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.
It’s hard to think of stars as having it tough. They get everything they want. They’re rich. They’re famous. Fans stand in long times for a few seconds with them, or for them to scrawl their name on a piece of paper.
One of the themes of Entertaining Welsey Shaw is how things aren’t what they seem when it coms to people in the spotlight. Another is how stressful the lives of those who “have it all” can be.
Kristen Stewart—I refuse to call her “KStew”—has recently told a well-known magazine that for the majority of her fame, she has felt anxious, isolated, frightened.
In other words, the 25-year-old thespian has felt exactly like Welsey Anne Shaw.
“Between ages 15 and 20, it was really intense. I was constantly anxious. I was kind of a control freak. If I didn’t know how something was going to turn out, I would make myself ill, or just be locked up or inhibited in a way that was really debilitating.”
Interestingly, as with my heroine, a large part of the stress was the dichotomy between what she was and what she told she “should be,” at least to fans.
“I believe the words are, ‘accessible,’ ‘easy’ and uncomplicated,” she said. That’s how we rate our celebrities—another theme in Entertaining Welsey Shaw—is by how “accessible” they are. (How accessible was Katharine Hepburn, after all? How about Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe?)
It didn’t get easier when she got a bit older. She describes her early 20s as a “really traumatic” period that “kick-started” something in her that made her more “feral.” She was unable to trust people, and became wary of almost everybody. Many celebrities describe exactly this same experience. They all know you; you don’t know them, and don’t know who your friends are. It’s no wonder so many of them are rude, brusk, even paranoid. This is often mistaken for arrogant, entitled, haughty.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that these most extraordinary and rarified of people must be the most common folks in the room. From Shailene Woodley talking about how she took a retail job in New York between early acting gigs to Keira Knightly assuring us she lives on a modest budget despite being rich to Anna Kendrick posting self-deprecating tweets all over Twitter, stars are constantly pressured, after they make it big in the most extraordinary of careers, into assuring us they’re really not any different than they were before, and honestly, not all that terrific.
Stewart says she used her long, tousled hair as a crutch to hide from the glare of fame. She says her life changed when she cut her hair. She could no longer hide behind it. She had to reveal herself. Similar my protagonist Daniel Ferreira often comments on Welsey hiding behind her “curtain of hair.”
She says she’s better now—more confident, smarter, uncaring of what people think—but of course some of the anxiety remains.
When you live your life largely in public, it never really goes away. Just ask Welsey Shaw.
Read more of Kristen Stewart’s interview here.
Keira Knightley just might be someone who never sets foot in Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP store in search of a $2400 Christian Dior backgammon set.
Despite being fabulously wealthy, the famous British thespian says she keeps herself on a short leash, financially-speaking.
In a current interview, she claims to allow herself an allowance of only $50,000 a year.
Pretty spartan. Particularly for someone said to be worth between $40-50 million.
Keira says she feels money separates and isolates people from a lot of different experiences, different kinds of people, different ways of experiencing the world. “Some of my best most hilarious times have been in the least luxurious places.”
Keira’s not afraid to get a little down and dirty, and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about her “image.” For her wedding last year she says she wore a recycled dress first donned in 2008. It now has red wine stains down the front but she doesn’t care. “A good night is a good night,” she says.
Indeed Keira seems like the kind of gal you could put your feet up and have a beer with. I wrote about her a while back because, like my protagonist Welsey Shaw, she hangs out in cafes, incognito, observing regular people, trying not to live her life behind tinted glass. “I was followed around a lot and privacy was a huge thing for me for a long time,” she said then. “Now, I make sure that I get my private time — to sit in a café where nobody recognizes me and watch what’s going on around me.”
I often worried while writing Entertaining Welsey Shaw that no big celebrity would really be interested in relating to the lives of ordinary people. I’ve since realized this isn’t the man-bites-dog scenario I once thought. Stars from Claire Danes to Jennifer Lawrence to Shailene Woodley to Keira Knightley have shown that, while sure they have enviable jobs most of us can only dream of, they are not as far removed from the real world as, well, some other big celebrities appear to be.
Furthermore, they think that’s just fine. Often the most secure people realize they don’t need to be divas to appear to be awesome.
Perhaps this is a new trend in Hollywood?
Read more about Keira’s full interview here.
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.
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: