You got me shakin’ in my go go boots

6 01 2010

for·mi·da·ble /ˈfor-məd-ə-bəl also for-̍mid- or fər-̍mid-\adj [ME, fr. L formidabilis, fr. fordimare to fear, fr. formido fear; akin to Gk mormō she-monster] (15c) 1 : causing fear, dread, or apprehension <a ~ prospect> 2 : having qualities that discourage approach or attack  3 : tending to inspire awe or wonder

It’s a fine word, don’t you think? Tending to inspire awe or wonder—excellent.

And the whole mormō she-monster thing? Perfect!

Which feeds quite nicely into today’s question: Where are all the formidable women in film?

There are a few in politics—hell, just about any woman in politics, left or right, has to be formidable, if she’s to be taken seriously.

No, Sarah Palin is not formidable.

Formidable women all over academia. Good luck getting tenure without having qualities that discourage approach or attack.

But in film?

We had no problems with women of past decades: Rosalind Russell, Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis. Lauren Bacall is still around, but she’s really of a previous era.

But today? S. and I were stumped.

Cate Blanchett, we decided. Perhaps Kate Winslet.

Anne Hathaway could become formidable, depending upon her willingness to withdraw herself.

‘Maybe we just need more actors named Kate,’ S. suggested. We agreed, however, that Kate Hudson was not formidable.

We didn’t quite define formidable, but there was some notion of distance, even regality. Any sexuality couldn’t be too far forward, and any weaknesses not gladly—or at all—discussed.

The sexuality ruled out Susan Sarandon. She keeps her personal life to herself, but even at sixty she can threaten to light others on fire.

Jane Fonda? Too talky about herself.

Oh, and this is problem for contemporary formidability: If the actors are gabbing away on The View or making themselves in any way approachable or, goddess forbid, friendly, forget it. We gotta be a bit afraid.

There are a couple of African-American character actors I can think of who could make me shake in my boots (Jenifer Lewis, Janet Hubert [she played the original mom on Fresh Prince of Bel Air]), but neither is a star.

Maybe Phylicia Rashad, especially since she’s moved to the stage. She’s gotten some distance from Claire Huxtable, but even Claire was less cuddly than Cliff.

I was in the midst of writing this yesterday when my friend T. called.

Perfect timing: T. is a theatre maniac, and watches plenty of movies. She immediately suggested Judi Dench, though I thought she might be too approachable.

Marion Cotillard, she said. Have you seen La Vie En Rose? You have to see it, she said.

Then she mentioned Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren. Oh, yes, I agreed. And Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant. Isabelle Huppert, she suggested.

(Which reminds me: Watch Huit Femmes—a campy delight with Catherine, er, Mesdames Deneuve, Ardant, and Huppert.)

Tilda Swinton scares the hell out of me, though she’s a bit odd, and a bit smug about her oddness.

Miranda Richardson. Perhaps Kristin Scott Thomas.

Of course, all of these women are European, and work for European directors. Might be something to that.

Oh, what about Anne Bancroft, T. said. (Yes! But also of a previous generation.) Or Helena Bonham-Carter. Eh, I said.

Angelina Jolie? Too sexual. And too eccentric (which might also disqualify Bonham-Carter, tho’ T. disagrees).

Shirley MacLaine? Um, that eccentricity thing. . . .

Allison Janey? Perhaps. Bea Arthur? Absolutely!

Audra MacDonald, T. thought. We both sighed a bit over Audra, and I admitted to a bit of a crush on her.

Still, even crushing as I am on Ms. MacDonald is, I don’t know that she can pull off formidable in her personage—tho’ her talent clearly is formidable.

We pondered the effect of the stage: That women who’ve performed in the theatre have learned something about presence which is unique to live performance.

Still, it’s not as if Broadway has gone anywhere, so, again the question: Where are all the formidable women in film?

T. theorized: Because the kinds of movies which are produced today aren’t like the ones which produced a Hepburn or a Russell. T. argued that because women in the forties and fifties were not liberated, i.e., they lived dull lives at home, they wanted something different when they went to the movies. They wanted, even needed, those strong women on screen.

Today, T. shrugged, it’s not necessary, and, more importantly, doesn’t make enough money for the studios to justify making those types of films.

I don’t sign on to all of T.’s sociological analysis—this liberated chickie loves to watch strong women—but I do think there is a connection between the roles and the actors. Maybe—probably—Rosalind Russell was nothing like Auntie Mame or the Mother Superior in The Trouble With Angels, but she was able to occupy fully all the space that those roles allowed, and they allowed a lot of space.

There are still the occasional (American) roles like that—Amanda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, for example—but not much else. (And it’s not as if Meryl Streep cultivates hauteur.)

Joan Allen in The Contender and the Bourne movies?

There’s M—who Dench owns—in the Bond movies. CJ Cregg from The West Wing.

Any other roles which inspire fear and awe? Any other actors who inspire fear and awe?

Or has the era of the formidable woman come and gone? Katie Roiphe had a faintly (tho’ not-quite-wholly) ridiculous piece in recently in the Times on the passing of a particular kind of absurdly virile male; maybe those—is there a distaff version of virile?—female roles have also been exhausted.

Or maybe the mormō just needs to be resurrected. If she’s managed to last a few millenia, why not a few years more?