from Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls (2010)

Q: Why were the Academy Awards this year such a total white-out?

A: Because films by/about people of color just aren’t good enough. Did you see Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? Gawd.

Replace “race” with “gender” and we get the same answer — except using Jennifer Aniston’s The Breakup as evidence — and, with that, we all die a little inside. You’re just not good enough. In this conversation I feel like I’m talking to a film critic version of Stephen Colbert: someone who claims “not to see race” (or gender) and is solely concerned with the merit of a good film. The reason why Hollywood keeps rewarding films by/about white dudes, we learn, is simply because the rest aren’t good enough. This is the flip side of Natalie Portman’s “I just want to be perfect” line from Black Swan that I wrote about in January (most viewed post ever!) — isn’t it interesting that wanting to be perfect and not being good enough are the fates of women and minorities, not white dudes?

from Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010)

This subject has been on my mind for a while, since reading a thoughtful lament by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in the New York Times, but even more after seeing the tepid Oscar tribute to Lena Horne by Halle Berry. Berry is the first and only Black actor to have won an Oscar for Best Actress (for 2001’s Monster’s Ball), yet her lines for this tribute didn’t mention race at all (and let me note that I doubt Berry had a say in writing those lines). “Lena Horne blazed a trail for all of us who followed,” she said. “Thank you, Lena Horne: we love you and we will never ever forget you,” she said, blowing a kiss to the screen. Ah, Hollywood, your racial anxiety is showing. By us did Berry mean people of color? And where exactly is that trail for Black actors in a year of all-white winners? 

from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008)

One might argue that this is a problem of metrics: it’s not that Hollywood is racist, but viewers are. The Wire was the best show ever on TV but it never made much money for HBO because, reportedly, shows about African Americans don’t sell well either domestically or overseas. And if you think it’s tough to sell films about American Blacks, just imagine trying to find an audience for a film about Black people who don’t speak English. Which leads me to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s extraordinary film Sugar (2008) — which is secretly where I’ve been going with this post. Tracing the career of a Dominican baseball pitcher, Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) who arrives in the US with the hope of making it into the major leagues, this film is really about how hard it is to believe you’re good enough.

Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar (2008)

At first it seems that Sugar’s future is golden. He stands out in his Dominican baseball academy and gets plucked to participate in spring training with the (fictional) Kansas City Knights, where he’ll have the chance to prove his worth to the big club. He begins to glimpse there the uphill battle before him:  many terrific players who lose their confidence or get injured orjust aren’t good enough. So when he again moves up the ladder to the Knights’ Single-A feeder team in Iowa, he has to face those pressures in a lonely, rural environment where few speak Spanish. “All the players here are really good,” he tells his mother on the phone to keep her expectations realistic, to no avail. Even the kindly white family who take him in bark rules at him in that patronizing tone: “NO CERVEZAS IN THE CASA,” they say. “NO CHICAS IN THE BEDROOM.” It goes without saying that there’s also no familiar food, salsa dancing, or girls to flirt with without cultural pushback. It’s horrible — and what if he’s not good enough?

The fact that Sugar’s a pitcher makes his plight all the more believable. More than virtually any other position on the team, pitching is a lonely, mental game: when you stand on the mound you feel the other players’ expectations, the coaches’ critical judgment, the powerful need for precision and self-control. When it all comes together, he feels like the golden boy he was in the Dominican Republic — but tug at a loose thread and suddenly it starts to come unraveled. One bad game can bleed into another bad game. Add to that the language barrier and Sugar starts to become a different guy than he used to be.

It’s a beautiful, smart film. Boden and Fleck earned a pile of prize nominations for this film, fewer than for their magnificent Half Nelson (2006) but then, that was mostly about a while guy who speaks English (and is played by Ryan Gosling). Most of their nominations for Sugar came from indie festivals — because, perhaps, it just wasn’t good enough for the Oscars? At RottenTomatoes.com it has a whopping 93% approval rating, yet David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (with only a 72% approval rating) edged it out for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Benjamin Button was better?

Race in Hollywood is the flip side of gender in Hollywood — god forbid you try to film while being Black (or female), as we’re still worshipping at the altar of the white male teenager and his penis, as Helen Mirren put it. But rather than deal with the implications of that prejudice, let’s just stick with our pronouncement that women and people of color just aren’t good enough. In the meantime, can someone please tell me why Paul Giamatti keeps getting so many roles as despicable shlubby men who score fabulously beautiful women when I don’t even want to think about him, much less watch him on the screen?

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Mark Harris has a piece in GQ right now that offers a dark explanation of why Hollywood makes such a lot of garbage — you know, all those sequels and superheroes — but I’ve gotten stuck on a passage midway through. Hollywood makes movies for one group of viewers: men under 25, he explains. Moreover:

In Hollywood [if you] have a vagina, you’re pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985 … well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call “the olds.” I know—you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to the studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.

In short, as writer-producer Vince Gilligan explains, “Hollywood has become like Logan’s Run: You turn 30, and they kill you.”

Except hang on, that doesn’t make sense vis-à-vis the actual numbers of moviegoers. As the blogger Melissa Silverstein shows in her roundup at Women & Hollywood, women buy tickets and attend films in exactly the same numbers as men, and it’s viewers over 25 who see vastly more movies — over 60%. In short, Hollywood is still putting all its eggs into that basket made up of 23% of the moviegoers between the ages of 12 and 24. Hell, it’d make more sense to market to the whopping 15% of the moviegoing populace between the ages of 2 and 11 — and to their parents.

Nor does it make sense when you look at the trends with big-budget cable TV series. Suddenly it’s not just HBO making quality series; it’s also TNT and AMC and USA (and Showtime, natch), all of which seem to be targeting a population in its 30s & 40s. From Justified to The Closer, Saving Grace, Mad Men, and Nurse Jackie, these shows feature a surprising number of great women actors in their 40s, for gods’ sake. Hollywood could sell more tickets to me if my choices weren’t limited to the appalling The Green Hornet and Justin Bieber Never Say Never; but now that you mention it, I’d rather stay home with Edie Falco.

Oh, did I forget that Hollywood has thrown to us ladies movies like Just Go With It (the Jennifer Aniston vehicle) and No Strings Attached (Natalie Portman’s poorly-considered followup to Black Swan)? Can you feel your intelligence being insulted?

A long time ago I remember hearing a news story about the brilliance of McDonald’s, which varied its menu to suit local populations. In Hong Kong it sells fried rice; in India it sells the McAloo Tikki burger; in Turkey you can get a Kofteburger. McDONALD’S DIVERSIFIES TO SELL FOOD. Why can’t Hollywood?

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:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. 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.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. 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.

This is a wholly random collection, as you’ll see — aren’t they always?  It’s partly inspired by my wish to see a wider range of female parts get handed out, but these actors have stuck in my mind for ages, and I think Hollywood needs a nudge.

  1. Shareeka Epps.  She played the watchful, thoughtful middle-school kid in “Half Nelson” (2006) alternately inspired and disturbed by her self-immolating history teacher (Ryan Gosling). I can’t imagine what it must have taken for a 15- or 16-year-old  to step up to Gosling in that film, but she did — earning piles of awards nominations and several wins, including Breakthrough Performance from the Gotham Awards.  I’ve been watching and waiting for more from her ever since — but she’s suffered like so many young black actors by a Hollywood single-mindedly focused on white dudes.
  2. Michelle Forbes.  It’s not just the time she put in earning paychecks as Ro Laren in the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (or her utterly delightful turns in “Battlestar Gallactica” and as the psychopathic Maryann on “True Blood”), although any one of those performances might be enough for me to want more of this willowy, wicked-eyed, sharp-tongued, iconoclastic actor.  But it was “In Treatment” that nailed it, as the miserable wife of the psychotherapist Gabriel Byrne — her exasperating sessions with a man who’s simultaneously too smart and too deluded to change his destructive path to show her he cares.  Of everyone on my list, Forbes has gotten the most work during her career; and she might be perfectly content with her wide range of parts.  But I want more.
  3. Sandi McCree.  I’ve found myself several times defending her performance in “The Wire” as Namond Brice’s mother — some saw De’Londa as so hard-edged as to be a stereotype of the ghetto woman.  If anything, it was brave; but in truth I thought she did some of the best, quiet work of season 4.  De’Londa was dedicated to playing a particular role as the wife of a good soldier in Baltimore’s drug wars, and this wasn’t an easy role.  While her husband had sacrificed himself and was ticking away the years of a life sentence in prison on behalf of his bosses, De’Londa was left to 1) keep her husband’s memory alive in the streets; 2) enjoy the lifelong financial payouts from the bosses; and 3) raise their son to be just like his father.  Except that the payouts ended, and Namond was sort of a wuss.  No wonder De’Londa was angry a lot of the time.  I loved her then and want more of these unexpected portrayals of black women onscreen.
  4. Molly Shannon.  When she was on “Saturday Night Live” she was given a lot of the broadest comedic parts, like that of a spastic cheerleader; and she’s still used in bit parts for her knack for that style of sketch comedy.  But a few years ago she showed in “Year of the Dog” (2007) that she’s really good in bittersweet, subtly funny parts as well.  So now, whenever I catch her making a brief appearance — on “30 Rock” as Jack Donaghy’s sister; on “Glee” as a nutso teacher; and on SNL’s massive Mother’s Day/Betty White/women’s reunion extravaganza — I keep seeing the fine actor in her being blunted by the writers’ short-sighted demand for broad comedy.  There’s been an odd conversation in the media during the last year about funny women — at one point, Margaret Cho suggested that the funniest women were gender bending and/or gay, while others rationalized the lack of women writers on TV comedies by suggesting that women just aren’t as funny as men (I’m calling out Stephen Metcalf of Slate’s Culture Gabfest for an uncharacteristically bad moment).  Then there was the kerfuffle over “The Daily Show” and its dearth of female correspondants.  Anyway — my point is that there are lots of funny women and a few with the subtle talents of Molly Shannon, and that they’re under-used.

As soon as I post this I’ll probably think of more people — but I’m racing to the airport for one last short summer trip before the semester takes over my life.  Bon voyage, all!