Nuns, whores and femmes fatales

The whole idea of "good" movie roles for women is crap -- I'll take a lace-and-leather sexpot over Nicole Kidman's prosthetic-honker performance in "The Hours" any day of the week.

Published March 20, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

When Nicole Kidman accepted the Golden Globe award for her performance as Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry's "The Hours," she praised it as a picture that finally offered solid, meaty roles for women. Never mind that the meatiest part in "The Hours" probably belongs to Miramax head Harvey Weinstein in the role of Big Daddy. At the Golden Globes ceremony you could almost see him ticking off his accomplishments for 2002: "Epic neo-historical sprawl, check; crowd-pleasing movie musical, check; good roles for women, check."

At Oscar time, everyone who cares about movies takes stock of the roles and performances that made an impression in the past year. And every year, it's always the most noticeable performances -- particularly the ones that receive Academy Award nominations -- that people use to gauge how well women have been represented in movies.

But what, exactly, constitutes a "good" role for an actress in 2003? Is it possible that the roles actresses themselves consider good aren't always the ones that translate best to the screen? And maybe the most important question: Are moviegoers these days more open to the subtleties of a good performance, regardless of the most obvious characteristics of the role, or less?

The complaint that there are few good roles for actresses is perennial. But even more pernicious is the fact that year after year, people -- and that means critics and the entertainment media, as well as civilian moviegoers -- miss the great roles for women that are practically right under their noses. Worse yet, they forget that what an actress does with a role is far more important than the role itself. Why is playing a depressive writer or an anti-death-penalty nun automatically considered superior to (or more difficult than) playing a kook (like Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby"), a prostitute (like Jane Fonda in "Klute"), or a femme fatale (like Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity")?

Just two years ago, Angela Bassett (a wonderful actress, and one who has never gotten her due) claimed that she turned down the lead role in "Monster's Ball" -- the one that garnered Halle Berry an Oscar -- because she didn't want to play a prostitute. Forget that Bassett's comment was needlessly catty. (African-Americans and other minorities have few enough opportunities in Hollywood as it is; a little generosity among colleagues wouldn't hurt.) Whatever the shortcomings of "Monster's Ball" (and there are plenty), there's something seriously wrong with the idea that a woman who's troubled and turns to sex for comfort should be automatically considered a whore.

It probably didn't help Berry's stock as a "serious" actress -- whatever that means -- that the next time audiences saw her she was a Bond girl, albeit a charming and sexy one. Last year alone, we saw universally acceptable bad girls (Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who both gave marvelous performances in "Chicago") and girls who are seen as just plain bad (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in Brian De Palma's "Femme Fatale," who gave a sly performance in a role, and a movie, that was widely ignored by critics and moviegoers).

In that context, there's something distastefully prefabricated about the way "The Hours" has been lauded as a showcase for "serious" actresses, as opposed to the others who, the common wisdom goes, just play hotties. "The Hours" is a movie with characters who fearlessly live the life of the mind (whatever that is) and who are, for the most part, decidedly unsexy. Because the movie is about Women and their Problems, it comes to us wrapped up in the assumption that it's actually a serious, deep film instead of a boring and ponderous one. (If ever a movie deserved to be called "Female Trouble," this is it.) "The Hours" is the kind of movie designed to allow actresses to be their most actressy, the kind of thing that's probably more likely to sucker literary types than average moviegoers who, rightly, demand a good story with interesting characters. In an otherwise perceptive New York Review of Books essay on "The Hours" and Virginia Woolf, literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn writes, "Rarely has a mainstream film offered three more interesting roles for three more accomplished actresses, each of whom makes the most of an admittedly rare opportunity: there are moments ... that will make you cry."

Mendelsohn never addresses exactly what's so "rare" about this opportunity; we can assume that he means the characters in "The Hours" are serious women with lots on their minds, and that it's rare to find such characters in a mainstream film. But what it really means is that Kidman gets a chance to give a meticulously calibrated but drab performance, with a prosthetic honker as its center of gravity.

Virginia Woolf is an intensely charismatic presence in her photographs, and her contemporaries seemed to consider her striking -- she didn't exactly have a reputation for being homely. While it's a curious quirk of the moviemaking world that Kidman should need to be uglied up for audiences to take her seriously in the role, as if her skill alone wouldn't have been enough, it's equally annoying that Woolf herself should have to be reshaped as a brainy plain Jane, a frumpy, depressed boho square peg, to serve the movie's purposes.

In "The Hours," the actresses' moments have been practically preshaped for them -- you can just see that artfully extruded star-shape squeezing its way out of the Play-Doh pumper when Meryl Streep, as the contemporary do-gooder and general rusher-arounder Clarissa, crumples in a teary breakdown on her kitchen floor. Julianne Moore, as Laura Brown, a '50s housewife on the verge of a breakdown, gives the subtlest (and, for my money, the best) of the three performances, but considering how consistent her work has been over the years, sometimes in roles that would have been forgettable had they been played by other actresses, I wouldn't rush to elevate this performance over any of her others.

All of which means that when it's time to trot out the examples of "good" and "bad" roles for women, the characters in "The Hours" are bound to end up as a false example of the great strides Hollywood has made in terms of improving movie roles for women.

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Let's have a look at what happened in 1992, a year in which, for no discernible reason, the media raised a hullaballoo over the paucity of good roles for actresses. I remember a TV commentator intoning, in that special timbre of concerned cluelessness that "serious" reporters often adopt when they find themselves having to cover an arts story, that the only roles available to women were those of sex kittens (cut to a clip of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct") or cats (cut to a clip of Michelle Pfeiffer in "Batman Returns") -- a neat way of diminishing both the roles and the actresses who played them in one quick, cheap shot.

In "Basic Instinct," Stone deconstructed the cool, iconic Hitchcock blonde and reimagined her right before our eyes, all flesh and blood and terrifying intelligence; instead of just skimming men's most deeply submerged fears of women, Stone coaxed them all to the surface, where she stroked and teased them into submission. Everyone remembers the crotch shot in "Basic Instinct," but the real mark of Stone's brilliance in the role is her reading of the line that comes slightly before it: Her Catherine Tramell, upon being told she can't smoke in the police interrogation room, fixes the cops with an amused, dismissive twinkle and says, "What are you going to do -- arrest me for smoking?" Talk about control: Stone both shrinks and engorges every weenie in the room, playing them like an accordion.

Anyone who automatically equates latex with "sex kitten" hasn't paid very close attention to what Pfeiffer does in "Batman Returns." For one thing, her Catwoman has no use for the "benefits" of what she sees as women's traditional victim status. She saves a woman from an intended rape, and before the woman can stammer a thank you, she clutches the woman's face in her shiny black paw and sneers, "You make it so easy, don't you? Always waiting for some Batman to save you. I am Catwoman, hear me roar" -- before disappearing into the night with a double backflip.

Neither Stone's nor Pfeiffer's role was considered "serious" at the time -- perhaps because both characters were exceedingly beautiful, and traded on it. (In the Quality Crit Biz, beautiful and serious almost always cancel each other out.) But to me, the outcry over the lack of decent roles for women meant that people in the media either hadn't bothered to look very closely at many of the performances out there or were judging them by some weird, predetermined parameters.

A "good" role for women was one in which she didn't play a woman at all -- or at least not one who was too sexual, or whose intelligence was sometimes used for evil and not good, or who looked too threateningly beautiful. By those standards, the ideal role for a woman might be a male 19th century cleric in a rough cloth robe. Forget even attempting to cover the range of women's experience -- including their sexuality, whether it's used for good or ill or just is

The biggest irony was that 1992 was a phenomenal year for actresses. A partial list of actresses who did astonishing work that year would have to include Goldie Hawn in Chris Menges' little-seen "Criss Cross," Meryl Streep in Robert Zemeckis' "Death Becomes Her" (a wicked little satire that was unpopular at the time because of its perceived nastiness -- although I'm not sure how effective a "nice" satire could be), Pfeiffer again, in Jonathan Kaplan's "Love Field," Diane Lane in Stacey Cochran's "My New Gun," and, perhaps the best but most underrated performance of the year, Sheryl Lee in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me."

How much has Hollywood changed in 10 years? Or, more significantly, how much have we changed? Are we necessarily more enlightened about what makes a good role for an actress? In some ways, I think we are: The idea that a good role for a woman has to be boring, virtuous and (perhaps above all) unglamorous is somewhat outmoded these days. A few years ago, people were pointing to Susan Sarandon's role as anti-death-penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean in "Dead Man Walking" as a good woman's role. But I like to think moviegoers are a bit more open to the idea that Sarandon's bitchy mom in "Igby Goes Down" -- or the tart-tongued, grieving mom she played in "Moonlight Mile" -- may be even better roles, in terms of allowing Sarandon to get at more complicated emotions in considerably less screen time. Those roles might be smaller, but they're still highly contoured and full of life.

But then, if "The Hours" is still the best we can do in terms of pinpointing good roles for actresses, we may not have come as far as we think. While I prefer watching Meryl Streep drink, curse and take drugs in "Adaptation" to watching her soak her kitchen floor with tears in "The Hours," I don't think of either as a particularly good role or performance. Streep is terrific at comedy: She rose to the occasion beautifully in "Death Becomes Her"; it's my favorite of Streep's comic roles, and one of my favorite Streep roles in general.

But I think the fact that Streep's two most recent roles have been held up as significant achievements suggests that what we think of as a good performance may have as much to do with habit as anything else. It's gotten to the point where most of us are more conscious of the veneration of Streep than we are of her actual acting, which is always classy and professional at the very least, but not always invigorating or challenging or passionate.

It's important, obviously, to distinguish a performance from a role. But that gets much harder to do once an actress has made a performance her own. Think of Barbara Stanwyck in "The Lady Eve" or "Double Indemnity," or Bette Davis in "The Letter," or Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story" or "The African Queen." Is it possible to assess any of those as "good" roles, in any way separate from the actresses who played them?

We think of those roles as intertwined with the actresses who gave them to us, which is exactly as it should be, given that acting is supposed to make us believe so wholly in a character that we can hardly believe that person doesn't exist in the real world. Alternatively, Luise Rainer played the lead in the 1937 Pearl S. Buck adaptation "The Good Earth," a solid role if there ever was one -- but how many people remember her?

The same is true for male actors, of course. When we respond to an actor, we're primarily responding to a presence on-screen, and it's difficult to parse a presence in technical terms. Male actors can also be considered good-looking in a range of different ways. (I was amused when a friend once mentioned she'd had an erotic dream about Steve Buscemi -- and then, months later, long enough to have forgotten about the conversation, I had one myself.) Male lookism in Hollywood certainly exists, but there's no denying women have it much harder: Actresses feel a great deal of pressure to be a certain kind of pretty, and the right kind of thin.

But an actress's beauty can be held against her, too. How much or how little does an actress's beauty have to do with that presence? There are conventionally beautiful actresses who have very little character, and conventionally not-so-beautiful actresses whose charisma makes them stunning -- and plenty of actresses look more beautiful or less so depending on the role (not to mention the makeup and cinematography). Beauty, no matter how you define it, is often part of what we respond to, but it isn't necessarily facile or hollow -- nor is it shallow to respond to it. In his book "Movie Love in the Fifties," the critic James Harvey writes wonderfully about how and why Kim Novak stands out in the otherwise overcooked 1955 "Picnic":

"She is as moving as she is in 'Picnic' partly because of all the acting going on around her ... In the midst of all the shrillness and falsity, in the midst of all that acting, there's Novak -- with her simplicity of just being there, as it seems, inhabiting a character she clearly felt close to: a girl who feels patronized and discounted by the way people react to her beauty. Whether it's acting or not, she seems the only serious presence in the film."

That passage captures the need for a kind of sensual openness when we're looking at actors or actresses -- the need to recognize that sometimes what we accept as good acting is a facility with the technique and other times it's an ember that burns inside. At its best, of course, it's an indescribable combination of both.

But you can't discuss the issue of beauty without also talking about the problems of aging. And aging is the great enemy of actresses everywhere. The number of good -- any kind of good -- roles for actresses decreases as they get older. (When I say "older," let's say I mean somewhere in a woman's 40s, which is older in comparison to stars who are still in their teens or 20s -- and please hold the letters, because in no way, shape or form do I consider 40 old in real-life terms.)

Has anyone ever seen definitive evidence from audiences that they don't want to see beautiful older people in the movies? I don't think so. And yet it's a significant problem that there are so few opportunities for actresses in their 40s and beyond. It's almost shocking that Hollywood, which usually rushes to jump on any old bandwagon, hasn't made a significant effort to address the problem, considering that newspapers, magazines and television all reinforce the idea that, thanks to better diet and healthcare (and, alas, plastic surgery), the general population is looking and feeling more youthful than ever before.

Beyond that, I'd argue that age has always been a state of mind, anyway. I was recently lucky enough to catch a showing of a Budd Boetticher western from 1957 called "The Tall T," starring Randolph Scott and Maureen O'Sullivan, who were well into their 50s and 40s, respectively, when they made the picture. A low-budget film, "The Tall T" is a real picture, all right, thanks in part to the charisma of its lead actors, which seems to have been unaffected by age -- in fact, if anything, it was intensified.

Scott, rugged and worn and lanky, is possessed of a quiet sexual power that's the exact opposite of youthful machismo. And O'Sullivan's delicate beauty only seems heightened by the fine, feathery marks around her eyes. Her character -- delightfully named Doretta Mims -- is the daughter of a mining tycoon, a woman who just narrowly escaped that dreaded state known as spinsterhood by, unfortunately, marrying the wrong guy. Doretta is by turns exquisitely modest and unnervingly tough, and O'Sullivan navigates that shifting with ease and confidence.

If "The Tall T" were released today, it would look progressive. There's no acceptable explanation for why there are so few decent roles for actresses over 40 or so, particularly roles that allow them any kind of believable sexuality. But there is hope. In the recently released "Laurel Canyon," written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, Frances McDormand plays a Hollywood record producer in her mid-40s. As McDormand plays her, the character isn't about her age -- there are a host of other qualities that you'd attribute to her (confidence, sexiness, acceptance of her shortcomings) before you'd even begin to pin an age on her. In a world more perfect than the one we live in, "Laurel Canyon" would spur Hollywood to immediately begin developing more and better roles for over-40 actresses. We can only hope.

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So where do actresses stand in 2003? And what kind of work are they being recognized for? The Academy Award nominations for 2002 proved to be something of a grab bag, with a few eyebrow-raising surprises. Kidman's nomination for "The Hours" was pretty much a cinch, but the Academy didn't fall for every "worthy" performance that came down the pike.

For one thing, it ignored Isabelle Huppert's highly praised but stiff and pallid turn in "The Piano Teacher." Instead, it turned its attention to Diane Lane (who gives what I believe is the performance of the year in a very un-role-model-like role in "Unfaithful") and Renée Zellweger (who, as a killer tootsie in "Chicago," also pulls off a fine non-role-model of a role). The Academy also noticed Salma Hayek in her portrayal of Frida Kahlo -- a fine performance in a definitively meaty role, but one that didn't seem to impress many critics or moviegoers.

You couldn't stay even half-awake at the movies this year and fail to notice Julianne Moore in the two roles for which she received nominations: One for her supporting role in "The Hours," and one for her leading role in "Far From Heaven." As the '50s housewife Cathy, whose highly manicured suburban world withers before her very eyes, Moore gives a performance that nods to the stylization of '50s movie heroines but is anything but stylized itself. You could call it a mosaic formed wholly from the poignant, delicate undertones, and not the surface brashness, of Technicolor.

It's always nice when deliciously unwholesome roles like those played by Zellweger, Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah (the last two of whom where nominated for best supporting actress) get recognized. Rob Marshall's "Chicago" is beautifully and profoundly cynical, a quality that all three actresses tap into gracefully. And how often do roles come along that allow actors to sing and dance? It used to be a plus for an actor to have those skills, before it ceased to matter at all (and it didn't, through most of the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s). If it spawns more smart movie musicals, "Chicago" may have opened a door for other actresses who have never had a chance to show off hidden talents.

The women's roles in "Chicago" are marvelous caricatures of bad girls, girls who aren't afraid to use their wicked wiles to get exactly what they want, and they must have been great fun for the actresses to play. Zeta-Jones and Zellweger play the saucy murderesses Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, wary arch-rivals who are really sisters under the skin: "Chicago," tongue planted firmly in cheek, explores the dark, spiky underbelly of true sisterhood, in a way that's anything but dully reputable. Latifah's prison matron Mama Morton is something else again: She swivels through her big number, "When You're Good to Mama," like a callipygian goddess, the voluptuous love child of glamorous toughness and cushiony sexuality. Mama is a great role to begin with, but Latifah envelops it so wholly I can't picture anyone else in it. Musical roles are often considered light, although they're often among the toughest to pull off; Latifah's Mama is serious as a heart attack.

On a related note: Lest anyone try to make the case that Kathy Bates' supporting-actress nomination for "About Schmidt" is in any way progressive -- in other words, recognition of a woman with a "non-Hollywood" body type -- let's take a minute to remind ourselves how she's made to look in that movie. I liked Bates in "About Schmidt" but hated the way the director, Alexander Payne, used her, and it's crucial to note the difference. Bates plays her character, an artsy, earth-motherish '60s leftover, as a good-natured stereotype.

But why on earth does Payne shoot her nude scene, in which she slips coquettishly into a hot tub with Jack Nicholson, to make her body look as unappealing as possible, all pendulous breasts and quivering-jelly thighs? This isn't a case of a director's striving to make a woman's body seem real to us; he's holding it up for our derision and ridicule. I'm thrilled that Bates has no compunction about taking her clothes off (the wholesome starlet routine is one of the most tiresome acts in Hollywood); but sometimes the "Hollywood magic" that makes a star look more luminous or more slender than she actually is, is nothing more than simple kindness. It's the least Bates deserves.

Everyone who loves actresses has his or her own list of favorite performances -- performances that feel inextricable from roles -- that went either wholly unrecognized or just not recognized enough. For 2002 mine would include Samantha Morton in "Morvern Callar"; Viola Davis in "Far From Heaven" (the purest subversion I've ever seen of the idea of the demeaning "black maid's" role); Fiona Shaw in Claire Peploe's "Triumph of Love"; Emily Watson in "Punch-Drunk Love"; Toni Collette in both "About a Boy" and "The Hours"; Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Secretary"; every actress in "Lovely & Amazing"; Judi Dench in "Die Another Day"; Michelle Williams in "Me Without You"; and Do Thi Hai Yen in "The Quiet American."

There's one more actress who belongs on that list, an actress who gave a performance that I've found myself defending over and over again. I feel protective of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' performance in "Femme Fatale" not only because I think it's marvelously, wickedly entertaining, but because I think there's something essentially misogynist about the way many critics and moviegoers have so sneeringly dismissed her.

Romijn-Stamos plays Lily/Laure (she goes by both names), a ruthless thief and hustler who uses every one of her God-given feminine resources to get exactly what she wants. At one point she impersonates a pouty, doe-eyed French girl (speaking perfect French, although it's clear her real background is plain old American alley cat) to snare a rich American diplomat; later she shows up as a mysterious Hitchcock blond (a sister in spirit and in wiles to "Basic Instinct's" Catherine Tramell) who struts through Paris in an armor softly forged from cream cashmere and Hermès silk -- the battle garb of l'amour, worn by a true warrior.

Romijn-Stamos has legs like lily stems. She used to be a model, which, in the realm of discussion about "serious" acting, is one strike against her; it's universally assumed that models simply aren't intelligent enough to act. (I think there are several actresses who disprove that theory, Anjelica Huston among them, but there's simply no changing some people's alleged minds on the matter.) I've heard some people say that Romijn-Stamos gives a decent performance, but only because director Brian De Palma told her exactly what to do.

Romijn-Stamos is a relative beginner at acting, and there's no doubt De Palma must have guided her. But it's not him we're looking at up there on the screen; it's not his body moving so supply and so unself-consciously in that deliciously outlandish striptease scene; it's not his voice, declaring in those intentionally flat-as-the-Great-Plains tones, tones that suddenly betray Lily/Laure's workaday roots (even though we never find out exactly what those roots are): "I'm a bad girl. Real bad."

There are people who have enjoyed "Femme Fatale" but who still claim that Romijn-Stamos couldn't possibly have been in on the joke of her character. But I don't see how an actress could give such an intentionally funny, sharp-edged performance and have it be an accident, or simply the result of the puppet-master's having pulled the right strings. All actors know that part of their job is to use their bodies. And yet there are plenty of actresses with beautiful bodies who have no sense of physicality, of how to play a role with their limbs as well as their minds. (In her first movie role, Romijn-Stamos pretty much had only her body to work with: As Mystique in "X-Men," she had no lines and played the entire movie in a costume that was little more than a coat of blue body paint.)

One of the most resonant images from "Femme Fatale" is that of Romijn-Stamos tangling with Antonio Banderas on a Parisian bridge, her hair a windblown tumble of blond curls, her eyes circled with eyeliner like an echo of Parisian soot. She's dressed in fetching black leather and lace, impeccably cut in the French way, but there's something about her defiant stance that makes her much more than just a tall, lovely girl who looks good in clothes. She's nervy and determined in the way she carries herself, as if she'd come to an understanding of her character within her very bones and muscles.

I don't know how Romijn-Stamos will be in other movies, working with other directors. But I consider her performance in "Femme Fatale" work well done, and I wouldn't hesitate to point to the role as a fascinating, beefy and, yes, challenging one. I will most certainly watch "Femme Fatale" again someday, and once again I'll relish its artful disreputability. But I'll never again go near "The Hours" if I can help it. I see "Femme Fatale" as a covertly feminist movie, one that embraces the femme fatale not just as an icon but as a disguise for the real human being underneath. Lily/Laure, a femme fatale (the most heavily typed in the movies!), feels more real and more vivid to me than the carefully wrought, "serious" characters in "The Hours."

That said, I realize that all good actresses like a challenge, and I can accept that the dull worthiness of the characters in "The Hours" must represent some sort of a gold standard to them. I've loved Nicole Kidman in many of her roles, most notably "Moulin Rouge." But if Kidman does take home the award this year, the last thing I'd wish for her are more roles like the one she plays in "The Hours." Instead, I hope that she and similarly gifted actresses will have the chance to get ahold of something more valuable than your typical ho-hum actorly prestige: I wish them more opportunities to wear bad-girl lace, without having anyone hold it against them. And may they wear it into their 60s if they want to.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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