Ellen Page. Shailene Woodley. Anna Paquin. Elle Fanning. Dakota Fanning. Julia Stiles. Jessica Chastain. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jennifer Connelley. Virginia Madsen. Connie Nielsen. Many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Female stars in Hollywood have a disturbing tendency to be around for a few films, and then disappear into either minor roles or, at best, franchise series.
Of course this happens to the men too, and there are plenty of hot new leading male stars who have disappeared. But it seems to me the phenomenon is more common with young women.
Women seem to be more dispensable in modern filmmaking. Their parts are often more stock—yes, even if they’re an ass-kicking superhero or supervillain like Scarlett Johansson or Kate Beckinsale or Margot Robbie. Face it, it’s easy to replace one with another. Margot won’t do it, call Charlize Theron.
That makes a great payday but at the same time building a career is tough. How many actresses recently have, after their breakout picture, gone on to varied performances lately, besides Jennifer Lawrence, and that may be only because David O. Russell loves her. A few others come to mind—Michelle Williams, Keira Knightly—but not many.
Some say this is deliberate on the part of studios. It helps keep budgets down. Productions are less inclined to pay $15 million for a Julia Roberts when they can have a current “it” girl for four or five. Though they still spend upwards of $180 million on epic films, they aren’t doing it as often as they once did.
The biggest reason is simply it’s hard to find well-written lead roles for women—roles where they aren’t arm-candy to the male leads, or the damsel who has to be rescued. Sure there are a few bad-assers out there, like Michelle Rodriguez and Daisy Ridley, but those bad-assers have no depth. They’re as two-dimensional as the action figures they help sell.
So every few years we’re treated to a string of new “breakout” talents who take the world by storm with a tremendous performance in what I’m going to controversially call a legitimate film—Jessica Chastain in Zero-Dark-Thirty, Ellen Page in Juno, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby—and then they either don superhero outfits or disappear altogether. Or both in succession.
It’s hard to develop acting talent when that’s your talent pool—superhero characters. It leads to a very infantile set of options for serious artists. And maybe that’s why the stars in Hollywood don’t quite shine as brightly—or as long—as they once did, not long ago. Hollywood today caters to teenagers and overseas box offices. And both are very fickle.
For several drafts of Entertaining Welsey Shaw I had wanted to state that Welsey was walking away from acting—basically retiring before she was 30—in large part because there were few “properties” as they call them today that she was interested in because they were mindless junk. I didn’t want to say it quite as blatantly as I did just now. I’m a firm believer in the adage if you want to send a message, use Western Union.
So my way of dealing with it was to have her mention that in the first half of her career only a few of her movies were shown on airlines, and in the second half most of them were. When was the last time you saw a really really great film being shown as the in-flight movie? Personally I never pay for the earphones to watch those films, though I’d pay for earplugs to block them out.
Welsey retires from movies because, after establishing herself with some serious films, works of art (the big gamechanger for her is a Miramax-style arthouse flick called Mystery at Alessandro Creek) she finds herself struggling to get other films of that caliber. She gets some, but mostly it’s brain-dead comedies and action or horror flicks.
I thought of this today when seeing the reviews for the “reboot,” to use the term the industry loves, of Total Recall. This new version features female stars Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, both of whom made their impact in legitimate, “literary” arthouse movies. Beckinsale first attracted our attention with Kenneth Branaugh’s Much Ado About Nothing, and Biel started out in the unusual drama Ulee’s Gold. It’s an interesting dynamic that I see all actors today going through, and in my novel Welsey suffers from it too: break in by making a couple “serious” (real) movies to establish acting credibility. Then, once the world knows your face, go on to make mindless, cape-wearing video game films. Claire Danes is the only actress I can think of who more or less has escaped this fate—we’ll just turn our heads and pretend Terminator 3 didn’t really happen.
Since Ulee’s Gold, Biel has been in a long line of awful comedies. But Beckinsale has been the real sell-out. She’s spent the last ten years mostly in leather catsuits of various sorts, being an action hero(ine) in practically every film, kick-boxing and karate-chopping her way from scene to scene and role to role. I know good roles in Hollywood are hard to come by. But Beckinsale in particular doesn’t seem to want to work terribly hard, unless you consider kicking faux villains in ridiculously tight suitsto be hard work, and I suppose on some level it is. There’s no acting involved. (I still like the way the baddies come at our heroes one at a time and take incredibly long amounts of time to react, just as they did on the 1960s “Batman” TV campfest.) You just have to look cool and sexy as you deliver a string of “cutting” one-liners.
The reviews are in for the newest Total Recall, and they’re awful. As this interesting article points out, the assemblage of cast and crew gathers the untalented and the remarkably even more untalented. They have been involved in strings of weak or underperforming products, both critically and commercially. Yet they don’t seem to have trouble finding work. Jessica Alba? She can’t even act at the level of a student in the high school play. And Becksale’s hubby directed this thing. That’s something that’s occurring more and more: wives in husband’s projects, or the same few “beer buddies” making films, the same films, over and over again to give each other employment. This isn’t like when auteurs such as Altman and Allen and Fellini and Bergman used many of the same actors repeatedly, as part of a theater company-like cast. These are just the cool kids, the popular kids, making closed-door deals that are the same as their last ten projects, to studios which don’t even seem interested in making movies anymore. Gaming companies are actually on the payroll to dictate content on many of these films now. Hasbro has particularly jumped on board. I’ve read a Tonka Trucks movie is in the works. Seriously. But why not, when there was Speed Racer? Remember that supersized bomb? Well, fear not, a sequel’s in the works.
So in the end of my novel Welsey basically, except for a supporting role in a film here and there, made on her time at her convenience, abandons movies. I think it’s the smartest thing she does in the novel. She realizes, without exactly articulating it (Western Union again), that what we have instead of movie studios are closed frat-houses of childishness. And basically dumb audiences happy to spend lots of money to see their product. And even if you aren’t, no matter, they’ll just get the greenlight to make more anyway until they beat you into submission. This is all you’re getting, so you’d better go see it or have nothing to do. And then no one will want to talk to you. (“You didn’t see XXX? Why not?”)
This past weekend I was in a Baja Fresh restaurant in Tahoe and one of the selections they had for soda was, lo and behold, Coke Zero. I was gratified, because it actually tastes very much like “real” Coke, something they never got right in the older Diet Coke formulation. Yet despite this, few restaurants carry it.
A slim and trim woman ahead of me said she hated Diet Coke. Her husband or boyfriend or whomever she was with pointed out the Coke Zero and said how good it was. “Yeah,” she commented, “but I always get Diet Coke.” And so she stuck her cup under the spigot and got it again. So it is with movies today. Most of them are going to be terrible and a waste of money, but enough people will go anyway, because, well, they always have.
I read recently that a planned movie version of A Confederacy of Dunces, the 1980 John Kennedy Toole novel that won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, was canceled. The person reporting the news was disappointed. Personally I am not. But I can assure you that Anchorman 2 and the sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop are humming along right on schedule.