You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.
Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.
- American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
- Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
- Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
- Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
- The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes!
- The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
- Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
- L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
- Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
- Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
- Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
- Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
- Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
- My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
- North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
- Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
- The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good.
- The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
- Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
- The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
- A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
- True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
- A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours.
A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)
I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.
There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.
I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.
That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?
23 January 2012
I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!
The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”
“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”
“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”
Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)
First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.
A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.
Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.
And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!
Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):
Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.
Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.
Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:
A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)
Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.
Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.
I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.
Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):
Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.
Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.
(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.
Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):
Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.
After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.
Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role:
Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)
Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.
Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.
C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.
I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism. Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)
And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:
- 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
- Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
- Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
- Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
- And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)
28 March 2011
Mia Wasikowska, the 21-year-old actor who appears in virtually every shot of this beautiful film, is a wonder — and that’s saying a lot. I’ve seen many Jane Eyre adaptations but have always felt that I needed to bring a knowledge of the book to understand the depth of feeling Jane experienced. Whereas in the book we have her narrating her life, it’s hard for actors to convey how much Jane has learned through hard and lonely experience to suppress her feelings, maintain feminine reserve, and quietly inhabit her social rank, at least when with others. Wasikowska, however, has a preternatural capacity to let waves of emotion cross her face while also remaining placid; yet when she allows her true feeling to come forth in words and expression, we see how hard the effort of suppression is — and how much a brilliant mind lies behind that “plain and little” face. Oh my god, it’s amazing.
Here’s what I’ve noticed lately about the serious women actors of her generation (and I leave out the non-serious ones who act in teen comedies): even at their most excellent, they bury themselves so deep in a part that they don’t allow the viewer to see their inner conflicts. Take just two of them who earned so much praise last year (including from me): Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit. Their performances were truly excellent, yet between the nature of those roles — which demanded a high degree of stoicism — and the actors’ relative inexperience they ultimately demonstrate an extraordinary degree of actor’s modesty, especially when surrounded by male actors willing to appear far more vivid, fascinating, horrific. As a result, Wasikowska’s actorly range and bravery is amazing. (Not that I’m surprised after watching her on season 1 of In Treatment, which was so amazing I’d watch it all over again even though it’s got to be one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen.)
When I saw the film with my Dear Friend, she complained about Michael Fassbender (above) as Rochester, saying he drew too much attention to himself by using his eyes so much that it undermined the effect of his scenes. She also mentions that it’s hard to understand why Jane loves him (a shortcoming in the book, too, if you ask me) — and I want to suggest that these two things are related. Certainly Fassbender captures Rochester’s hard, bitter edge and the misogyny I always felt was part of his character; why else would he toy with Jane in that ridiculous attempt to make her jealous by flirting with Miss Ingram? My feeling is that Rochester is a tough role that’s too often played more softly as if he’s a romantic hero rather than a reluctant one; in that respect Fassbender does a great job. (It’s worth noting how much Fassbender has a scary propensity to play these slightly misogynistic roles, after his brilliant and somewhat horrifying turn in Fish Tank.)
More important, I thought the use of his eyes was crucial to the role — and maybe that’s because, for me, the love story is fundamentally about how Rochester truly sees Jane’s inner character, her intelligence, her unexpected strength, her soul. Even though she feels she’s concealing all of it behind that stoic mask she’s learned to wear, Rochester sees early on that she’s exceptional — no wonder the story works so well as a romance (don’t we all want to be seen for our true selves?). I want to suggest that we see through his huge, cruel eyes how much Rochester really doesn’t have control over his feelings, and that he wrestles with his own demons, his own tendency to bury himself in self-pity and hardness rather than open himself up to feeling for others. Jane expresses her emotion through her increasingly visible efforts to suppress it; Rochester expresses it through his increasingly uncontrolled eyes that don’t want to believe there could be such a woman for him. So, Dear Friend, I need a response to this claim!
A final note about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s directing and Moira Buffini’s screenplay, which captured the intensity of gothic horror and the passion of feeling so well. Having loved Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009; and what a different film!) I knew this would be something to see; and it’s no easy feat to wrangle all of a 19th-c. novel into a neat 115 minutes. They achieve it by privileging the central tale of Jane and Rochester rather than her childhood and her time with the Rivers siblings — and I think it’s wholly successful, even for those who haven’t read the book and don’t know the litany of horrors she experiences before coming to Thornfield Hall and meeting Rochester. It never felt Harry Potter-ed, that is, like one of those excessively literal adaptations that labors to hit every key scene of a novel. It was scary, heartbreaking, dark, beautiful, compelling, and I can hardly wait to see it again.
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.