Written by: Erik Beck, Special to CC2K
Summer is here again (actually no it’s not, but why quibble) and with the warm weather (provided you don’t live in Boston like me) come the SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS! When everyone rushes to the multiplex! When men can be worshipped as action gods and women are nowhere! Or at least, that’s the theory according to the New York Times and AwardsDaily.com, two places I have a lot of respect for (less so for the New York Times since they still don’t have a comics page). They are using the lack of decent women’s roles in such films as a metaphor for the larger lack of women in Hollywood, both in positions of power and in good roles. But I hate to break it to you. First, the lack of good women’s roles in summer blockbusters is hardly the way to make your point. Second, we’re coming off the single best year in the history of lead performances by an actress in a leading role.
We’ll take the first point first. Let’s look at last year’s blockbusters, those six films that made the top 10 box office for 2007 and came out in the summer. First we have Spider-Man 3, a movie so badly thought out that it took one of Hollywood’s most gorgeous blondes and made her a redhead and one of its most gorgeous redheads and made her a blonde, and that was only the start of its problems. We can discount Shrek because it was animated and we can throw out Transformers because it was absolute dreck. Next come the third Pirates and, well, it gives a fun action role to one of the most beautiful women around before her star dramatic performance in the fall, thus essentially placing Keira on the same footing with Johnny. Next up comes Harry Potter and if you don’t think Emma Watson is a star, you’re watching a different set of movies than I am. The only problematic one is The Bourne Ultimatum which places Julia Stiles in the traditional role of woman to be saved. As for this year, well, we’ve already had Gwyneth have the most bizarre life-saving / sexual metaphor scene ever put on film and Karen Allen’s return to the Indiana Jones franchise. Later on we’ll have Maggie Gyllenhall, someone who can actually act, replacing Katie Holmes, who could not. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for a Wonder Woman or Justice League movie to really break the barrier, but it’s definitely making strides, and really, what will it prove when a female headlines an action movie when any no talented twit can do that (can you hear me Shia LeBouf?)?
Where the argument really breaks down is that it’s a big set-up for the annual argument that will be made closer to Oscar time that there are no good roles for women anymore. And THAT”S A BUNCH OF CRAP. I’ll say it again. We’re coming off the single best year in the history of lead performances by an actress in a leading role. I’m not a pop culture enthusiast out to support a theory. I’m a serious student of film. I’ve seen the movies. All the movies.
There have been some great years for lead performances in films, the gold standard being 1950 when we had Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and both Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve (all losing to Oscar to Judy Holliday). While that was a good long time ago, the silver standard was set in 2006, when five performances were so good that they were nominated by everyone. The critics, the Oscars, the BAFTAs, the Globes, the Satellites, the BFCA and the SAGs all agreed that Helen Mirren gave the best performance and the next four were Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz. Complete agreement and it takes five damn good performances to pull that off.
None of last year’s performances are as good as Swanson, Baxter, Davis or Mirren, but there were so many great ones, ones just as good as the other four from 2006, the list just keeps getting longer the more I think about it. Marion Cotilliard won the Oscar (in case you already forgot since you didn’t know who she was anyway) and she was fantastic, sinking herself into Edith Piaf’s tortured soul, transforming from siren to addict, from star to phantom. But not only would I have not given her the Oscar last year, I wouldn’t have nominated her. She doesn’t make my top five. Cate Blanchett, so quickly becoming not only the best actress of her generation, but rivaling Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn as the best actress of any generation was riveting in her return as Elizabeth. Nikki Blonsky was a breath of fresh air from the second she belted out “Good Morning Baltimore”. Anamaria Marinca was haunting and desperate in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, doing things for a friend that 99% of people wouldn’t do even for themselves and seeming believable through every dark turn. In every other year recently, Naomi Watts has reminded us that she is as beautiful and talented as any actress working today. (2001, Mulholland Drive, 2003, 21 Grams, 2005, King Kong, 2007, Eastern Promises). Wei Tang made the kind of debut in Lust, Caution that can often guarantee lifetime employment. Helena Bonham Carter proved that she can sing, act, bring amazing range to every role and that pasty white people should never wear a swimsuit. Laura Linney proved that for someone who is over the age of forty, was never drop dead gorgeous and doesn’t wear alluring clothing, you can still be unbelievably sexy, and even more so for consistently playing the kind of intelligent characters you would want to be attracted to. And none of these made my top five. That’s what kind of year this was.
Starting out the top five is Keira Knightly, already established as an action star in summer blockbusters, and reminding us again in Atonement that she can truly and powerfully act. Next up is Amy Adams, showing that she can play a princess as well as a southern housewife. The third on the list is Ellen Page, who has been in a summer blockbuster (X-Men United), can hold the screen in any dirty fight (Hard Candy) and can anchor a brilliantly witty movie, which happens to have been written by a woman (one of the record four Oscar nominated scripts written by a female). The fourth on the list is Julie Christie, one of the screen’s greatest living actresses, in a brilliantly underrated film written by and directed by a talented young actress’ debut. And my top choice for Best Actress last year? Angelina Jolie. She’s already shown she can star in an action movie (Tomb Raider), is the lead in one of the best looking films this summer (Wanted), and, when she wants to, can be one of the best actresses in the world. Her performance as Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart was the most emotionally devastating performance of the year.
It will be a great day when we don’t have to worry about this gender line anymore. It’s great that TCM already lists people as an actor no matter the gender. Hollywood should have more woman in positions of higher power. There should be more female directors. But let’s cut this argument off at the knees before it ever comes up. There are women in these blockbusters (at least the ones worth seeing) and more and more they are hired for their ability to act as much as the ability to look beautiful. And there are great roles for women still in films.