meryl-blog480Ah, headline writing. So tricky, so misleading. If you’ve been paying attention to Facebook today, you would have seen headlines like this:

Meryl Streep Slams Walt Disney, Celebrates Emma Thompson as a “Rabid, Man-Eating Feminist”

Meryl Streep attacks Walt Disney on antisemitism and sexism

I’ll admit, I clicked through … only to find that the real story (set at the National Board of Review ceremony last night, at which Meryl presented an award to Emma) is not Meryl’s “attack” on Disney, her line about Emma as a man-eating feminist, or even Emma’s line about how getting a perm for the role of P. L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks “meant no sex, of course, for months on end. And then only with animal noises accompanying it.” (Also: yes, we three are now on a first-name basis.)

The real story here is that these two women displayed something we almost never see in the media: true affection and huge respect for each other, expressed eloquently (and tartly) and underlined by the pleasure of seeing one another get roles despite the pervasive sexism of Hollywood.

So you see: the story is about two amazing women, and the headline writers still manage to get a dude in there.

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If you’re going for a whoa! did Meryl Streep say something she shouldn’t have? response, well then write a headline that mentions her disdain for Disney. But that’s not the real story. In fact, Disney’s only the tip of the iceberg. Their speeches (click on the first link above for a full transcript of both, which are absolute must-reads) are great pleasures to read in part because they’re so full of the very best little zingers. When Emma thanks writer Kelly Marcel for creating a lead character “who’s so relentlessly unpleasant,” for example, she speaks of how delightful it was to torture her fellow male actors, including Tom Hanks. “He’s always looked like he needed a good smack,” she explains.

So write your stupid headlines that miss the point if you insist. But let’s not miss the lead, which is that it’s way more entertaining to listen to women when they’re singing each other’s praises, when they’re showing off their verbal talents at the height of their powers, and when they’re telling it like it is. You know what I want? To be at a dinner party with M & Em. Yes please.

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Charlotte Rampling was breathtakingly beautiful as a young woman. She is now 66, still gorgeous, and vexingly still wears same dress size, still appears in bathing suits on screen. Angelina Maccarone’s documentary explores a woman who has let us look at her onscreen for nearly 50 years.

She has never made it easy, specializing in difficult, hard characters with complicated motives. The bitch in Georgy Girl (1966), the wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee in Max (1986), or — most infamously — the concentration camp survivor who carries on a strange relationship with a Nazi guard in The Night Porter (1974); all these parts made her inscrutable, kept us from liking her. Famously, her co-star Dirk Bogarde called it “The Look”: those distinctive, hooded eyes that achieve so much without giving much away. As she’s grown older and her face acquired more character, she has acquired a capacity to convey not just disdain but a degree of self-loathing so all-encompassing that it chills.

What we see of Rampling onscreen is a mystery of minimalist emotion that nevertheless somehow smacks you in the face. About her role in the new film, The Eye of the Storm (2012), David Denby writes, “Speaking in not much more than a whisper, [Rampling] is magnetically evil, with occasional flashes of a complex sensibility and poetic invention — often just a flutter of her eyes or a strategic turn of her head.” How does she do that?

 

In Charlotte Rampling: The Look she explains that early on she learned she was exceptionally photogenic; yet she had to learn how to survive the constant appearance of the camera before her. “Exposure is huge,” she explains. “You have to find a way not to feel invaded all the time, by lenses, by people looking all the time. If you are to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”

Perversely, Maccarone’s documentary begs you to read in between the lines. It does not seek exposure but something more allusive, abstract — the passing of time, the inevitability of change. She shows Rampling in conversation with old friends and collaborators, conversations that allow Maccarone to trace those earlier appearances on screen and in photographs. At times, Rampling even revisits old sets like a staircase she rambled down in Georgy Girl or a room where she danced, bare breasted, to a Marlene Dietrich tune in The Night Porter.

 

Maccarone never asks how Rampling feels about her sister’s suicide back in the 60s, nor about her relationships with men, nor whether she is close to her children. In avoiding those gossipy realms so stereotypical of “women’s lives” as produced by Hollywood, the director clearly wants to make a point about respecting the actor’s craft, her career. This is a film about Rampling’s achievements, one of which is the flowering of her ability to play ambivalent, morally questionable, and occasionally impossible characters like Sarah Morton, above, in François Ozon’s terrific Swimming Pool (2003).

And yet I completed the documentary still feeling that the director hadn’t done justice to Rampling’s skills; I think I wanted a more explicit directorial hand in showing us, as Denby did in that great quote above, what Rampling can do with her face. But Maccarone stays out of it, allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. Perhaps rather than see this documentary one ought to see Under the Sand (2000) or even her small, despicable part in Melancholia (2011) instead. And yet for the unadulterated pleasure of seeing La Rampling, well, it’s streaming on Netflix.

Why do female athletes become involved in prettifying themselves for cameras?

It’s one of those questions that dogs me. The tennis players who wear too-tight dresses. The gymnasts who wear exaggerated eye shadow and sparkly dust in their hair. Sometimes those prettifications get in the way of the athlete performing. Why do they acquiesce? In what way can this help their performance?

All the more reason for me to be riveted to the soccer player Caitlin Davis Fisher, who’s now a Fulbright fellow in Brazil where she has played professionally for years. Fisher’s TED talk analyzes the body image of female athletes, and in less than 7 minutes she explains how her fellow players went from being ignored by most of the public — and thereby feeling free to perform their femininity in whatever way they pleased — to prettifying themselves once the women’s sport began to accelerate in popularity over time.

To underline their new popularity, they were offered new uniforms — that is, uniforms that weren’t 6-yr-old hand-me-downs from the men’s team — but the tops were so tight “we couldn’t move our arms to run.”

The women players begin to believe that in order to maintain the sport’s popularity — to increase the acceptance of the women’s game — they ought to change their appearance to be friendlier to public preconceptions/ prejudices (preconceito) about female attractiveness.

What’s happening is the women’s game in Brazil is being feminized, wherein only a feminine version of the game is being accepted, and only only this female player is being allowed inside, if she re-creates her identity in this manner. So although the cultural stigma is starting to fade, the exclusion, the preconceito, is reconfiguring itself and imposing itself on the only place left: the female body. The body of the female athlete is being policed. It’s being shaped, regulated, and controlled by the intensification of feminine expectations.

Davis Fisher smartly probes the ways women athletes themselves get bound up with the promotion of their sport in such intelligent, articulate ways that I’m tempted to welcome her as one of us academics — except I hope she directs her work toward a broader audience than merely an academic one.

Ginger Rogers, actor

31 August 2012

I’m still buried under piles of paper, moving boxes, notes to myself about next week’s lectures, and paperwork — you have no idea how much universities rely on busywork and excessive documentation — but my father just sent a lovely short New Yorker piece about Ginger Rogers that I had to share.

To be precise, it’s not an essay about Rogers’ dancing. It’s about her acting.

She’s most famous for dancing with Fred Astaire, of course; but the writer Arlene Croce asks us to set that aside for the moment and think about Rogers as a subtle presence in more than just those films. When she wasn’t wearing white gowns that showed off her beautiful back, or ostrich feathers, or that great dress with the sunflower/starburst pattern from Shall We Dance (1937), she often appeared as working-class girls, women hard on their luck. Like Polly Parrish in Bachelor Mother (1939), or the titular character in Kitty Foyle (1940), or the nose-to-the-grindstone dancer in Stage Door (1937). She was Everywoman for that dark era of the Depression just as much as she was its glamorous ballroom dancer.

Croce argues that her subtlety led her to be underrated as a talented actor, one who excelled particularly in the embodiment of the struggler, the striver, that woman with a sense of humor yet a clear sense of self-worth in the face of difficulties. She was “the fabulous Miss Average, imaginative, unsentimental, the dyed-in-the-wool product of an era and one of its immortal symbols”:

…suppressing her anger, she smiles through clenched teeth. She isn’t going to take his guff, but she isn’t about to lose her temper, either. Manners matter to her. When you don’t have any money — and in the Depression nobody had any — manners, morals, ethics, are coin of the realm. In her continually wounded sense of self-worth and her spirited defense of it lies the drama of Ginger Rogers. It transcends self-interest; it is in essence idealistic, an insistence on the dignity of the individual, the responsibility of the citizen, the honor of the woman she knows herself to be when she’s at the top of the stairs.

What a nice piece of writing. And a particularly nice sentiment for these hot days, as I’m struggling to complete paperwork or deal with my internet provider over the phone. Aren’t we all Ginger, at some level?

 

Gentle readers:

There are a few foods that are so perfect as to rank in the “cures all ills” category, and oysters are one of them. Best served with beer and one’s excellent old college friend whose conversation sparkles, along with her fabulous new specs. I am looking into how much more income I will need to eat these every day. Will report back.

Also, thanks to Sociological Images:

In other news: The Hunger Games made $68.3 million on opening day, a new record for a non-sequel, and the fifth highest opening-day box office of all time in the US. Still waiting to hear, obviously, how it does on opening weekend — but this is all good for pushing harder for films with female leads, as I rant about all the time. Stay tuned for my “conversation” with blogger JustMeMike about the film, due to get posted Tuesday (or very late Monday).

And in still other Excellent Ladies news, I hope you’re all following the Brittney Griner news, because I sure am. The Baylor University women’s basketball team — featuring the amazing 6’8″ Griner, who dunks and shoots and blocks alongside her amazing teammates — is rolling ahead in the NCAA tournament with stunning (and what look like easy) wins. They’re now in the Elite Eight and will play Tennessee on Monday night. The fact that I featured a few stories about Griner during her freshman and sophomore seasons means that my blog has had record numbers of hits for the past few weeks. It’s going to be very sad when the tournament’s over and my stats go back down to normal.

In case you’re wondering: yes, all the web searches that lead people to my site still sound like “brittney griner a man?” “brittney griner xxy” or “brittney griner in a dress.” Whatevs — I’ve said my piece about that bullshit.

And finally, I’m off to NYC for an extended research trip and complete immersion into NY film life. Judging by the listings in Time Out, I’m so overwhelmed by possibilities that I’m not sure where to start; the real question becomes, is it actually possible to see more than one film a day? More soon when I get settled into my borrowed apartment, locate a decent bagel and the blackest espresso known to man, and decide which one of the IFC Center’s t-shirts to buy — those t-shirts, that is, which use 1970s metal band imagery to decorate classic directors’ names:

I was going to suggest you wander over to the tumblr Hey Girl, It’s Rachel Maddow (actually, do that anyway), but then I stumbled onto this amazing rewrite of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance that transforms the tune into a suffrage anthem/history. Favorite line: “I want to wear pants!”

This is so beautifully produced and serious that I started to think, crap, is Rick Santorum going to start campaigning against women’s right to vote now?

This awesome company that put this together: a textbook company! Which makes me take a hard look at their list for next fall’s classes.

And a serious question: how worried do I need to be about my right to the franchise?

Okay, I can’t resist: from the aforementioned tumblr:

Lady can sing and dance really well, but most of all she’s fucking hilarious. She can be Maya Angelou in a new show called I Know Why the Caged Bird Laughs in which Angelou punks her friends, like Morgan Freeman, Stephen King, and Jonathan Franzen (did I actually see that on TV?). Then she’ll turn around and be Beyoncé with all that curvacious mellifluousness such that you almost blink; or the sardonic Bronx housewife Jody Deitz, who has a gum-snapping, utterly pointless and perfect talk show with her best friend Betty Caruso (Amy Poehler). Last weekend’s Saturday Night Live was amazing, and it’s because guest host Rudolph commits to a skit like nobody’s business.

I know she’s got a supporting role in the Will Arnett/Christina Applegate comedy Up All Night (and no, I haven’t seen it) and had a background role in Bridesmaids, but really: she’d be funny reading the obituaries aloud for 30 minutes every week.

You wanna know what’s wrong with TV producers? No one has nailed Rudolph down for a sitcom of her own. Get on that, would you? And please, don’t rule out I Know Why the Caged Bird Laughs.