Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Panty Shield: or That Whole Sex Thing


So, I got some unsolicited feedback on my short story Miriam (Surreal South '09) recently. They were disappointed that Miriam wasn't a "strong" character. First, I thanked them for spending their own money on the book and taking the time to read my story - I really appreciate it - and then I said "Are you kidding?" Girl's strong like I wish I were.

"But she's a victim."

"You just mean people do some awful things to her. But she keeps getting back up. That's tough. That's strength."

But frankly, I don't get the whole wish for "strong" characters. I mean, I do, but strength is only interesting when it's juxtaposed with weakness or frailty. I've never been interested in Superman y'know? If he's invincible, where's the drama?

I got similar feedback after a screening of Mosquito Kingdom. People said things like "You have some interesting issues with women." To which I replied, "Why do you say that?" "Because they got beat up. Killed." "So did the dudes." "Yeah, but..."

But nothing.

I was watching a commentary track that featured four of the female cast members on an episode of The Shield’s third season, (incidentally, they dubbed their session The Panty Shield - not me) recently. They were discussing their careers and their shared experiences as women and actors. They counted themselves fortunate to be involved with the show and each recounted hearing from and sympathizing with other actresses about the lack of “strong” roles available for women. C.C.H. Pounder spoke up and said, I don’t want a “strong” role, I want an interesting one. Here here. Who craves a “strong” role, anyway? Wouldn’t you say that Steven Seagal plays “strong” roles? Is that what you want? Really?

Over at Ransom Notes I’ve given a list of books I’d like to see adapted to film featuring good lead roles for women by Sara Gran, Katie Estill, Megan Abbott, Theresa Schwegel, Sophie Littlefield and Vicki Hendricks. And yeah, we all love to pick on Hollywood, especially on Oscar weekend, but the following are some examples of film makers and actresses who’ve done some really great work recently.

The flat out best surprise I’ve had from a movie in the last year was Tilda Swinton as the title character in Julia directed by Erick Zonca. And she is far from strong, folks. Julia is a mess, an alcoholic party girl nearing the end of the party. When she loses her job, she’s forced to take stock of her life and it aint pretty. One night she passes out outside of her apartment and wakes up in the neighbor’s place. A desperate neighbor, with a plan to get her own life back on track and make a little money too – all she needs is a partner. I am absolutely not going to tell you anything else about the plot because you’ve got to see it to believe it. And don’t any of you go watch a trailer for this little gem, ‘cause they give away so much that is better experienced with a cold viewing. What I will say is that every time you think she’s hit the bottom, Julia gets out her shovel and digs further and Tilda Swinton delivers the gutsiest performance of her career, the kind that really deserves some recognition.

I first noticed Melissa Leo in 21 Grams as Benicio Del Toro’s long suffering wife. It was a small role, but she caught my eye with her something. She drew upon that same something in Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada as a diner waitress in a Texas border town cuckolding her husband alternately with TLJ and Dwight Yoakam and probably half the town, but it wasn’t until her starring role in Frozen River, (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award incidentally) that we really got the full benefit of her screen presence. She plays a woman on the ass end of New York state robbed and abandoned by her husband and quickly loosing ground in the struggle to provide for her children. She ends up partnering with a Mohawk woman smuggling human cargo into the country by driving them in her car over the movie's titular aspect. Again, I don't want to spoil plot points, but it's a great movie and a fierce performance. (Leo is who I picture as the lead in a movie version of A Bad Day For Sorry btw).

The way Famke Janssen bent over a pool table and looked at me from the cover finally convinced me to forgo my hatred of the title and rent Turn the River. It was one of those titles designed to cash in on the popularity of Texas Hold 'Em poker with a clever play on some of the game's terminology. The title paired with the image of the pool hustling hottie on the cover smacked of a "hip" movie desperately trying to achieve Color of Money cool, but thank god, the film didn't deliver on those promises. It's a drama that does feature a gambling/hustling hottie, but those elements are not the focus of the pic. Janssen plays a woman recently released from prison, (she went down for running an illegal card game) just trying to make ends meet. She's got to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. Figuring into her figuring are an asshole ex and his full custody of their son who she can see only when she sets up clandestine appointments with him. It's a little movie. Solid, if not spectacular, (a balance I appreciate).

Couple of others I'll toss out there - Ashley Judd in William Friedkin's Bug. Always knew she was hot, but holy shit, she'd kept her "acting" talents a secret for a long time. It was a role that demanded a lot of her and she delivers big time. She fuckin went there, man. Not a perfect movie, in fact I think I read somewhere that it was the most critically reviled picture of the last ten years, but I loved it. Samantha Morton too, is one of those actresses that I sense is up for anything and though I haven't seen her in a leading role yet, she's great in pics like Woody Allen's Sweet and Low Down, Jesus' Son, (from the Dennis Johnson book) and Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 - who says sci-fi has to be "big"? That one deserves another look.

10 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

Top post. 'Strong' is pretty meangless an adjective when used to descibe a human being, I think.

The Segal point is well made.

Samantha Morton is great in this http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0300214/

jedidiah ayres said...

Paul - Morvern Callar completely slipped my mind. That was a really odd little movie and that final image of her w/ The Mammas and the Pappas song playing, (is my memory right?) was really haunting....

somebody alert The Nerd

pattinase (abbott) said...

Michelle Williams: Wendy and Lucy.

jedidiah ayres said...

Yeah Patti - I liked that one a lot. Didn't blow me away, but was a great example of micro-budget film making that made virtues out of it's limitations and she was terrific in it. Good for her.

Iren said...

If you haven't I highly suggest you go back and check out Melissa Leo in the first couple of seasons of Homicide-- where she is really exploring what it is to be a woman in a world where you have to be strong. It's amazing stuff.

I think that Adrianne Palicki (from Friday Night Lights) plays tough really well, in fact I think she would be perfect in a film version of Robert Fate's Baby Shark.

Over all I agree with you that strong is more about getting back up and doing what you have to. Kicking ass and getting revenge are good as well, but it is living dispite the hard knocks that really makes someone strong.

jedidiah ayres said...

Y'know, I'd completely forgotten about her in Homicide. There were so many great participants in that show - how bout Edie Falco? - I guess she got lost in the shuffle. Not familiar with Palicki, I'll keep my eyes open.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Bad Day for Sorry's Stella could go a lot of ways:

Emily Blunt (but you'd have to wait too long)
Yuen Qiu (but then the film would never get funded)
Jodi Foster (if you can get her to stop relying so heavily on her vulnerable look.)
Frances McDormand (not sure Coens should direct)
Charlize Theron
Felicity Huffman (watch her in Sports Night)
Angela Bassett
Denise Crosby
Adrienne Barbeau (I saw her 3 years ago -- she was 60 but looked 40!!!!)
Linda Hamilton

Casting against type:

Michelle Yeoh

sorry, I adore Stella. She could be played so many different ways!

Keith Rawson said...

I call it 'erin brockovich' syndrome.(Basically where the female lead gets to act like a bitch or the guy gets to act like an asshole) They're not strong female roles, they're pointless pointless politically correct pap that the film industry and movie critics go bugshit for. It's not acting, it's attitude.

Speaking of strong female roles and 21 grams, Naomi Watts tore herself to shreds for that role. It was the last performance that actually brought a tear to my eye while watching it.

And Julia was the shit, Tilda Swinton is one of the best actresses currently performing.

jedidiah ayres said...

Mysti - wow, Denise Crosby... 20 years ago you're speaking my language... what's she doing these days?

Keith - good usage on the term "bugshit"

Rod Norman said...

First one that popped into my mind was Melissa Leo in Frozen River, and another Ashley Judd film "Come Early Morning" directed by Chasing Amy's, Joey Lauren Adams who happens to live in Oxford,Ms. now.