Friday, May 9, 2008

Women On Top of Their Game

Note: the author is a twenty-year Hollywood veteran actor, writer, film maker. He earned these insights.


By Lars Beckerman

Some of the most courageous performances I’ve ever seen on film have been by women. Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence; Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice; Charlize Theron in Monster; Bjork in Dancer in the Dark; Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. Just to name a few that moved me.

It’s no secret that women have it rough in Hollywood. With a premium placed on looks and youth, the proverbial window of opportunity for actresses is much slimmer than for that of their masculine counterparts. Having said that, it is a good time for women in movies and there are more than a few that are taking on meaty roles and knocking them out of the park.

After years and years of honing my craft in a variety of acting classes focused on a variety of acting techniques, it has become abundantly clear which emotional and physical obstacles are uniform to the two sexes. Men struggle with vulnerability on stage and most cannot access that emotional well that springs forth the tears. Or simply put, most male actors can’t cry on cue. Women, on the other hand, have a hard time with allowing themselves to be unattractive, and most hit a brick wall when the material requires them to get angry -- really angry. Or simply put, female actors hold back on anger. Examples: Andy Garcia goes ballistic in every role he plays because it’s available to him. Rene Zelwegger cries every chance she gets because it’s available to her.

One actress who has demonstrated that anger is not an obstacle is Cate Blanchett. See either of her Elizabeth performances to glimpse her gravitas or watch how adeptly she slipped into the manipulative skin of Notes on a Scandal or the elitist affectations that won her an Oscar portraying Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator. But Blanchett is so good, has the pick of all the plum roles (33 films in ten years!), and is universally adored, so let’s skip her and get to a few others that might not have your respect.

Last year we were treated to a couple of performances from two of our best actresses that are worth mentioning.

Laura Linney more than held her own opposite Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages. Linney is always good, whether she is playing a buttoned up, no-nonsense Federal agent in Breach or an overly-compassionate, floundering thirty something in You Can Count on Me. Her work is always motivated and emotionally rich and the good news is that her best roles are probably still in front of her. Also last year, Nicole Kidman uncorked her most unsympathetic role to date in Margot at the Wedding. She plays a narcissistic writer who criticizes and belittles everyone, including her doting son who melts at the mercy of her approval. This aint Mommy Dearest – but in some ways it worse. Because it’s so real. It took years for me to take Kidman seriously, even after her convincingly diabolical work in To Die For. It wasn’t until she dazzled in Moulin Rouge! that I looked closer and saw the depth and range. The woman can flat out act, and I can think of no emotional truth that intimidates her.

Two more actresses that have floored me in recent years are Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington. Watts was a revelation in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in what was, in essence, a dual role. First as the na├»ve, wide-eyed Betty eager to please all and conquer Hollywood with good old fashioned sweetness. But the third act of this brilliant film reveals the true character to be a heartbroken, bitter, suicidal wreck who has been chewed up and spit out by the dream factory. She nails both and in one film announced that she is an emotional tour de force to be reckoned with. While Jack Black may have been miscast in Peter Jackson’s monumental achievement King Kong, Watts was perfectly cast as Ann Darrow, believably falling for Kong and giving the film the emotional core necessary for its challenging, leap of faith execution.

To get a feel for the range and depth of Kerry Washington look no further than two films. Her gentle yet uncompromising work opposite Jamie Foxx in Ray was crucial to not only the success of the story, but to Foxx’s Oscar winning performance, which was superb. But then check her out as the strung out Puerto Rican bi-sexual hooker in the small (meaning nobody saw it) film The Dead Girl. Talk about range. This woman is drop dead gorgeous, and like Theron’s Oscar winning work in Monster and Halle Berry’s Oscar winning work in Monster’s Ball (not the sequel to Monster), here we have an actress fighting to claim her slot in the somewhat fly-by-night ingenue category, throwing off the gloves and getting filthy. Mucho kudos to all three of these fetching covergirl sirens for walking past the makeup trailer. Unfortunately, Theron and Berry have had a hard time following up those great roles with anything of substance. Maybe there’s more money in cosmetics commercials.

Like I said, it’s rougher for women.

I finally saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and to be honest, it didn’t grab me, my wife or my mother-in-law. Fascinating and tragic story to be sure, but as a film it came up short emotionally. I couldn’t help but compare it to My Left Foot. No comparison.

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