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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My eccentric Oscar ballot

26 February 2012

Here’s why I always lose Oscar betting pools with my friends: I try to make the Oscars about something bigger.

For example: I truly don’t understand why The Descendants gets so much love. It’s the story of a rich guy who’s selling off thousands of acres of pristine land so he and his family can phenomenally richer — and all of this when unemployment was still at 9% or whatever … well, you can appreciate why I get cranky about things.

I was also nonplussed by last year’s Up in the Air. We’re in the midst of a financial crisis and I’m supposed to emote on behalf of the dude who goes around firing people? It’s gonna have to be a goddamn fantastic film to get me over that obstacle.

Don’t worry: this post has its eyes on the actual nominees, not the films that didn’t get noticed (but how did Take Shelter not get a single nomination?).

Best Actor and Actress: in which I apply the “99% rule,” aka “redistribute the wealth.”

Critics seem to be guessing that George Clooney will win this, according to some kind of logic that we all like the guy and he’s been doing good work. I say that sounds like an old boys’ club if I ever heard one; this is why that “good guy” at work gets promoted and you don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Clooney. I love love him. But I don’t think he’s the best actor of the year, and certainly not for this film. The award should probably go to Jean Dujardin, who was effervescent in a lovely (and better) film. I’ll be delighted if Dujardin wins.

But because I’m feeling contrarian, I’m rooting for Demián Bichir — the stellar Mexican actor who’s so unknown in the U.S. he’s not even a dark horse in this category; the guy who appears as an undocumented worker just trying to make a better life for his kid in L.A. Bichir’s character is so much a member of the 99% that he’s practically off the map — and that’s why he should win Best Actor.

Look, A Better Life wasn’t great. Neither was The Help or The Iron Lady, for that matter. C’mon, members of the Academy — look beyond your white, male, privileged bubbles to the world around you, even just that guy who cuts your grass, and vote for something beyond yourselves.

Using the same logic, my Best Actress choice is Viola Davis, who gives a stellar performance in a pretty crappy film. It’s impossible to compare her role to Meryl Streep’s — Streep dominates virtually every scene in The Iron Lady and shows off so many virtuoso chops that Streep almost looks like a little rich kid surrounded by presents at Christmas. Davis, meanwhile, is so much a part of an ensemble production that she might well have been relegated to the Supporting Actress category.

But you know what? No matter how disappointing was The Help, we’ll remember Davis. She’s just so good — so transcendent in a sea of embarrassing writing and directing — and her kind of goodness is important to the field of acting in 2012. 99%, bitchez!

Supporting Actress and Actor: in which I cast my all-LGBTQ vote.

What a year for the ladies! I’m so delighted with this field that I’m not sure where to go. Should I stick with my 99% rule and root for the magnificent Octavia Spencer? Should I stick with my Foreigners Deserve to Win Oscars rule and root for Bejo? (Well, that probably wasn’t going to happen, honestly.) Should I assert my Women Of All Sizes rule and root for McCarthy, who practically stole Bridesmaids out from under all those top-billed/ skinny women?

I’m going with my heart on this one, as well as with my own insight that 2011 was the Year of the Trans Ladies. Janet McTeer made Albert Nobbs — she was the real heart and soul of this film, raised the whole thing to a higher level, and was ridiculously hot as a man, to boot. This film has received less love than it should have; yeah, it felt a little bit more like something that would have been profound in 1982 but in 2011 feels like yeah, already. Like Bichir in A Better Life, you don’t get more marginalized than trans persons. But honestly, I’ll be happy with any one of these choices. Even better: they should give three Oscars — to Spencer, McCarthy, and McTeer.

Meanwhile, the men’s category seems less competitive to me. Christopher Plummer will — and should — win Best Supporting Actor for his work in Beginners as the father who comes out as an 80-year-old. ‘Nuff said.

Best Picture and Director: In which I wrestle with my own “degree of difficulty” rule.

I’m rooting for two titles: The Artist and Tree of Life. The former is the film I’ll want to see again and again. It’s a crystalline, lovely piece of romantic comedy and melodrama; I found it especially sweet for the way it earnestly wants to teach viewers how to fall in love with classic cinema. I vote for The Artist to take Best Picture.

On the other hand, The Tree of Life attempted a much higher degree of difficulty; like a great diver or ice skater, it took wild risks and didn’t succeed all the time, but what it did accomplish was remarkable: a tale of childhood and early pubescence more real than any I can remember seeing onscreen. If notions like “degree of difficulty” mattered to the Academy, that’s the film that should win.

So I’m splitting the difference: The Artist for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick to take Best Director (or vice versa) — and for these two categories to be split apart. 

Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted: in which I root for the foreigners and commit fully to losing the pool.

A Separation and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 

The latter is just a beautiful film production — I can’t even imagine how hard it was to come up with a screenplay for this twisting novel that has already received a 7-part miniseries by the BBC in 1979. Starring Alec Guinness, no less. How do you get that down to a bankable 2 hours or so?

Don’t ask me, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did it. Nailed it. (Bonus: an actual woman nominated for an Oscar behind the scenes!)

So if I’m so pro-lady, why am I not rooting for Wiig and Mumolo for Bridesmaids? Because A Separation is so spectacular that the former just seems slight in comparison. Also: Leila Hatami:

From all accounts, I’m going to lose on both scores; I’ve heard people guess that Midnight in Paris and The Descendants will take these categories. That’s too bad. The best I can say is that at least I’m prepared for disappointment.

Best Original Score: how can this go to anyone else?

Listen to this medley of nominations for Best Original Score and tell me if the one for The Artist doesn’t leap out as so memorable that it actually recalls specific scenes. Also: because I found the Kim Novak reaction to be absurd.

It’s not that the other scores aren’t nice and emotional; it’s just that the one for The Artist means more to the film. (Runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I loved its 1970s derivative, jazzy ambivalence, just like the film. The one for Hugo was okay too, but like the rest of that film, it felt over-cooked to me.)

Best Cinematography and Film Editing: 

Is it even possible for something other than The Tree of Life to win for Best Cinematography? I will throw an absolute fit if it doesn’t.

But in Film Editing, I’m more ambivalent. I think the truly Oscar-worthy editing jobs were overlooked in the nominations process — Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — so I’m left to wrangle with a disappointing list. Stuck between the rock of my frustration about how these nominations work, on the one hand, and the hard place of a group of films whose editing I didn’t notice as being tight and evocative, I choose The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Like Tinker Tailor, it took the tightest of editing to shape an expansive story to cram this into a watchable 2-hour film; it also demanded cuts and segues that forwarded the tale, evoked emotions with absolute efficiency. A couple of months later and I want to see David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo again so I can pay even closer attention to what its editors, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, did to propel us through that story at such a clip.

****

There are other categories I’m not commenting on, obviously — a series of documentaries that are so lackluster in comparison to the ones that didn’t get nominated that I can barely breathe, categories I don’t really understand:

  • Why does costume design only get applied to period pieces? As Dana Stevens of Slate put it last year, the clothes worn by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right were so absolutely perfect; why isn’t that costume designer nominated for anything?

  • What does “Art Direction” mean — does this mean, for lack of a better term, some kind of unholy combination of “Stage Design” and “Location Specialist”? Or does it mean something else?
  • And while we’re on the subject: is there some kind of connection between Cinematographer and “Art Director”?
  • Why are there different categories for “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing”? Why isn’t this all just “Sound Editing”? Do I sound like an idiot for asking this question?
  • Why can’t I watch all the nominated short films on iTunes or some other service? (Here I go again with my complaints about access.)

Meanwhile, there’s the all-important issue of gowns. Please tell me that Leila Hatami will appear in something stunning, that Jessica Chastain wears something that shows off that strawberry hair, and that Janet McTeer wears a tuxedo.

Here’s hoping! and here’s hoping, too, that I don’t throw anything at the screen when Hugo wins everything in sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminéma's new La Jefita statuette for those women bosses of film

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?)

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

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

I know, you’re thinking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen Mirren is the exception. At 65 she’s getting a ton of work, is widely recognized as a top-notch actor (and “national treasure” in the UK), and has just as many online photos of her in a bikini as Mila Kunis. Moreover, she’s getting work that’s fantastic, and not just a bunch of queens. Julie Taymor converted one of Shakespeare’s canonical male roles into a woman, Prospera, for last December’s The Tempest; then there’s R.E.D.‘s Retired, Extremely Dangerous killer Victoria; Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009)…. Remember how the peevish Ellen in the wonderful show Slings and Arrows used to talk about an actress’s career as going from the ingénues to the queens to the “dreaded nurse” parts? Mirren has gone from queen to kingand people online call her a GILF. (People online are jackasses. But if I had my chance…) In contrast, I remember reading something about how Meryl Streep had “let herself go.” People online are jackasses.

But rather than simply hoover up all the best parts, pull up the ladder after herself, and show up in flattering gowns to awards events, Helen Mirren speaks openly, frankly, and eloquently on the complexities of age and gender onscreen. Here she appears truly exceptional: she acknowledges that she’s an exception to the rule. My favorite is her speech accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award in December. But she’s appeared in many other interviews just recently now that The Tempest is due to appear in theaters in the UK; see here for an interview in The Guardian — many thanks for that link, JE — as well as on the Film Weekly podcast. In that latter interview she discusses the career problems faced by her young female co-star in The Tempest, Felicity Jones, who’s dying for a part in which she doesn’t have to cry prettily. That’s one problem for young actresses, Mirren opines: “you’re always sniveling in a corner somewhere” onscreen.

I have a colleague who’s a golden boy — he can’t seem to do anything wrong, according to my senior/important colleagues. I tried to talk to him one time about how white male privilege works in my department and he got angry, as if I’d implied he didn’t deserve the plaudits he’d received. No, all I mean is that if you’re the exception, you’ve got to be exceptional and not act as if it’s the very least you deserve.

Holly Hunter

18 April 2010

She’s appeared in film and TV for almost thirty years and has received the Academy Award for Best Actress, two Emmys, and a pile of other awards and nominations for many of her roles — yet I was surprised to find David Thomson give Hunter only a cursory, uninspired treatment in his otherwise invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).  This is my attempt to make up for it.  

One might be tempted to refer to her as “the thinking man’s [fill in blank with name of less talented starlet],” but it’s too easy.  I think Hunter is so distinctive because she has a perverse desire to be dissonant — she doesn’t play her beauty for the thinking man’s benefit (or anyone else’s); she’s wary but not fragile; she’s unexpected but not quirky.  Her characters can suddenly become sharp-edged and mean.  Holly Hunter is eminently watchable — one of the most watchable women of her generation.

Except for her intelligent beauty, nothing about Holly Hunter’s profile seems to have designed her for a career in Hollywood.  She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia (her hen won a national 4-H prize when Hunter was in high school), and to the best of my knowledge, she’s never performed without her trademark accent on display.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 before launching her professional acting career.  She’s relatively tiny (5’2″); and is so good a pianist that she performed all the music for her acclaimed role in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

She appears almost disingenuously modest about her career.  “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that’s just the way it is,” she said, according to IMDB.com.  “And in many ways, I take what I can get.  But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”  Looking at the long list of her films and TV work (from which I compiled this short list), I’m struck by her consistent talent in choosing interesting parts and making them more interesting:

  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Roe vs. Wade (1989)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Copycat (1993)
  • The Firm (1993)
  • Home for the Holidays (1995)
  • Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
  • Thirteen (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Nine Lives (2005)
  • Saving Grace (TV show, 2007-2010)
  • Hunter’s characters often inhabit that weird place between comedy and pathos, but you know immediately it’s not a recognizable pathos but something more real, awful.  In “Raising Arizona” her comically inconsolable weeping contrasted nicely with her otherwise drill-sergeant relationship to mouth-breathing H. I. McDonough (Nicholas Cage).  But in “Broadcast News” it was something more:  she paused every morning in the midst of her breakneck routine, sat on the edge of her bed, and indulged in a private crying jag.  Audiences laughed, but they weren’t sure they were supposed to.  In “Home for the Holidays” (a wonderful and much-overlooked film, in my opinion), she headed home to Baltimore in a terrible state — lonely, confused, worried about her daughter, dreading a family visit.  “Hey, little brother,” she breathes into the phone early in the film, beginning a mortifyingly desperate message for the Robert Downey, Jr. character (a message that comes back to haunt her).  Her eyes are huge, she’s a wreck.  Each time, the viewer can’t see her character’s fragility as pure comedy, even when it’s funny.  She’s not playing to type.  She’s fantastic.

    She has the same complicated relationship to her sexiness.  For a long time, she seemed resigned to cutie pie status; her diminutive frame, distinctive accent, and heavy bangs distracted from her sex appeal — she was smart, not a beauty.  In “Broadcast News” her character’s brief affair with William Hurt’s dim-witted anchorman made so much sense because she lacked all the conventional beauties he possessed — how could she not want to be wanted by him, no matter how smart she was otherwise?  Likewise, her mixed views of herself made it impossible for her to fall in love with the shlubby Albert Brooks, her best friend.  In all those early parts, her resolute jaw lent daggers to her voice.  Over time, though, she used her big, dark eyes to terrific effect — most strikingly in “The Piano,” in a face starker than Emily Dickinson’s, with heavy eyebrows and that fiercely black, parted-in-the-middle hair that granted her face little prettiness.

    At some point in her mid-30s she grew into her beauty as she grew out her hair.  Don’t get me wrong: she never tried to be a Julia Roberts or appear in rom coms.  Rather, she developed a lithe way of using her body — moving slowly and with a slightly wicked, self-conscious, rolling gait that (in my mother’s phrasing) told you she was looking for trouble.  Not that it made her sexiness conventional.  Her tongue remained just as sharp, her characters idiosyncratic and generally disinterested in pleasing anyone. 

    By the time she appeared in “Saving Grace” she was nearly 50.  In its pilot she appeared in a few nearly-nude scenes in which her tiny, skinny frame is covered with alarmingly blueish pale skin.  Being willing to appear in such a shot — on television, no less, and in a Hollywood that rejects actresses when they cease to be youthfully sexy — impressed me yet again with Hunter’s determination to be her own woman, to display her character’s troubles on her very body.  I didn’t latch onto that show (the religious angle never worked for me), but it wasn’t because of her, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it didn’t change my overall respect for her skill in finding great parts.  She seemed all the sexier in “Saving Grace” for downing shots of whiskey, sleeping with younger men, and pulling hard on all those cigarettes — cigarettes now coded for TV viewers as “bad” — and letting her natural smarts get a bit fuzzy in the haze.

    It’s also been interesting to see Hunter’s long list of characters whose complicated maternal status, marital status, and career make them more interesting.  Whether she gets her husband to kidnap a baby for her (“Raising Arizona”), chooses abortion (“Roe v. Wade,” which reflected Hunter’s own firm pro-choice views), struggles as a single mother or young widow (“The Piano,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Thirteen,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or wrestles with her career (“Broadcast News,” “Saving Grace”), taken together her characters exemplify the struggles of a whole generation of women in a “post-feminist” age.  I find it striking that, with the recent cancellation of “Saving Grace,” Hunter has apparently determined to take a break from acting to be with her family — her domestic partner and her twin 4-year-old boys, whom she bore at age 47.  I hope it’s not a decision that came from a lack of roles.  I want to keep watching Holly Hunter in roles that expand our understanding of complex human emotions — and not least because right now, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to be the only women over 50 getting parts that allow them to be interesting and have sex lives. 

    David Thomson: I think we shouldn’t be surprised if Holly Hunter has more awards awaiting her — and if your next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film requires a serious revision of your earlier entry.