The Awful Truth

Hollywood's wailing uterus

Published January 13, 1997 9:13AM (EST)

Women's roles in cinema have taken a strange turn recently, especially in foreign films. I guess we can call the trend "The Beautification of Everything Gross and Scary About Women." These days, the best way for an actress to get lauded and sung about is to have a desperate grand mal fit of emotional hair-peeling collapse while totally naked. Portraying the Hysterical Passion of Women, showing us a female protagonist who loves so deeply and unhealthily that she scratches all of her skin off and displays her big bruised ulcer of a co-dependent heart, especially with all her clothes off, is a big, viable, fertile mess that "artistic" filmmakers have taken to mucking about in.

Don't get me wrong — if I see some chick on the big screen emoting a wailing death-screech with her whole body hanging out wrongly like a huge piece of grey medical fruit, I too will say "Whoa. Great actress." I guess the whole thing started with Glenn Close, sobbing in the shower in "The Big Chill." Now we have Emily Watson, wallowing naked in "Breaking the Waves," and the brilliant female protagonist in Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies," snot running down her face in every scene, massaging her own breasts in pathetic displays of loneliness and alcoholic need. Apart from Martin Sheen's on-screen vodka blackout and subsequent heart attack in "Apocalypse Now," the only guy I remember who's done the naked crying thing recently was Harvey Keitel in "Bad Lieutenant," but Harvey is a masochist who will throw his psyche into any vat of piranhas for $5000, so he doesn't really count.

In the wake of this explosion of undressed female angst, I feel now that I cannot respect Hollywood floozies like Winona and Gwyneth Paltrow unless I see them unhappy with pubic hair in clinically impersonal close-ups that look like those creepy Japanese mug-shot smut catalogues that look like Auschwitz prisoner records. You are our actors! You must let us look into every crevasse of your body and every damp corner of your soul. Earn your fame, you spit-shined glamour tarts. You can't own the world for Nothing.

Before my boyfriend died, I used to think that women had it bad in the world because they were such flotsam on the breakers of their feelings. Women, myself included, seemed to me emotionally weaker than men. The idea I had was that men felt things just as deeply as women did, but that some inherent nobility allowed them to hold it together better.

After my boyfriend died, and a couple of months went by, I realized that I was wrong. Women feel things at some kind of terrible nerve level that men avoid. Men can feel that intensely, and maybe they do, but they don't like to bring the whole dreadful mess to a head. It's the difference between people who simply vomit when they feel nauseated and people for whom vomiting is such a violent ordeal they'd rather roll around in pain for several hours and wait for it to go away.

After my boyfriend died, I was talking to my mother in the kitchen over vacation and I said, "I had always thought that women were weaker than men," and we both started spontaneously laughing, and laughed for about two minutes. It's something you figure out later, I guess, after life has shuffled you through the dark part of the deck a few times, and you see how men resort at all costs to preserving some bizarre external dignity throughout an ordeal and refuse to touch down into the vortex of Pain, whereas women are more prone to go straight to the cavity hole with the drill of recognition and scream murderously in the dark.

My paramour Boy Strange was telling me about his feeling of complete paralysis when coping with a hysterical woman. I believe that anyone who has ever coped with a hysterical mother has the same reaction — you get a chemical NOOOOOOO going off in your viscera like a prison bell when you see the red face coming toward you, with the arms saying "Save me!"

"That's what we need from men, though," I told him. "We just need you to stand there and be strong." I went hysterical once in front of my late boyfriend, and instead of remaining some kind of uncomfortable observer, he actually did an Orpheus cliff-dive into my black lagoon and tried to find my drowning mind by becoming hysterical himself. It stopped me in the weirdest way, as if I was a wild animal that was suddenly distracted from eating by seeing itself in a mirror. It was so alien, and somehow it didn't seem right, even if it did pull me out of my state. I found myself pulling out of it to comfort him, because I was far more disturbed by seeing him fall out of his natural orbit than by whatever distress I was freaking out about.

What is the most merciful action when dealing with a naked hysterical woman? Don't tell her she's ugly and frightening, and don't think it, either. I don't any more, thanks partly to the movies. Mike Leigh may seem like an emotional sadist to some, but he is able to grasp hysteria so profoundly, and show it from so many different angles, that it doesn't look like some awful gratuitous weakness on the part of the sufferer. He presents his hysterical women as if they were St. George slaying the Dragon. I have always hated hysteria in myself and other women, but now that it's been glamorized onscreen it's actually starting to look heroic. Maybe next time, I'll even try it nude.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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