Girls on Film: Actresses Trapped in Bland Monotony

Girls on Film: Actresses Trapped in Bland Monotony

May 10, 2012

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.

Reese Witherspoon in Election

Riddle me this: Why, exactly, is it so easy to forget an actress’ talent?

By this point in our cinematic lives, we’re familiar with the idea of “only for the money” roles. We’ve seen stellar actors like Michael Caine and Peter O’Toole let their talents lie dormant to make some cash. We know that these same men can then shake off the dust and knock our socks off. Nevertheless, there’s often this strange case of blinders when we talk about an actress’ professional trajectory. As much as we might briefly mention previous achievements, we define them by their fluffiest, pulpiest work.

Vulture recently added Kate Hudson to their The Star Market series, discussing her dwindling rom-com potential and what she might do to gain relevance and find further success. In response, Jezebel discussed Hudson, and fellow actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz. In both pieces, the actresses’ worth was generally whittled down to their romantic comedy achievements. While understandable in Hudson’s case, as the actress has exactly one role that’s universally cited as her defining, skilled moment (Almost Famous), it seems problematic to state: “When studio exec says that women like Reese, Kate, and Cammie D need roles tailored for them and that ‘those kinds of movies are not being written,’ you have to suspect that he might [be] right.”

The Jezebel piece then made an interesting jump, not to question why these women are in ruts, but to say their time has passed, and discuss the need for diversity in Hollywood. “Where are the brown-skinned versions of the Kates, the Reeses, and the Camerons,” Dodai Stewart asks. In terms of racial diversity, it’s a good question.

But in terms of these actresses, and other female stars in Hollywood fighting to maintain relevancy and success, it’s quite reductive. Witherspoon has an unfortunately large number of fluff pieces and mediocre rom-coms to her name, but she’s also an Oscar winner who has offered wildly impressive performances in clever cult comedies like Election and dramas like Walk the Line. Diaz has built her career on many vapid comedies, but she’s also held her own in worlds like Being John Malkovich and Gangs of New York. These women aren’t actresses with such narrow talent that films need to be written specifically for them for their careers to survive. It’s just easy to think that because they so rarely offer us real glimpses of their talent.

I don’t want to try and guess the rationale behind these women and the professional choices they make. Naturally, studio typecasting plays a part; Hollywood has infamous and publicly reductive views of female characterizations and a notorious allergy to women aging. But that’s far from the only factor that comes into this discussion. Mainstream roles offer less of a challenge but an exponentially higher paycheck, one that not only puts money in their banks but gives celebrities a perk in a world where fans and paparazzi demand a front-row seat to private affairs. A high-paying job can not only help a talent’s personal life, but also allow them greater professional freedom in the future, to craft passion projects or simply take it easy. There’s something to be said for happiness and ease – not every actor (regardless of talent) is interested in emotionally challenging hard work. Acting is their job, not just a pathway to achieve wild respect on meaty projects. There are outer pressures and limitations, and there are also personal choices that infer every decision and cannot be accurately guessed without first-hand knowledge.

What we should – and must – ruminate on is the under-utilized talent. If we merely shrug off women like Reese and Cameron as women of rom-coms, we’re part of the problem, proving to the studios that they are offering us exactly what we want from any specific actress. Therefore, as a step in a more talent-positive direction, here are five actresses with woefully underutilized talent – women who need more meat and engagement to balance the everyday Sturm und Drang.

Reese Witherspoon

Proven Talent: Pleasantville, Election, Legally Blonde, Walk the Line…

Monotony: Little Nicky, Sweet Home Alabama, Four Christmases, This Means War…

One can’t knock Witherspoon for not trying. Perhaps she loves the lowest-denominator rom-coms, but it’s preferable to think that the struggles of projects like Penelope and Rendition is what drove the actress to films like Four Christmases, How Do You Know, and This Means War. For whatever basic enjoyment those films can muster, they don’t begin to encapsulate Witherspoon’s skill. She has the ability to morph her fresh-faced sweetness into truly engaging experiences –  mania mixes in to give her Tracy Flick, a pained softness underlies her performance as June Carter Cash. In her 1999 review, Janet Maslin wrote: “Ms. Witherspoon, narrowing her eyes into slits whenever Tracy is thwarted, charges through the film with all due comic monstrousness and turns her character into somebody everyone knows.”

Alyson Hannigan

Proven Talent: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Monotony: The monotony is that Hollywood has forgotten her dramatic chops…

Kristen Bell originally held this place on the list, but Ms. Hannigan even better encapsulates the super-talented television actress who leaves behind performance diversity and becomes a one-note celebrity. For many, she’s the Band Geek and Lily – silly, endearing funny women you can easily love. If you look at a large portion of her resume, she appears to be nothing more than a successful comedienne. On Buffy, however, Hannigan traversed the gamut from shy nerd to audacious baddie to emotionally devastating heroine. There’s no one quote to encapsulate her, but above all else, there is a rampant respect for her ability to be emotionally vulnerable and cry. Considering her darkest moments on Buffy, one can imagine what Hannigan would accomplish in a meaty feature film role.

Halle Berry

Proven Talent: Monster’s Ball, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Jungle Fever…

Monotony: Catwoman, The Program, The Flintstones…

Few have struggled to make a solid and respected career out of their talents like Halle Berry. She broke records with her Oscar win, just to see it tarnished by projects like Catwoman. In the last five years, she’s performed in only three films – the ignored drama Frankie & Alice, New Year’s Eve, and Dark Tide. Her work boasts an interesting mix of skill, adaptability, and awkward rigidity that curses her.

She’s the type of talent who needs the director who can cast her in the right role and pluck at her powers of understatement. As Stephanie Zacharek wrote a decade ago: “Berry is a fine actress who may do better work yet if she hooks up with directors who know how to use understatement to shape a role: Her big scenes in both Monster’s Ball and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge are the weakest and most forced; but when she tosses it all off casually, she's terrific. Most people remember her in the stinker Swordfish for her big topless scene; what I remember even more than those exquisite breasts is the way she brazenly (and, I think, knowingly) undercut the gratuitousness of that scene.”

Rachel McAdams

Proven Talent: Mean Girls, The Notebook, Morning Glory

Monotony: Much of the rest of her work (The Vow!), with exceptions like Midnight in Paris and Wedding Crashers

Rachel McAdams is an awkward actress to discuss because she most often stuns in spite of her work. For all of the chastising The Notebook gets, it’s also the romance that thrives because of the talents of McAdams and Ryan Gosling. It was a pity her character was one-note in Midnight in Paris, but she ruled the school in Mean Girls, and was able to take the “erratic professional girl” Morning Glory and make the old trope seem fresh and enjoyable.

To express his utter distaste for her most recent film, The Vow, Dustin Rowles wrote in his public letter to the actress: “You are amazing. You are an actress with endless talent. You have a smile that could kill a supervillain, a face that could light up an Alaskan winter, and a presence so captivating you could walk into a crowded room and be arrested for false imprisonment. You are one of the most radiant, beautiful, charming actresses in Hollywood. Stop using it for evil.”

Rosario Dawson

Proven Talent: Chelsea Walls, Seven Pounds, Sidewalks of New York, Clerks II…

Monotony: Ten Year, Zookeeper, Unstoppable, Eagle Eye…

The inclusion of Clerks II might seem like an odd choice, but while Kevin Smith’s sequel fell short on a number of levels, there was a palpable charm to Dawson’s Becky. By being framed as such a real, understandable ideal, Smith encapsulated Dawson’s greatest strength: to seem quite natural and off-hand on the screen. She offers slight mannerisms that ground her work – whether she’s reciting angst-filled poetry, or talking about her first time. In a review for Seven Pounds, Neil Miller once wrote: “Quiet, broken and yet so full of yearning for life, Emily is the one bit of heart and soul in this film. ... She is the subtle balance to Smith’s sap-session, lighting the film up every time she unleashes her infectious smile.”

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