American Amazon

For twenty years, Sigourney Weaver has defined the take-no-prisoners heroine.

By Cynthia Joyce
Published January 12, 1999 4:14PM (UTC)
main article image

No matter how many updates there may be on the female action hero, no matter how many technological innovations or anatomical enhancements, no one could ever replace Sigourney Weaver's Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley. When Weaver first brought that character to life in the first "Alien" movie 20 years ago, she became the anti-Barbie -- big-brained and small-chested. She was the first of a new generation of actresses to play a strong female lead with composure and dignity, not like some high-strung thoroughbred waiting to be broken. Two decades, three sequels and hundreds of slain extraterrestrials later, Ripley still reigns as film's finest female ass-kicker. She's what G.I. Jane wishes she could be when she grows up. (Indeed, the bald Demi Moore character was a cheap ripoff of the "Alien 3" Ripley -- but where Weaver sans cheveux was all androgynous innuendo, Moore just looked like the victim of a grade-school scissor incident turned sour.) Without Ripley, there would be no Lara Croft; and without Weaver, the coldly beautiful Gillian Andersons of the world wouldn't have a career.

Winona Ryder, Weaver's "Alien: Resurrection" co-star, once said that Weaver "is the one person who has shown us you can do it all." More accurately, Weaver has shown us that Weaver can do it all. Among her more than two dozen roles, she's played the bitch princess of Wall Street ("Working Girl"); a bitter, hardened housewife ("The Ice Storm"); a former political prisoner and rape victim ("Death and the Maiden"); the first lady ("Dave"); a wicked stepmother ("Snow White") and an eccentric ape tracker ("Gorillas in the Mist") -- in each case proving that she's not afraid to be a bitch, that she's not just another dame who's protecting a soft center. Still, she infuses her characters with a complexity that suggests they're not so much hardened as they are desperate -- past the breaking point and just trying to survive.


If Weaver has defined her career by playing women on the edge, it was the story of a woman who's actually gone over that edge that has elicited her best

performance to date. In the film adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play "Death and the Maiden," Weaver plays Paulina Escobar, a former political prisoner who encounters a man she suspects may have been her torturer 15 years earlier. As the unhinged Escobar, Weaver spirals through varying degrees of dementia, emotions turning on a dime with a subtle slackening of her jaw or slight tilt of her head. An inviting look becomes a forbidding one with the mere closing of her lips over her trademark toothy, seductive half-smile. As Escobar turns the tables on her presumed torturer, Dr. Roberto Miranda, Weaver makes us aware that there's a certain clairvoyance that accompanies madness. Holding Dr. Miranda at gunpoint, Escobar demands that he confess to raping her, despite the protestations of her husband. When it's clear to her that her own husband thinks she's mad, she shoots him a look full of hurt and betrayal, one that seems to say, "Just because I'm delusional doesn't mean I'm wrong."

Weaver's intensity as an actress is mitigated by a quirky sense of humor, which isn't always relegated to her strictly comedic roles. While the performances of her good friend and frequent co-star Kevin Kline sometimes tend toward parody, Weaver always plays it straight -- and by doing so takes you completely by surprise. When, as Janey Carver in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," she encounters her prepubescent son playing "I'll show you mine" with Wendy (Christina Ricci), the girl next door, she takes her aside and offers a rambling litany of confused platitudes: "Our bodies are our temples, Wendy. But in adolescence, our bodies betray us. Which is why in places like Samoa and other developing countries they send kids out into the woods unarmed until they're ready to come back." Never mind that she's having an awkward affair of her own with Wendy's father (played by Kline). Her fumbling comments reveal both the hilarity of her own discomfort and the tragedy of her own alienation from any true understanding of intimacy.


While she may not exude warmth, some of Weaver's best -- and funniest -- moments are when she plays the sexual aggressor. She attacks Bill Murray in "Ghostbusters" ("I want you inside me"), Harrison Ford in "Working Girl" ("Would little Jackie like to come out and play?") and Sam Neill in last year's excellent thriller "Snow White" ("I just want to please my beloved"). In each, she prefers will to wiles, using manipulation over physical force only as a last resort. Though she might play the foil to a squirrely boyfriend, she never caves to the "I'm strong enough to be weak in your arms" stuff.

Weaver's extraordinary range has certainly paved a wider path for younger actresses, but few have actually followed suit -- most prefer to remain within the confines of the romantic comedy. Ryder, in yet another role that requires her face to be covered with black smudge, has at least tried, and there's a certain poetic justice to having her play the diminutive android Annalee Call, who's in awe of Ripley's prowess. But Ryder quickly proves she's no match for Weaver, on- or off-screen. Foul words fall from Ryder's innocent mouth like little pebbles dropping with a dull thud -- "Jesus Christ, what'd you put in this shit" -- whereas Weaver spits out bad words like bullets. In a shared moment that approaches poignancy, if only for its real-world subtext, Ripley asks Call, "So, you're the new asshole model they're putting out these days?" It's a scene that could just as easily have taken place in a women's locker room after a particularly grueling aerobics class, instead of in a spaceship after a battle with aliens. The young Lee, obsessing over the damage done to her otherwise flawless form, says, "Look at me, I'm disgusting," then, forgetting herself for a moment, turns to Ripley and asks, "How can you stand being who you are?" (Ripley has been genetically "reengineered" and is now part-alien, part clone). Ripley responds flatly, "Not much choice."

One of the things that makes watching Ripley so exciting is that she acts out some of womankind's wildest fantasies -- not one of them sexual. Who wouldn't want to be able to do a slam dunk that would make Wesley Snipes jealous? What woman over 25 hasn't dreamed of squeezing Ryder's insufferably adorable visage like a blemish until all the cuteness popped right out of it? And who can refrain from cheering when, in "Aliens," Weaver grabs corporate sleazeball Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) by the collar, puts his back up against the wall and chastises him for jeopardizing the welfare of her crew in the interests of crass commercialism. (If only Reiser's real-life agenda could be similarly thwarted, we might be spared another baby boom ...)


It's ironic that Weaver, whose acting roots are in theater, will perhaps always be best known for a series of science-fiction thrillers -- something that she initially considered beneath her abilities. (Certainly it was beneath her salary standards; for the first "Alien" movie, which grossed $65 million, she was paid $33,000 -- a paltry sum when compared with the $11 million she was paid for "Alien: Resurrection.") After all, she is a product of the entertainment elite -- she's the daughter of former NBC president Pat Weaver and British actress Elizabeth Inglis -- as well as of the New York theater world (she graduated from Yale School of Drama; her husband is theater director Jim Simpson).

Weaver once told an interviewer that her dream as a theater ingenue was to play Henry James-type roles in a repertory company. Though those roles were few and far between, she has led a respectable, if sporadic, stage career. She made her off-off-Broadway debut in 1977 in a play by friend and Yale classmate Christopher Durang, "The Nature and Purpose of the Universe." Durang has remained one of her staunchest supporters, casting her in several subsequent plays, most recently in 1996 as the sex-addicted Lulu in the critically acclaimed "Sex and Longing." Along with her husband, she created her own production company to develop low-budget projects.


Physically, what makes Weaver so interesting is that she's someone's, but not everyone's, ideal -- a trait that has kept her from being the It girl of any particular moment, but has also ensured the longevity of her career. While her look has hardly changed -- she's still more Upper East Side than Hollywood Hills -- she's one of the few women her age (she'll be 50 this year) whose career continues to evolve with each new role. For all her successes,

though, Weaver still suffers for being "strong": She can't command the big-budget, romantic lead roles reserved for her more overtly feminine peers, like former Yale classmate Meryl Streep. But after spending so much time in Ripley's universe, Weaver understands that winning the battle only guarantees you a place in the war.

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

MORE FROM Cynthia Joyce

Related Topics ------------------------------------------