a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Another one lost to spandex…

Two announcements yesterday, both of which saddened me.

Shailene Woodley, a superb actress who turned in an extraordinary performance in last year’s film The Descendants (and who was unjustly overlooked for an Academy Award nomination in my opinion), saw her television series, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, canceled by ABC. The second announcement, however, saddened me more, though it was heralded as good news for her: she’d been cast in the Spider-Man sequel currently in pre-production.

Oh goody.

When I saw The Descendants last year I was extremely impressed by Shailene’s performance. She was new to me, as I had never watched the ABC series, but seeing her subsequently in interviews I was immensely impressed by her dedication and confidence and intellect. She reminded me of a young Claire Danes, who just might be the most serious and driven actress on this planet right now. Shailene is going to go far, I thought. Just stay away from the superhero action movies.

Maybe I’m out of line, and Shailene will have a brilliant career filled with both caped escapist entertainment and thoughtful films like The Descendants, which, if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? It was far far better than last year’s atrociously overhyped Oscar darling, The Artist.

But see, I sorta had this fantasy about Shailene. I was hoping someone with her seriousness would steer away from superhero comic book junk.

From Anne Hathaway to Ellen Page, from Scarlett Johansson to Halle Berry, actresses seem to follow a pattern these days: get established in an indie “legitimate” movie to prove their street cred, then get the multi-million dollar payday wearing a catsuit and doing cheesy faux-martial arts against a CGI background.  The list of those who refuse this road is distressingly small. I was hoping, for some reason, given her earnestness, that Woodley would be one of them.

And maybe she’ll stop at one, establishing herself to a broader audience and hoping her name carries over to more exclusive and brainier fare. Maybe. But most actresses go down this road and never come back. Or they disappear altogether, as there’s no shortage of young women willing to do comic book films and, in an arena that’s male-dominated, only a few roles per year. Anyone heard from Alicia Silverstone or Elisabeth Shue or Carrie-Anne Moss lately?

What does this have to do with Welsey Shaw? Well, she refuses to do these films, even if it means her acting days come to an end. She’s only 27 through most of the story, but in Hollywood, that’s already seen as long in the tooth. And she’s never donned a cape and boots. She wants everything she does to stretch her, and she doesn’t just mean up on a highwire.

I love Shailene and can understand why she grabbed at the offer, but I hope we aren’t looking at another could-have-been career that instead became a series of damels in comic book movies, chasing or being chased by CGI creations in front of a green screen. I’m sure she’ll still do the occasional indie movie, but will she ever have the career Meryl Streep had? That Glenn Close had? That Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett or Claire Danes are having?  …I hope so. Shailene was too special in The Descendants—where she had to evolve from a bratty teenager of absentee parents to a young woman maturing in the face of her mother’s death and had to do so in tiny, delicately-shaded increments—to become yet another interchangeable spandex-clad action figure.

Here’s a terrific scene with co-star George Clooney from one of the best-written films of last year:

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