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?




4 responses

6 01 2010

I want to add something to this conversation, but frankly, I’m too busy geeking out on the whole mormō she-monster thing.

Ok, I literally stopped after typing the above, put on my make-up, started baking something, thought about it for awhile — and I still have nothing, or nobody, to add.

And this makes me unhappy! I can’t think of a single female actor who I would describe as formidable. I think that we don’t foster formidable-ness in our actors (not even the men), because too many people are afraid of scaring away ticket-buyers. This feels related (in my mind at least!) to my recent realization that if It’s a Wonderful Life were made today, Mr. Potter would be arrested, and George Bailey would win a round-trip cruise. Formidable requires edges and uncertainty — and we seem to want things (and people) to be smooth, neat, and certain.

Now excuse me, I have to go listen to some Bonnie Raitt or Beth Ditto. THEY are formidable.

6 01 2010

The question I kept wondering throughout this post is whether you’re looking for the actors themselves to be formidible women, or for the characters they play to be such. There’s a fundamental schism there, because actors are, generally, very needy people. They perform because they need to be watched, or they desire the accolades, or they thrive on the attention being paid to them while on stage or before the camera. But many actors are very shy, and “needyness” isn’t generally a trait one would expect in a formidable woman.

All that aside: what about Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley?

6 01 2010

GH: What, you couldn’t find the straight line through that switchback-meandering post? What kinda reader are you?

I guess I want both. Maybe Rosaline Russell was needy—but I don’t want to know that. Gimme some distance, some mystery.

Maybe that’s no longer possible in a 24/7 media environment; I guess I’ll have to settle for the roles.

And yeah, both the actor (S Weaver) and the role of Ripley occurred to me after I posted.

Mizz Emily, I’ve heard of Beth Ditto, but didn’t know about her beyond her rep. I’m listening to her (via your post) as I write this. Niiiiiice.

And yeah, everything’s got to be smoothed out and over and the hard-ass’s heart has to melt and the bad guys have to get their comeuppance and no complexity allowed! Because that’s not, like, you know, what real life is like AT ALL.

7 01 2010

More than just the 24/7 media thing, we’re into knowing people these days. Sometimes literally crawling up their asses. Mystique doesn’t sell the trash magazines, doesn’t keep the star in the minds of the fans.

I’ve been thinking about the death of feminine mystique lately. I’m not sorry I never learned all that bullsh*t – seeems like too much work, with a definite expiration date, keeping the process behind being lovely and mysterious and desirable, hidden from sight. But it’s an art, and it’s passed or passing.

I’m sure the culture will swing back to respecting people’s privacy – someday. Until then, anything that discourages approach will simply be ignored.

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