

Film of the Year:

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Really: there’s just no question. This would receive my Film of the Year prize even if it had been directed by a man and/or featured a male protagonist.

Nor was it easy for me to let go of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; I even toyed with the possibility of declaring a tie. But I believe Zero Dark Thirty achieves something even beyond the former in working its viewers through the emotional aftershocks of that methodical search for our proclaimed enemy — it wants us as a culture to move away from retribution and toward some kind of catharsis.

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My appreciation for the film certainly doesn’t rest on Jessica Chastain’s performance, which didn’t work for me all the time. Rather, it’s the architecture of the overall film and the accelerating action-film aspects that lead toward an exhilarating (but ultimately distracting). Whereas poor Margaret shows in its fabric the scars of so many cooks in the kitchen, Zero Dark Thirty is just a masterful piece of work that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and Kathryn Bigelow was robbed when the Academy failed to nominate her for a Best Director Oscar.

So there you have it, friends — the year’s La Jefitas! Please don’t hesitate to argue, debate, send compliments (oh, how I love compliments), and offer up new ideas for categories. (You gotta admit, my Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films category should receive a Pulitzer on its own!)

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This bronze Greek statue of a female Spartan athlete, ca. 500 BCE, serves as this year’s La Jefita award! (Winners must contact me directly to receive these excellent prizes.)

Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?

Oh yeah, baby!

Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed FilmBest Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.

Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:

Best Actress:

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.

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Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.

 

Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):

 

The abortion scene in PrometheusSeriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?

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Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.

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Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.

Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:

quvenzhane-wallis-beasts-of-the-southern-wildWhere did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.

Sure, we all complained last year about The Help — really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.

One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film — and I want more non-white actors, dammit.

Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:

96e01327d031803081109f0f0a25c1e12012 was the Year of Fierce Girls. It doesn’t take much to call to mind the most obvious films, starting very much with Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To list a few:

Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.

Helene Bergsholm in Norway's Turn Me On, Dammit!

Helene Bergsholm in Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.

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So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.

Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.

Most Feminist Film:

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

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Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.

That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.

Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.

That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!

And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!

I don’t know about you, but this was one of my major responses to the election:

Yup, we’re still in 2012. Collective sigh of relief.

But I keep thinking back to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, written during that period of evangelical upswing, the mid-1980s. I hadn’t read the novel since I was a teenager, but picked it up again this fall as the birth control and rape conversations were flying fast & furious. The book is every bit as good as I remember, but for different reasons: whereas what I remembered was the horrifying future Atwood imagined, what I’d forgotten was the interior experience of its protagonist.

Because I think what is so chilling about this novel is how they got there, and what they forgot along the way.

Her name is Offred, and I beg you to read the novel just to find out how she has come by that awkward name. We never learn her real name. Offred’s job in this Christian future is to get pregnant on behalf of the high-ranking couple to whom she has been assigned. Like the story from Genesis in which Rachel cannot bear children for her husband Jacob, Offred has been selected to serve as the vessel for her master’s sperm and the baby that will be assigned to her mistress.

According to every single message within society, Offred’s subject position is God’s will.

As horrifying as that is, it’s worse to find two other crucial elements to the novel. The first is that she has forgotten how to live that other life, the life that existed before this new regime. For example, she encounters  a group of Japanese tourists who stare at them and want to take photographs:

I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. 

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

That’s what I worry about: that we are forgetting that making our own decisions about our bodies is both legal and a guarantor of women’s political and social equality. Instead, we’re getting used to a vast cultural and governmental apparatus making decisions for us. We’re getting used to entertaining seriously the notion that abortion is something to be debated — that it is inherently suspect, dangerous, traumatic. Not just abortion: also birth control. Also how to define “rape.”

We are forgetting what it feels like to reject those views. Texas women who undergo state-mandated trans-vaginal ultrasounds when they seek abortions are learning to forget that this is not necessary. Women who vote for libertarian candidates learn to think that those candidates’ views on state-mandated anti-abortion policies aren’t abhorrent and inconsistent with their political/ economic views. We’re told daily about the new varieties of legitimate or forcible rapes. We’re learning that birth control is the new battleground — that maybe The Pill and the IUD ought to be taken away from us.

The second chilling this about the novel is Offred’s fuzzy memories of the years before — how they looked past the ways their society was changing:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. 

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.

It’s mid-November, the worst of the crazies were not elected, but are we in 2012? The article in The Onion is not so sure. At the end, its interviewee explains that “while she was grateful upon learning what year it was, she had to admit that living in the year 2012 was still quite frightening.” Amen to that. Let’s not forget it.

If there’s one film trope that needs to be shot in the head, it’s the one in which a lesbian switches sexual sides in order to serve as the psychological healer/ self-actualizer for a guy, then conveniently goes away. (Chasing Amy [1997]: I’m lookin’ at you. Even worse: Three of Hearts [1993].)

The good news is that writer-director Lynne Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister is not that film. The lesbian here is neither cardboard cutout nor fantasy object nor deus ex machina. She doesn’t go away. The bad news: once you peel away the tight dialogue, the great acting, and the enviable scenery, it’s not very far away from that trope.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is a mess. A year after his brother’s death, he still gets drunk at parties and insults everybody, including the memory of his brother. This behavior leads his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who used to date his brother and who seems perhaps a bit maternal toward Jack, to send him to her family’s cabin out on one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle for a solitary retreat to get his life back together.

Which reminds me to ask: why don’t my best friends have magical family cabins on islands? Do I not have need of self-actualizing retreats? Selfish friends.

But when he arrives at the house at night, the house already has a surprise inhabitant: Iris’s half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just split up with her longtime girlfriend. Having finally come to terms with serious flaws in that relationship, Hannah’s almost as much at loose ends as Jack. So, naturally, they open a bottle of tequila and, in a drink-off, confess their sins to one another — relative strangers — across the table in an ugly, self-deprecating night of catharsis.

When the ordinarily withdrawn Hannah confesses that her partner’s callousness and infidelity has left her feeling unattractive, the very drunk Jack insists she’s perfectly hot. So much so that he’s willing to tell her — in very funny detail — because he knows her gayness won’t lead them to have sex. But in an uncharacteristic moment of risk-taking, she agrees to sex. What follows is one of the most unappealing, and utterly realistic, sex scenes between drunk people in the history of film. (You’ll be relieved to hear that this scene is also realistically short.)

So far so good, eh? There’s no risk of Hannah switching sides. Their sex is so impulsive and unpleasant (especially for her) that we know this is merely something to be embarrassed about down the road. But when Iris shows up the next morning and they decide to hide it from her, the narrative takes a strange twist toward ménage à trois.

I found the tale thus far to be charming, especially considering the director’s super-low budget (would you believe $125,000? did Shelton pay these actors at all?), the great scenery, and the endless appeal of stories about screwed-up individuals accidentally helping one another. I particularly liked the moments between the two half-sisters: the endearingly sweet, enthusiastic, little-sister Iris cuddling up to her older sister to chat in late-night hours.

If the dialogue seems a bit too clever in that CW Channel vein of overly scripted repartee, the ultimate stakes of the narrative aren’t very high. In fact, the tale gets a teensy bit mired in the “will they confess their drunken night of debauchery?” question, especially after Iris confesses to her sister that she thinks she’s in love with Jack, the brother of her now-dead ex-boyfriend. But hey, low stakes can be okay with me — not all movies have to be about world-changing ideas. Hell, this film is funny and the three individuals are appealing and good in dialogue with one another. Still, at midpoint Your Sister’s Sister feels a little bit like a short story stretched out over 90 minutes.

But when Iris learns the truth it all goes south — the three of them spin far apart from one another, with Iris blaming both of them for … some kind of perfidy she can’t articulate. (Warning: spoilers to follow, in which I reveal what I find distasteful about this portrayal of a lesbian onscreen!)

Unlike the horrors of homophobic films of the 1990s (again, Chasing Amy, one of the films I hate the most), this film doesn’t make Hannah’s gayness an issue or some kind of histrionic roadblock. Neither does this film pretend that a ménage à trois featuring a lesbian is some kind of risqué, challenging theme. Thank goodness for small favors as the progress of gay rights has rendered such narratives less viable.

Instead, it does something else I find annoying: in a big plot twist, Your Sister’s Sister turns Hannah into a woman so desperate to have a child that her drunken night of sex may, in fact, have been a ploy to get pregnant — a revelation that leads Jack to express huffy outrage as if she has somehow stolen his sperm, and which makes him leave the house on his bike, a form of physical exertion clearly new to his body. Most important, any possible romance between the two straight people appears dashed. The film turns into a straight-up love story between Jack and Iris that Hannah has ruined.

My problem isn’t simply that Jack would be a reluctant potential father, nor that a gay woman would want a child. My problem is that Hannah’s contrivance to get pregnant turns into the primary narrative dynamite destroying a weak and slightly annoying love story between the two straight people. Because that’s what this film ultimately becomes: a love story with a little ménage of lesbian thrown in, insofar as the lesbian functions as a reluctant partner in the threesome.

Honestly, this is where we’ve come? Straight man creates romantic problems for himself by sleeping with the sister of his true love interest? One could sum it up with a big “yuck.”

An ancillary problem is Mark Duplass, whom I quite liked in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) as an unhinged inventor in search of a time-traveling companion (as well as Humpday [2009]). He’s good in independent comedy, as he’s capable of moments of real seriousness and has a nice talent to portray men slightly disgusted with themselves. But he doesn’t quite have what it takes to face off against actors as talented as Blunt and DeWitt. Nor does he appear capable of transforming from self-hating shlub to a man capable of responsibility or generosity.

Emily Blunt, on the other hand, is the film’s real center, primarily due to her ridiculous, approachable appeal. If I were in a sloppier mood I’d say she’s Hollywood’s new Sandra Bullock — one of those crazily beautiful women with a capacity to seem available even to shlubs — except that Blunt has an actorly range that has put her on a crazy upward spiral for several years now. She has appeared to great effect in everything from in top-shelf sci-fi bits like The Adjustment Bureau and Looper to period dramas like The Young Victoria to indie comedies like The Five-Year Engagement to romantic dramas like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The minute she appears onscreen, you know the quality of the film will tick up by a good ten points.

And when will Rosemarie DeWitt get her place in the sun? She’s excelled in small roles for a long while now — in Mad Men as Don’s freewheeling artist girlfriend in Season 1; in a bit role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; and most notably as Anne Hathaway’s soon-to-be-married sister in Rachel Getting Married. As I learned from JustMeMike‘s nice review of this film, she got slotted into this role late in the project after Rachel Weisz backed out due to scheduling conflicts. DeWitt does a great job as the depressive, withdrawn Hannah. And for those of you following my obsession with bringing back real women’s noses onscreen, just look at how DeWitt’s beautiful nose helps to establish her beauty and distinctiveness. God forbid she do a Jennifer Gray and scale it back to one of those ubiquitous, indistinguishable buttons.

Ultimately, Your Sister’s Sister feels like a halfway covenant — a reassurance that we no longer live with the homophobic narratives of the 90s, and therefore a gesture of good will from straights to gays; but no clear sign that writers know how to develop stories in which gay and straight characters coexist and inform one another’s lives in ways that feel true. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a film well worth watching, particularly for its first half and the nice dialogue. But it left me sad and dissatisfied in the end, fearful that Hollywood narratives of love between straight people will only be spiced up by the addition of tertiary gay characters.

 

 

Here is how it usually goes: in the middle of chit-chat with a friend about, say, Downton Abbey, I say: “It’s good and all, but you know what’s a really great series that no one knows about? North & South. Do you know it?”

Argh! this is NOT the series I'm talking about!

The other person, looking at me as if I might be insane, replies, “Is that the one in which Patrick Swayze fights for the Union Army against his brother?”

Regrettable but true: there is only one American context for the idea of a North/South divide, and it always involves the Civil War. But I’m not going to talk about this 1985 series, nor am I going to talk about Patrick Swayze.

Argh! What was the BBC thinking in coming up with this uninspired DVD cover?

My North & South has a much more appealing male lead — Richard Armitage, who’s being celebrated at the center of this FanstRAvaganza — I mean, nothing against Swayze, but Armitage leaps off the screen in this, his breakout role.

But I also want to get to a broader subject: how the series seems to address real and abiding social problems, the most overriding of which is the conflict between middle-class morality and an Adam Smith style “the market takes care of us all” ideology. It’s surprisingly hefty for a period drama, and I get absorbed every single time.

No wonder Americans don’t know the real North & South: the series never appeared on American television. This 2004 BBC series is based on the 1854-55 Mrs. Gaskell novel about the differences between the pastoral, patriarchal English South vs. its gritty, individualistic, industrialized North. Doing itself no favors, the BBC reproduced it using an uninspired DVD cover with lackluster photographs of its stars that belies the series’ high quality. Despite a campaign spearheaded by fans of the series’ star Richard Armitage to air the series, American PBS has thus far resisted — and thus, most of my peers have never heard of the series.

That’s where I come in. I have recently acknowledged to myself that I am an evangelist for North and South.

Who doesn’t enjoy spreading the good news about something that seems practically a secret?

Until now I would never have copped to such a self-description, because evangelist is just not how I see myself. I grew up in a family of atheists in a small town where my sister and I were the only kids in that category; my first memory of school is having other kids ask me what church I attended. (I also learned quickly that my answer, “I don’t go to church,” was not the right one.) There were points in seventh grade (i.e., age 12-13) when I really, really wanted to believe in God or have Jesus come to me in an ecstatic moment, but both of Them ignored me. (To be honest, my eagerness for Their attention can be chalked up to my eagerness for attention from the cutest guy in school, who was some kind of Baptist.)

But when I think about it, I suspect I protest too much. After all, isn’t teaching is a kind of missionary work? “This semester I am going to sing to you of the virtues of finding love, truth, meaning, and happiness in the form of cultural anthropology!” you might say to the assembled 250 students on the first day of class. Maybe I’ve always been an evangelist — and now that I think about it, I’m quite certain that I’ve tried to school people at cocktail parties with the 1001 reasons why they should be watching The Wire, and probably with the same unblinking religious fervor of those poor saps who knock on my door, wanting to talk about my immortal soul.

****

When I talked my Texas next-door neighbor into watching North and South with me, she was silent through the first 30 minutes or so until we got that glimpse of Mr. Thornton in the mill, looking down on the workers at their looms. “Oh, yeah,” she said approvingly.

This shot is closely followed by the one of Thornton beating up a worker who’s trying to catch a smoke. Every time I watch the series with neophytes, I almost jump for the brutality of the violence, as if I’ve never seen it before. My neighbor watched that scene and said, “I’d like to see how our heroine is going to win up going out with that guy.”

Considered solely for the romance between Thornton and Margaret Hale, you might say it’s a more serious version of Pride and Prejudice insofar as we watch through the heroine’s eyes as she hates him at first sight and reluctantly but completely changes her mind throughout the course of the show. It’s not an easy sell. I’ve seen the series about 12 times and each time Thornton’s early brutality, as well as his strange subsequent self-revelations about his family’s past, make him an oddly moody brute of a man.

Armitage is so good in this role. It’s the first thing that leaps out at you. We like Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) right away — who wouldn’t, with those slightly sleepy eyes and arched eyebrows? — but she remains a far more private, unknowable character. Even if you layer on everything you know about nice middle-class girls in the mid-19th century, it’s hard to know what she expects for her future. When I finally got around to reading the Gaskell novel, I wasn’t surprised to find Thornton the protagonist and Margaret the sphinxlike, closed-off character whom he adores. Thornton’s waters run deep and he does, indeed, “have a temper,” but somehow we come to trust the guy.

Chalk that up to Armitage’s capacity as an actor.

My most successful inductee to the religion of North & South is Servetus, who became the Armitage super-fan and blogger – but it wasn’t watching it with me that did it. We had a great time watching, mind you. It was late summer and school hadn’t started yet, and it was a chance to forget the hellishness of the upcoming semester.

It was at the end of that semester that she borrowed a dvd copy from a colleague and spent a good deal of that winter watching it over and over that made her realize what a terrific actor Armitage is, and it got her started on following his career so closely. When she posts an image like this (a recent one, from Recognise Magazine), I can only feel that my job as an evangelist is complete.

You’ve got to admit — isn’t that just about the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen?

*****

Just recently I showed the series to a group of three academics I met here while on my research leave, two of whom I’d met at a holiday party back in December — people I’d grown closer to during Downton Abbey season. None of them had heard of North & South, nor had they read the book.

We ate a big dinner of bread, salad, and a hearty soup (in honor of Mary’s mill cookhouse near the end of the series), and sat down for the first two hours. I heard them murmur with approval when we got to the mill, and Margaret walked through the snowlike world of the loom floor:

They grew quiet as we watched the rest of the first two hours, at which point we took a break. Harry had made a fairly extraordinary trifle for dessert, so we spooned out lovely big globs of whipped cream, fruit, and rum-soaked cookies. He then asked about Richard Armitage.

Within five minutes he had not only finished off his own portion of trifle, but had updated his Facebook photo as Mr. Thornton, and had done several searches for more images of Armitage. “He’s going to appear in The Hobbit!” he squealed, and Merry and Ursula clapped their hands with delight. [See here for La Loba’s photos of locations, BTW.] When we sat down for the final two hours of that plot — the drama of Frederick’s appearance and departure; the growing body count; that marvelous moment when Margaret leaves Milton forever and, from his upstairs window, he begs her to “look back at me!” — my friends burbled with approval.

Some of my friends (aka “unsuspecting targets”) are taken aback by the darkness and seriousness of this series, particularly because at first glance the story deals with labor conflicts and social misery so much more serious than that in Downton Abbey. And the clothes, sadly, are just not as luscious. (That latter series seems so much more like a trifle, whereas North & South is more like a hearty boiled pudding.) But it’s the seriousness that ultimately appeals. Also: Mr. Thornton has excellent sideburns, which my new friend Harry has replicated in the weeks following our viewing.

When she left, Ursula said, “Would you mind if I borrowed the dvd? I’d like to think about whether I can use this in a class next year.” The rest of us teased her, but she wouldn’t be the first to find good use for it with undergrads.

*****

I’ve got only one more thing to say about my newly-acknowledged role as an evangelist for North & South: costume dramas were meant to be watched in groups. My history with costume drama goes way back: when I was a kid during the early 80s, my mom and I got in the habit of watching virtually everything Masterpiece Theater had to show us. The first of these — and therefore most memorable to me — was a BBC miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice (1980) with the wonderful Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzie Bennet (above) and David Rintoul as Darcy.

Sure, the 1995 BBC version outstripped this one. Early BBC costume dramas look prehistoric now, with their immovable cameras and bad lighting. I did a lot of group viewing of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice too — including one memorable weekend with all my best grad school girlfriends, piled together in a friend’s apartment, loading up on Colin Firth like too many candy bars. (Aldine, I haven’t forgotten that, nor the fact that you’re the one who introduced me to North & South.)

I’m always so conscious that when I write this blog, I do so anonymously — yet part of the pleasure is trying to find the right style and voice to allow you to know me. I’ve confessed all manner of odd things about myself here, but the real way I open myself up is not by giving you clues about my identity but by showing you my voice, the voice I show only to my close friends.

So here’s what I want to suggest: find someone new to show North & South to. It’s easiest to spread it out over the course of a couple of nights (4 hours, after all, is a lot of TV) but mix it up with some nice food and drink. Enjoy those rare light bits of humor, as when Thornton and his mother share a wry laugh at Fanny’s expense.

Feel what it’s like to be an evangelist for a series — that is, you’re not invested in having them fall in love with Armitage, any particular character, or any other specific aspect of the plot. Just enjoy the unfolding of a great tale in the company of friends. Don’t be surprised if one or two of them become super-fans like Servetus or my new friend Harry, whose sideburns are so barbed and delicious now (and they combine with his green vintage velvet jacket for such effect at St. Patrick’s Day gatherings!)

It feels like the best kind of religion, if you ask me — the kind that gives its adherents pleasure and comfort, and also pushes against their sense of comfort. It brings you back again & again. The next thing you know, you’re talking to someone new at a cocktail party, and they say, “Isn’t that the one in which Patrick Swayze is a Confederate soldier?” and you say, “Oh, no, my friend — let me tell you the good news.”

Cheers to all the FanstRAvaganza people out there! In particular Phylly3, who like me is writing today about her experience as a fan of Armitage. Check her post out below, as well as many other writers’ experiences!

Hey all, keep following the Richard Armitage FanstRAvaganza! Phylly3 reports on her fandom experiences In the Hobbit chain, Ana Cris writes on her recent film location visit Mrs. E.B. Darcy speculates about what our hero will do in An Unexpected Journey (spoilers!) King Richard Armitage chain begins with Maria Grazia on a film adaptation of Richard III Beginning the fanfic chain, fedoralady explains fanfic’s mainstream appeal Annie Lucas woos us with a Guy of Gisborne one-shot, “One Chance” In the freeform chain, Fabo files an eyewitness report on Richard Armitage’s visit to U.S. accent school jazzbaby1 wonders “what were they thinking?” re: Lucas North’s women and ChrisB opens the Armitage Alphabet, with “A is for Action” Links to all FanstRA 3 posts appear here at the end of each day

I don’t do this often enough: recommend things I’m reading, especially considering how much these three pieces have provoked my imagination during the past week. Don’t want to overwhelm you, so I’ve narrowed it down to three:

First: the wonderful playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in AmericaThe Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures) recently received the Puffin Prize, The Nation Institute’s prize for Creative Citizenship — a highly lucrative award. Watch his funny, self-deprecating, and thoughtful 20-minute speech here — he’s not the most natural orator, but what he says is lovely; or read his full speech at The Nation’s site. (Actually, do both, because you miss some things in the video version.) He talks jokingly at first about winning prizes and then eloquently about what it means to be a citizen, even a bad one. Also: how he intends to spend all that money:

Second, read this smart piece about Rick Santorum’s particular appeal to Christian women, written by Kathy Ferguson of the University of Hawaii. Whereas I’ve been inclined to make fun of him, full stop, she does a magnificent job of thinking about how he performs the role of a parent who has suffered grief (of a dead baby, a severely disabled child) and hence touches some women in deep ways. In “Making Sense of Rick Santorum,” Ferguson showed me that I need to come to grips with — well, if not Santorum, at least the women whose self-identification as mothers trumps everything, and even leads them to vote for such a man.

And third, finally, Terri Gross’s interview of Meryl Streep on Fresh Air was such a riveting and good-humored account of acting — acting as a form of singing (with special reference to Barbra Streisand); the similarities and differences between the voices of Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher; the way that coming of age as a girl eager to attract boys is a form of acting. I loved every minute and have added Streep to my list of Dream Dinner Party guests. (You can listen to it online or download it to your iTunes. I seem to listen to podcasts all the time now — at the gym, the grocery store, walking to work….)

Which reminds me: why don’t we have more female interviewers getting serious with other women artist/creator/politician interviewees on subjects that don’t devolve back to boys alone? Or weight loss? Can it be that women themselves don’t pass the Bechdel Test often enough?

Anyway. I do love seeing smart people being smart on the page/in person. Enjoy the pleasure of texts that sit above the usual.

So I woke up this morning to find it was 1° F outside. (That’s -17° C. Can we say “yikes!”?) Naturally, two things crossed my mind:

  1. (Sarcastically.) It’s really too bad the gym is closed and I’ll have to stay inside all day in my pyjamas.
  2. (Seriously.) Why is everyone calling Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady an “impersonation” of Margaret Thatcher?

I know, you’re thinking:

  1. What a geek.
  2. Yeah, why “impersonation”? Please tell me, Feminéma!
  3. It’s just a little cold — put on a few layers and go for a walk already, wimp.

Blogger JustMeMike pointed it out in his review of the film, noting the term’s appearance in virtually every review (just google it and you’ll see). “How come no one referred to Leonardo DiCaprioimpersonating’ J. Edgar (Hoover) in the same way?” he asks. Exactly!

Impersonation. It’s one of those terms that skirts between flattery (“an eerie job of inhabiting that real-life personage”) and a backhanded slam against such close attention to accent, appearance, and personal tics as less than true acting (“it’s only a parlor trick”).

It reminds me of the problem of the “uncanny valley” in modern 3D animation (I’m looking at you, Tintin) whereby audiences find themselves revulsed and disturbed when an animated character looks too realistic. Impersonators, after all, are the kinds of low-level entertainers who appear in Vegas or on Saturday Night Live. Impersonators emphasize exactitude rather than artistry. A great impersonation gets all the details right — but can’t go further to impress with real acting skill.

Let’s also remember that there are female impersonators — that category of campy performer who dresses as Liza Minnelli or Dolly Parton in order to get a lot of whoops from a drunken audience. These performers are not associated with manly acting talent.

As near as I can tell, those critics who are also good writers have used the term impersonation not to complain about Streep, but to contrast her strong performance with the utterly disappointing film. Roger Ebert writes, “Streep creates an uncanny impersonation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but in this film she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.” A. O. Scott likewise uses his flattery of Streep’s work as a rhetorical pivot to detail the film’s shortcomings. “Ms. Streep provides, once again, a technically flawless impersonation that also seems to reveal the inner essence of a well-known person,” he explains, before complaining about “the film’s vague and cursory treatment of her political career.” In other words, these writers seek to make it clear that Streep did what she could with a lame script.

Since then, however, critics who are less aware of their vocabulary’s connotations have jumped on the impersonation wagon to use it all the time in describing her role. “Meryl Streep’s performance as/ impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it,” writes Roger Moore. John O’Sullivan also admiringly notes that Streep’s “uncanny accuracy … goes beyond brilliant impersonation” in his piece for Radio Free Europe. These pieces blur the boundaries between impersonation and acting; yet my actor friends bristle at the notion that they are equivalent or that performing in the role of a real-life person demands impersonation. After all, numerous flattering reviews of My Week With Marilyn state something to the effect of, “Michelle Williams doesn’t so much impersonate Marilyn Monroe as suggest her.” None of these statements seem overtly to associate impersonation with acting that leaves something out. I truly don’t think these writers use the term to complain about Streep (or Williams, right), at least not consciously.

But this returns us to JMM’s question: why don’t these writers use the term impersonation when they discuss Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar (or, for that matter, his Howard Hughes from The Aviator)? Why wasn’t Michael Fassbender “impersonating” Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, or Colin Firth “impersonating” King George V in The King’s Speech, or Jesse Eisenberg “impersonating” Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?

Here I can only speculate, as I don’t know the inner souls of all these film critics, but I want to suggest that it can be attributed to an unconscious bias in favor of the superlative acting skills of male actors. An enormous percentage of published film critics in the US are male. Combine this with an industry seriously tilted toward male success and you have conditions within which even the most female-friendly critics are less inclined to celebrate an actress’s accomplishment without using terms with complex connotations. (Would a male critic really associate a male actor with the term impersonation so long as there are “female impersonators” out there?) This bias may be unconscious and not intended to express sexism, but we can see its effects nevertheless.

Until I started this blog and educated myself on the issues, I was unaware of the extent to which men dominate filmmaking and film criticism. It’s not just the fact that women appear onscreen less, behind the camera less, as producers less, as writers less — and that they get paid less overall. It’s also the more subtle things — the ways a woman’s subtle performance will get overlooked as male critics fall over themselves to praise her male co-star. The ways that female actors inhabit such a severely limited range of body types — I dare you to come up with the female equivalent of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, much less Cedric The Entertainer or Gérard Depardieu.

These critics may not be consciously demeaning Streep’s performance. But the term impersonation is not a wholly flattering description of what she does — if it were, we’d have seen it appear in reviews of men’s biopics.

Now, off for a walk while it’s still a balmy 11° F (-11.6° C).