American teenagers still get marched through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) early in their high school careers, told that it’s a classic. I hadn’t read it since then, so it was a revelation during the past few weeks to find how much I remembered its contemplative mood. Gatsby is still as inscrutable, and Daisy as shadowy as I remember. It’s a beautiful, evasive book punctuated with moments of the most beautiful prose and clarity of insight — all the better for being so slim and accessible to high school kids.
Told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a well-to-do Midwesterner whose job selling bonds has landed him a house out on the shores of Long Island Sound, the story fixates on Carraway’s fantastically wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Rumors fly about him: he might be an Oxford man, or a murderer, or perhaps just a liar. As if to cultivate those tales, Gatsby throws lavish parties and uses oddly unpopular expressions like “old sport.” But as we learn early on, part of this is a show for the benefit of Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan, who lives with her lout of a husband across a small bay. Daisy and Gatsby had a short romance years ago when he was a poor serviceman stationed in her hometown of St. Louis. Famously — memorably — Gatsby stands at the edge of his property in the evenings, gazing out across the water to the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ pier, longing for her and hoping that his new wealth and status might be enough to win her back.
Jack Clayton’s 1974 film with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston emphasized the gauzy, sun-lit aspects of the tale, and the grandeur of Gatsby’s house, but critics generally felt the film was better at conveying the surface appearance of the tale than the book’s melancholy soul. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby famously complained that “the sets and costumes and most of the performances are exceptionally good, but the movie itself is as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.” It may have got the 1920s/ Jazz Age look right, but it failed to capture the classic Americanness of this story.
All the more reason for a new interpretation. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire in the three core roles, does Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated film achieve what Clayton’s could not? I sat down for a chat about the film with film critic and blogger JustMeMike, with whom I’ve analyzed films in the past — most recently Zero Dark Thirty.
JMM: Great question, Didion. Upon publication in 1925, the book sales were tepid: about 20,000 copies sold in the 1st year following publication. In contrast, the book has sold about 405,000 copies in the first three months of this year. And that number would not include the copy I bought late in April, after not being able to acquire one from my nearest public library.
But before we launch into a discussion of the film, I’d like to point out that the cost of this film was in the West Eggish neighborhood of $127 million. One would have to be quite creative to spend that much money on a movie. And just think of the clothing and accessories tie-ins with Prada, Tiffany & Co, and Brooks Brothers. I don’t think I’ll be trotting off to Brooks Brothers to pick up a straw boater at $198 a pop. How about you? Will you be going in for the 1920s look?
Didion: As long as I can score a new tiara, I’ll be all set. You know how us professors get paid so lavishly that a visit to Tiffany is, like, yawn.
So I’m curious, JMM — tell me your thoughts about the relationship between book and film. Obviously, literary adaptations are always tricky; directors want to make films that anyone can see, from big fans of the book to those who’ve never read it. Do you think Luhrmann succeeds?
JMM: Yes, he succeeds. As you said above, Gatsby is inscrutable which to me means that it is subject to many interpretations — almost as many as the number of bits of confetti and streamers that fell during the Gatsby soirees.
I think the transfer of the literary to the screen was well done. Especially if you consider that the charm of the book is less the story, and more the excellence of the writing.
Didion: I agree with you in part. I felt Luhrmann succeeded with the overall look and the vividness of the characters — no one is going to say, as Canby did about the previous version, that this is lifeless — but I disliked the hyperactive melodrama of the film. It missed, to me, the book’s soul: its narrator’s desire for something real behind all that glitz.
JMM: Yeah. In the film, the Carraway character was either in awe or watching with stunned amazement — or twirling a glass in his hand — but isn’t that what makes the book so difficult to film? The charms of Nick are all his internal discoveries rather than something he actually does?
Didion: That’s exactly right. Nick wants to believe that Gatsby really is “worth the whole damn bunch altogether,” as he shouts to Gatsby across the lawn. But the film doesn’t quite show us that Gatsby is anything more than an imperfect invention. Luhrmann couldn’t quite commit: are we supposed to attach to Gatsby? or are we supposed to see through him, and thus become aware of Nick’s naivete?
JMM: That’s a tough question. The story opens with Gatsby as a mythic person; no one knew his reality. Including Nick who befriends him. Didn’t Lurhmann (and Fitzgerald) go out of their way to make Gatsby mysterious as well as the subject of gossip? If so, can we call Carraway naive?
Didion: I suppose this is what makes the book so endlessly appealing to high school English classrooms! It allows kids to scrutinize the difference between surface appearance and the person within.
One of the things I loved about the book was Nick’s voice throughout: his eagerness to believe that Gatsby and Daisy really felt a true love for one another. Nick is the only character who wants to reveal his true self, and to believe that Gatsby is truly good on the inside, even when the whole crowd lies, hides things, and/or reveals their untrustworthiness. So I’m disappointed by the over-the-top emotional melodrama that Luhrmann laid on top of everything. Luhrmann’s style worked so well for me in capturing the excesses of the 1920s, but just fell down utterly when making me care about the characters — Tobey Maguire’s Nick included.
JMM: Well I will certainly agree about Gatsby being good. His problem was that he was a dreamer who couldn’t let go of the past. Daisy — not so good. Tom Buchanan not good at all. But Maguire’s Carraway is more of a Greek chorus, a chronicler, a reality mirror to Jay Gatsby’s unreality. Was it Maguire’s dull characterization of Carraway, or was it the script, or simply the way that Lurhmann directed? I can’t say for sure.
What I can say for sure is that I was quite involved with the melodramatic last two-thirds of the film, much more so than during the razzle-dazzle first third.
Didion: Really?!? Well, this might be our most substantial disagreement! I loved the film’s big middle — its second act — but the final act had me rolling my eyes.
You clearly didn’t like Maguire as Nick. I’m more on the fence. What better actor alive could capture that innocence, and the pleasure of entering into the excesses of the super-rich of the 1920s? I was less interested in the way that Luhrmann created a frame for the film — Nick, months later, installed in an asylum for nervous exhaustion and alcoholism, trying to capture the causes of his illness for a psychologist. Maguire was neither very good in those scenes, nor did the director use them in a way to compel the audience’s connection to the character.
I will say that Luhrmann’s casting was great. Every single character looked the part — I mean, damn, Carey Mulligan! Elizabeth Debicki as the golfer/socialite Jordan Baker! and even that shiny, tanned, and slightly creepy face of DiCaprio’s as Gatsby — it all looked exactly right.
JMM: Loved the casting myself. Except that I didn’t buy that Tom Buchanan and Carraway were classmates. Meaning Edgerton and Maguire looked about 10 years different. Maybe it is less about Maguire’s performance that gave me cause for concern. I’ll refer back to the statement I made earlier about Carraway’s charms being internal.
The framing device worked for me because it gave them a way of getting the words on the screen. Whether the sanatorium aspect was good or bad isn’t a major point for me.
But back to the casting. Many have said that Leo was a bit too old for the role. Maybe. But his tan and his weathered look come from his lifestyle and stress. I liked the way Leo brought out Gatsby’s loss of confidence when he first meets (re-unites) with Daisy in the Carraway cottage. And her fluttered look perfectly matched his.
Didion: Argh! I hated that scene! It didn’t work for me AT ALL. It was all so overdone … like a kabuki version of anxiety. And all the extended leadup to the actual meeting between Gatsby and Daisy — it went on forever — took away from what the scene should have done, which is to cement in Nick’s mind that these two share perfect, long-lost love.
JMM: Well I’ll agree to disagree. But that came from the book didn’t it? Gatsby leaving, going outside and standing in the rain until he was drenched. Beyond that, that scene had the one laugh-out-loud moment in the whole film. When Gatsby asks, Is everything okay, You have all you need for the tea? And Nick replies, “Well maybe more flowers….”
I also wonder about the “cementing”. Is it is Nick’s mind or ours?
Didion: Certainly in Nick’s mind, but isn’t that anchored to our minds as viewers? Don’t we need to believe, even for a moment, that Gatsby and Daisy aren’t just glossy pretty people, but truly in love — even if the film later throws some of that open to question?
That’s why I found the scene so needlessly goofy. I wanted it to show another side of Gatsby; to show that he wasn’t all self-assurance and polish. But this scene went for cheap laughs rather than more depth to his character. It made me think that Luhrmann is, above all, just a ham-handed director who can’t manage a single minute of emotional subtlety.
JMM: About Lurhmann, I won’t disagree with ham-handed. I won’t disagree with lacks subtlety — but I must give him props for showmanship, hype, and marketing — care to venture down that road for a bit?
Didion: I’m completely down with you there. Which brings up another topic: the soundtrack, and especially the confluence of musical genres in the film (dotted with hip hop by Jay-Z, who also served as executive producer for the soundtrack).
The scenes of crazy parties are just awesome. No subtlety needed. And although I was a little taken aback when the Jay-Z’s song “100$ Bill” blasted underneath those scenes — because I love 1920s music and hoped to hear more of it — I ultimately loved the whole thing. The music also includes new interpretations of 1920s songs as well as covers of Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, and others, altogether creating the most lush soundtrack I’ve heard in years. Loved it. And I was so glad to see those great party scenes on the big screen.
JMM: Yes the music worked for me too. I think the press has made far too much of the inclusion of hip hop, but coming out of the theater I only remembered two pieces of music — Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” which was Daisy’s theme, and the famed Gershwin opus “Rhapsody in Blue.”
The party music was great — and would have been pleasurable no matter what.
Didion: Can I ask you about Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy for a moment, and in general the film’s view of women? I thought she was wonderful, of course — but we never learn much more about her. She functions more as a figment of Gatsby’s imagination than as a real, three-dimensional person. Let’s not forget how utterly absent her daughter is from the story. One of the things that affected me was Daisy’s comment that she hopes her daughter grows up to be “a beautiful little fool,” because a fool is “the best thing a girl can be in this world.”
JMM: Great thinking Didion. I’m with you completely. It is a scary part of the story. It is one thing for Daisy to be like that, and she was, and another thing for her to wish that for her little girl. Realistically, I think all the female characters came off badly in the book — even Jordan. But as we can see from both the book and the film, there are no likeable characters. Daisy was all surface, she not only hadn’t any depth, but I think we were supposed to see that immediately.
When we first meet Daisy and Jordan, Fitzgerald describes them like having the weight and substance of balloons. They flutter and quiver and so forth. Fitzgerald made it a point to make them lacking substance.
“They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”
Didion: Oh, JMM, I love that catch — I’d forgotten that beautiful description in the book. Fitzgerald had little interest in giving them much weight. In fact, that line of Daisy’s about her daughter being a fool is the only glimpse we have of her dissatisfaction with her lot; otherwise she appears committed to being a fool, mostly at least.
Jordan is a bit more interesting; the book suggests that she might not be such an honest sportswoman. And in the film Elizabeth Debicki’s huge eyes and tall dancer’s frame make her tower over Tobey Maguire in a way that was always mysterious and evocative. But this isn’t really a film about female characters except as love objects for the men in the story.
JMM: True. Let’s move to another smaller venue — the underground club behind the barbershop door where they went for lunch. Did you like Amitabh Bachchan as Wolfsheim, or did you feel this was a role incorrectly cast?
Didion: Loved the speakeasy scene, and Bachchan was perfectly cast as Wolfsheim — but (and this is a big but) Lurhmann cut out most of what made Wolfsheim such a crucial character.
Now, there are good reasons to cut it out: the book is unapologetically anti-Semitic, and racist in ways that only get a slight gloss in the film. On reflection, I’m not sorry that Luhrmann decided to cut down the book’s nasty white supremacy and the cartoonish portrayal of Wolfsheim as Gatsby’s main man.
So Bachchan doesn’t get much of a chance here, but his whole appearance — his unnervingly sparkling eyes — was ideal for the part. How about you?
JMM: I’ve seen many films with Bachchan and I knew what I was going to get from him. I think Lurhmann cast him as Wolfsheim because it would help market the film internationally — and also because who else might have been considered — Mandy Patinkin?
As for the racist and anti-Semitic remarks — I thought there were plenty of them included in the film to make the point, so even if Lurhmann cut back volume wise — he didn’t soft-pedal those topics in any way.
Another point — didn’t they include enough mysterious phone calls to have us consider that Gatsby was indeed involved in shady doings. And then once they’ve done this, who do we meet at the parties but NY celebs, senators, congressmen, and even the police commissioner was at the speakeasy — so I don’t think Wolfsheim needed any more depth on screen for us to see.
Didion: So this brings me to my last question: about the film’s use of 3D. Even though I’d sworn to myself that I’d skip seeing the 3D versions of film (after Tintin, which was meh), I nevertheless forked out the extra few bucks this time. And… big disappointment.
Now, I get it that Luhrmann’s filming ethos is summed up with, “why not?” But I think the 3D not only failed to add anything, particularly during the lush party scenes, but it detracted for me from the attractiveness of the set and costumes overall. I’d strongly recommend that people see it in 2D.
JMM: The 3D was added in not because of “why not” but because of the revenue stream. This was strictly a marketing decision and a gimmick. As you said if anything it was unnecessary at best, and a distraction at worst. The difference between the 2D ticket and the 3D at my theater was $5. So I think that was behind it.
As was the music. As was Bachchan.
I’ve a question: Do you have a favorite quote from the book/film?
Didion: I’ve been thinking about that. And honestly, I must admit that it’s not the beautiful famous final line of the novel, which Lurhmann uses here (to his credit): “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” A gorgeous line, but so self-conscious.
I had a whole pile of lines I loved in the book — they appear only occasionally in the midst of Fitzgerald’s generally sparse prose. But I think my favorite might be, “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
JMM: That is a line filled with beautiful imagery. The one I liked best came on the next to last page. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Of course that is why we love the book. About the book and the film version — a thematic question — Lurhmann’s showed this at least three times. — workers with pick-axes working on the mounds of ashes. Is this indicative of a heaven (the palaces and mansions and the party-life) and indicative of a hellish existence — real life with work and sweat? I mean is this at the core of the story, or is it the more surfacey — the old money versus the new money that is one of the base themes? Any thoughts on that?
Didion: Loved the way he created the old optician’s billboard, of a god/death watching over this hellish middle place of sweat and hard work. But the scenes of workmen toiling just seemed, again, like a cartoonish Broadway set.
Your broader question still troubles me. Does the film do enough to satisfy me in capturing the snobbery of old-money types like Tom Buchanan? And the striving desire of new-money types like Gatsby for a glamorous object like old-money Daisy, whose voice “sounds like money”? No, but then our culture is much less concerned about old money than theirs was. I was also a little disappointed that the film didn’t make much of the divide between East Coast society and the Midwesterners (Nick, Daisy, Gatsby) who have arrived there — that is, arrived from a more innocent place.
JMM: Maybe because in the 20s there was so little new money, and the old money wasn’t that old. Tom was a Midwestern guy too. I also recall that Daisy’s mother, at the party, told Daisy about all the “eligible” soldiers attending — rather than the number of good looking men. So even though that party wasn’t an East Coast affair — it still had its own version of snobbery.
I believe that Lurhmann could not do too much with the old money vs. new money because there weren’t any characters (except Tom and Daisy) to represent it with any kind if depth.
Didion: One of my Facebook friends said recently, with a bit of self-deprecation, that she loves anything Luhrmann does because it’s so pretty and shiny. “It’s art, not history!” she proclaimed to haters like me.
If I were to sum up my feelings about the film, I’d say that Luhrmann’s gift for creating shiny, pretty things is prodigious but ultimately I want more emotional depth. I’m glad I saw it on the big screen for those amazing party sequences, but I will never see it again.
JMM: Strong words, Didion! I want to ask for a one word description of how you felt when leaving the theater.
Didion: Honestly, I felt a bit alienated by the film. Part of this is appropriate — that is, we’re supposed to be appalled by Tom and Daisy’s carelessness toward everyone around them. But neither did I feel especially upset by Gatsby’s end; I just hadn’t learned to care about him the way I ought to have. Although I appreciated Lurhmann’s eagerness to show us Fitzgerald’s fine prose — appearing as actual words on the screen — that final line about “boats against the current” remains opaque enough to me that I’m still not sure I know how to feel about it. So yeah, “alienated.”
How about you?
JMM: For me, I think a phrase rather than one word — and it goes back to Gatsby’s delusional behavior. Despite his lack of a reality — I still loved him — hated the Buchanans. Gatsby was a mystery — the Buchanan’s weren’t. So it is far easier for me to admire Gatsby than them. But having said that, I won’t call him heroic or anything like that. And yes, his ending isn’t anything that creates despair in me either. When I left the theater, I was positive about the film.
Didion: Can I ask whether you like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001)? Because I’m wondering whether this film will appeal more broadly than to the longtime Luhrmann fans who love his “shiny, pretty” things.
JMM: Thought you’d never ask. As for Moulin Rouge, I could only get 30 minutes into it before shutting down my DVD player. Gatsby wasn’t like that for me because I had just read the book. Moulin Rouge had no history for me — other than my travels to Paris. But I never finished it. I’m not a fan of Luhrmann’s but I do appreciate his skills. Or maybe I’ll say that Luhrmann can certainly spend money and make a fabulous looking recreation of another era.
I have Luhrmann’s Australia still unwatched. Guess I’ll be getting to that one soon.
But you know, The Great Gatsby is still an iconic American novel — so I do expect another film version down the road.
Didion: That made me laugh, because I watched maybe 20 minutes of Moulin Rouge before quitting, too! All that overwrought singing and Ewan MacGregor and Nicole Kidman looking at one another like speed freaks … not for me. I will say that this film is just not nearly that spastic.
It’s been a million years since I saw his Romeo + Juliet, which I liked at the time. I will never, ever, ever watch Australia, however.
JMM: And I’ll probably never watch Romeo + Juliet.
Didion: JMM, this has been a pleasure as ever. Even more so because I got to comb over some of the best prose in the book, and engage in the back-and-forth with such a worthy collaborator. Even though I’m more negative about the film than you are, I’m still glad I saw Luhrmann’s version of the Jazz Age onscreen. And I’m looking forward to planning another conversation with you sometime this summer!
JMM: Thank you Didion: It is always fun to work with you. I can safely guarantee that our next viewing won’t be a Luhrmann film. Until the next time — thanks!
9 May 2011
Others might prefer Julia Roberts’ big toothy grin or Kerry Washington’s perfectly kissable pout. For myself, I like actresses whose mouths do additional work for them beyond simply looking pretty — mouths that gives women character. We live in a world in which actresses keep getting told to medically alter their most distinctive features to bring them into line with mainstream tastes; rather, I want to celebrate real women’s faces.
Take Sophia Loren. No matter whether viewers got distracted by those curves and those cheekbones, her mouth always offered a kind of gravitas to her parts onscreen. No one could be mistaken into thinking she was eye candy alone. She signaled a whole range of emotions with variations of the set of her mouth as seen here — disapproval, distance, determination, controlled rage. That mouth could break your heart and win your respect. When she kicked you out, that mouth might well be the thing you remembered most. For a 76-year-old goddess, as she is now, her mouth gives her a grandeur that I, for one, would kill for.
But there’s also Carey Mulligan‘s little smirk. She’s one of the few ingénue actresses of the moment whose distinctive mouth always tells me she’s far more imaginative, interesting, and pragmatic than her blonde loveliness and dimples might otherwise lead us to expect. Considering how often she’s played straightforward girly-girls (think Bleak House and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) her mouth always undercut any impulse to underestimate her. If you scan through Google images of her, she’s invariably photographed with her mouth clamped shut tight, which gives her a perpetually ironic or grimacing look. It just goes to show you: even if you’re everyone’s favorite girl actor right now, their love might be won by the intelligence that obviously backs up your Twiggy-like cuteness.
And oh for the long, long jaw and mouth of Khandi Alexander. I’ve loved her ever since her early NewsRadio days — a love so pure that I am (still) willing to forgive her turn on the otherwise unwatchable CSI: Miami as the medical
examiner Dr. Alexx (!) Woods. If there remained any doubt about my forgiveness, it’s been resolved now that she’s in HBO’s Treme as the owner of her family’s bar. Alexander’s face has an elegance that bespeaks her early career as a dancer and choreographer — for stars as prominent as Whitney Houston — but it’s that mouth I celebrate every single time I see her. She can sneer, purse her lips, or explain detailed medical terms with equal aplomb; and when she smiles, she flashes the most astounding mouthful of beautiful teeth.
On the topic of teeth, however, I’m really getting sick of the super-perfect caps that actors use to whitewash their delightfully irregular fangs. I was crushed when Michelle Rodriguez changed her sexy, slightly crooked teeth in for a generic set out of a magazine; she might as well be anyone. Who would Steve Buscemi or David Bowie be without those teeth of theirs? In the absence of many crooked-teeth heroines to choose from in the acting world, I’m going to celebrate Kirsten Dunst, whose lateral incisors pop out a bit and remind us she’s a real woman. Even just on their own, Dunst’s teeth give her entire face a youthful realness that reminds me of how many of us finally got liberated from our junior high-school braces only to discover our teeth had other ideas. Plus, in Dunst’s case her teeth always remind me of her early star-making role in Interview With the Vampire (1994), made when she was only 12.
Dunst’s comparatively thin lips also reminds me to sing a short song to the early Barbara Hershey. I was too young to notice her until the wonderful Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986 — remember when his films all seemed to be wonderful?) in which the excellently creepy Michael Caine lusts for her. One of the best things about that film was its capacity for making us see Hershey’s superlative beauty and her natural ease through Caine’s eyes. Hershey always seemed a bit unaware of how truly beautiful she was — except her great, thin-lipped mouth and slightly jutting chin always gave her a glamour that even a high school girl could wield as a weapon. For that reason it was crushing to hear in the early 90s that she had undergone lip augmentation for the film Beaches. She later had the procedure reversed (or perhaps the lips deflated on their own?); I’m still working on reversing my frustration with her as a poster child for the Angelina Jolie craze for absurdly poofy lips.
And finally there’s the mixed-race Devon Aoki, who channels a little Christina Ricci with her unusually small jaw and petulant pout contrasted with her prominent cheekbones and striking eyes. In Sin City she played the ruthless killer Miho. The story never met a female stereotype it didn’t like — it casts Miho as mute (yeah, I know) who was sure to slice you in half with her swords if you crossed her, especially if you made the mistake of calling her a “Jap slut” or “Jap slag.” Misogynistic stereotypes aside — and I think you know how much it takes for me to set them aside — I got stuck on Aoki’s unusual mouth. I’ve got a small jaw myself, so I know that Aoki’s orthodonist must have become wealthy finding ways to make all her teeth fit in as they should; most of all, I’m delighted to see a broader range of great mouths on female actors.
I’m racing back to finish grading now, but do let me know if I’ve missed anyone.
11 December 2010
Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors? “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters. The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.” Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen. This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness. Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.
Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard. Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …). The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre. Other than that? Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?
I can’t. As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me: ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively). Get it? Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved. Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen? And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?
If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months: the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN). At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations). This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men. Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.
If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story. In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät. It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope: shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while. You know what? I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.
So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women: the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates. They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).
Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:
- Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already. If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
- Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
- Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
- Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
- Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
- Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
- Let girls play funny.
- Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
- Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
- Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.
Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?). I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.