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).

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I spent a week this summer absolutely riveted by the classic 19th-c. gothic mystery/ psycho-sexual thriller, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. What a great read: originally published in 1859-60 in installments, this novel begs for a top-shelf interpretation with great actors.

It seems, at first, to be a love story between a poor drawing teacher named Hartwright and his wealthy, lovely pupil, Laura Fairlie, a love forbidden by the class gulf between them and, even more so, by Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival Glyde. But don’t be fooled. The real story features Laura’s half-sister, Marian Halcombe, a woman so intelligent, pragmatic, and adventurous that graphic novels should make her their heroine. Her counterpoint is Sir Glyde’s best friend and consigliere, the insinuating evil genius Count Fosco, surely one of the most iconoclastic villains in novelistic history.

What are Marian and Count Fosco fighting over? The very soul and freedom of women.

It’s got to be a miniseries, because the plot uses too much minute character analysis, requires hairpin plot turns, and demands certain set-piece scenes — like when Marian climbs onto a roof during a raging storm to overhear Fosco and Glyde laying out their evil plans. I reckon it demands a full six hours. The only decent treatment it ever received was a five-hour series in 1982 with Diana Quick doing a superlative job as Marian, but the low-budget stationary BBC cameras and poor film quality of that time, as well as the disappointing Alan Badel as Fosco just seem dated today. Don’t even get me started on how disappointing the 1997 version was, despite starring the fabulous Tara Fitzgerald — it butchered the plot to winnow it down to two hours.

So, to begin: can I recommend Jennifer Ehle as Marian? She’s too pretty, of course, but we know from her sneaky turn as Lionel Logue’s middle-aged wife Myrtle in The King’s Speech (right) that she’s still willing to do period work; and what we really know from the six-hour Pride and Prejudice (1995) is that she can do a lot of screen time while being riveting in every single scene, and that she can manage the subtle psychological cues in 19th-c. conversation.

I’m at a loss for the right man to play Fosco. He’s got to be fat, good with an Italian accent, and a consummate actor. Most important — and this is where both Badel (from the 1982 version) and Simon Callow (from 1997) went wrong: he needs to show how he completely controls his own wife with a combination of evil misogyny and gaslighting, and he needs to show that he falls for Marian — but it’s not love, exactly. That’s where the psycho-sexual drama gets the most creepy: Fosco is the one man who realizes Marian’s true genius and admirability, yet he’s also the one man you are most afraid of. It’s a rare opportunity for a male actor, if you ask me: to show how he observes her with a combination of erotic desire, feeling challenged intellectually, and feeling the need to exert full mastery over her, like a cat who wants to kill a mouse, yet also wants to play with it.

What I want to see with my miniseries, in the end, is that the pat love story between Walter Hartwright and Marian’s sister Laura becomes overshadowed by that fun-house mirror version of a love-hate story between Marian and Fosco.

The gothic creepiness of the story — the occasional appearance of the titular woman in white, who bears a weird resemblance to Laura; the way Fosco and his wife are gifted with poisons and drugs; Fosco’s skill in manipulating everyone from servants to his friend Glyde — all of this unfolds in a way that would make for the most delicious of all mid-winter miniseries indulgences. It shows that recurring theme of 19th-c. literature, the marriage plot, in its darkest shade. It’s a radical story hidden inside a gothic mystery, which a clever director and screenwriter can unpack.

Producers: believe me, this is TV gold. In case Andrew Davies isn’t available to write the screenplay, my email address is didion [at] ymail [dot] com!