Easy one first: name a great woman actor. Got one? Got a hundred? It’s a doddle. Straight off the top of my head, I immensely admire Jodie Foster, Judi Dench, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Emily Mortimer, Allison Janney, Helen Hunt, Alison Pill, if I say any more I’ll itch to sort them into alphabetical order. And anyway, you’ve got your own list.
But now name a great role for a woman. You can do it, each of these women has had a least one tremendous role or I wouldn’t know to admire them, wouldn’t know they are as talented as they are.
Yet most of the time the woman’s role is as nothing more than being the unattainable object for the hero, who attains her by the end anyway. For instance, I just watched Se7en for a thriller-writing course run by Script in the West Midlands and, watching it as a writer, I kept wondering why Gwyneth Paltrow took the part she did. It’s a great film and the parts for the leads, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are tremendous, but Paltrow is a big name and it’s a tiny part.
How did Kim Basinger get an Oscar for LA Confidential? I’m not saying she was poor, but what did she actually have to do in the film? How did Judi Dench get an Oscar for thirty seconds of screen time in Shakespeare in Love?
Those two films are exceptions for me because both parts were fine, they just didn’t have much to them. Whereas the majority of time, I find that as a viewer, I am prone to slapping my forehead. Particularly when the hero says he’s going “to get the girl”. I can’t help it: I immediately hear him saying that today he’s got to pick up the laundry, wash the car, get to the post office before 3pm and, oh, yes, collect the girl. Whoever she is in the story, she’s not a person, she’s not a character, she’s a UPS parcel.
Yes, I’m pro-feminist. I think it’s embarrassing that there’s only one woman in the new British Government cabinet. It’s bad that I can’t bear her, but embarrassing too. But I don’t slap my forehead from some ideological idea, I do it because this accepted norm of the woman as “the girl” to get is crippling to drama.
Follow. The hero falls for a “perfect” woman. Already she’s boring me, but still, let’s go with it. The hero is someone this woman would never look at and yet without him actually changing into someone worth being glanced over, she is required to change her mind by the end of the story. Usually this involves the hero doing something for 90 minutes when she isn’t even in the room. We know nothing about her, we care nothing about her, she isn’t actually anything: certainly not a character of any low number of dimensions. There’s a good chance she’s blonde. I wouldn’t count on her wearing much in the way of a costume.
But if you don’t care about this unattainable object that the hero is striving to attain, it’s hard to keep your mind on the hero’s striving. Hard to get behind a hero who’s so shallow that this empty life-size poster of a woman is his ultimate goal.
So a will-they/won’t-they tale rapidly becomes, for me, a will-he/why-would-she story. Then it’s a who-is-she story, penultimately a who-is-he tale, then a what’s-on-the-other-side-kind-of-drama.
There’s always something on the other side. I’m just grumbling at you today because so much of it appears to be like this and I can’t understand how all drama, all writers, all producers aren’t grabbing talent. I actually can’t understand why there are so many talented women actors when this is what’s on offer for them.
Except, of course, when everything works. I only recently saw Emily Mortimer and Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie: a beautiful gem of a film by Andrea Gibb with real women, real men, real characters.
I can well see why women would want to act in drama like that. Because I want to write drama like that.