Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
“We must be willing, individually and as a Nation, to accept whatever sacrifices may be required of us. A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”
President Eisenhower’s first inaugural address, 1953.
His words certainly speak to our current Western society, so far removed from many of life’s struggles that we can’t fathom a world of rationing and country-wide suffering, or living without cheap and copious food and water, mass entertainment, and instant information. But his words also speak to the Hollywood machine.
Tinseltown runs on fame and celebrity; money trumps craft, image trumps talent. These days, the problem is even more exacerbated by the rise of reality television, where everyday people get their ten minutes of fame and try apply it to careers as entertainers. We often speak about how this affects the ultimate result – the many ill-conceived and poorly made movies that litter the screens and the stars who become recognizable names for their notoriety rather than their talent. But we rarely think about how this output affects the future of the system.
When Hollywood’s youth are taught that money and image mean everything, there is no necessity for actors to hone their craft. There is no insistence that the basic principles of acting must be learned. Instead, careers are built on puerile entertainment, which is twofold for the young Hollywood actress. She not only has to develop her talent through mediocre showbiz, but also through mainly supporting roles and narrow characterizations.
It’s hard to imagine an undeniable talent like Meryl Streep thriving in today’s cinematic landscape. Yes, her skills are hard to live up to – earning seven Oscar nominations in the first ten years of her career (which led to two wins). But she also developed with films like Julia, The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Sophie’s Choice. Her inherent talents grew because she worked on classic films with some of Hollywood’s leading directors and talent, not on rom-coms with directors still figuring out their vision, on action flicks where bang trumps brains, on fluff family fare or straightforward pieces of entertainment.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood often looks overseas when they need dramatic female talent.
When I discussed Hollywood’s New Wave, three of the five actresses I mentioned (Mia Wasikowska, Freida Pinto, and Juno Temple) were international names, and they can be added to the roster that includes women like Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Emily Blunt, and Saoirse Ronan (the latter born stateside but grew up in Ireland). These actresses figure prominently in Hollywood’s few notable female roles because they are outside the system. They’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with challenging male and female filmmakers like Jane Campion, Woody Allen, Lisa Cholodenko, and Steve McQueen. They come from systems that breed talent like Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold. They face any number of cinematic situations, modernity to history, old English to modern slang. It’s quite easy for these women to snap up the more dynamic and rare Hollywood roles because they’ve evolved in more challenging creative systems.
Naturally, there are stateside exceptions. The best example is surely Michelle Williams, who moved on from Dawson’s Creek and Dick to become a dramatic powerhouse (much like Blue Valentine co-star Ryan Gosling thrived outside of Breaker High). But she’s an exception – one of the few who made it beyond teen fare as a skilled artist, instead of a star bound solely to typecasting and previous fame.
On the flip-side, take Anna Kendrick, who co-stars in this week’s 50/50. At the age of 26, she’s already earned nominations for a Tony, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, plus a slew of further accolades including two Independent Spirit nods. 50/50 is only her tenth film, and out of all of this, she has only one starring role, playing Sarah in the abysmally written thriller Elsewhere from 2009.
Kendrick is the sort of talent poised at long-term success, a woman who has shown the diversity and presence required to continue evolving on the screen. She is, in fact, even more unique because she’s a critical success with distinctly comedic leanings. In an interview with Variety in 2007, she said she was inspired by “fearless women in comedy, like Parker Posey, Molly Shannon, and Amy Poehler.” One can imagine the potential for a future Madeline Khan-esque name – someone who merges comedy, stage presence, and dramatic acting chops into one being. Yet with all these wins and scene-stealing moments, she’s had not one chance to command the big, mainstream screen. Her Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart gets the gigs – an actress who clearly loves to challenge herself, but who has yet to gain critical success and award consideration outside of fan circles.
Other notable American actresses, the likes of Emma Stone and Ellen Page, make their names through a specific presence. Both offer depth to their characters, but it’s a particular kind of depth. Stone is the centered heroine adept at banter and a natural level-headedness, while Page is the sarcastic off-the-beaten-path lead. The landscapes around them change, but they remain essentially the same – charming and engaging, but not truly new, wildly different people.
There is potential on the horizon. Women like Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Chloe Moretz, and Rooney Mara are shedding some mainstream skin to reveal dramatic depth, wiping away their exteriors to morph into unrecognizable characters, but the system must change for these women to potentially become the powerhouses of tomorrow. It’s not an untouchable goal – the talent and drive are there. We see actresses like Stewart refuse to relegate themselves simply to the fluff, superstar, paycheck roles. But that’s not enough.
Stardom won’t mold these women into tomorrow’s Meryl Streep. They need improvement stressed alongside fame – craft held to the same standards as celebrity. They need continually high-caliber work to continue evolving, and movers and shakers interested in developing obvious and potential talent. There needs to be a dedication to their development instead of instant success and careers built on past notoriety. If we give up the principles, we will lose the privilege, and it's sad to think of a possible future Hollywood without the imposing talent that help shape cinema and inspire future generations.