Style and substance

A critical look at the TV and film roles for women

Before she tamed the King of Siam or steamed up the surf with Burt Lancaster, the late Deborah Kerr found herself required to be little more than "decorative" on the Hollywood screen. Contemporary film roles for female actors are not likely to provoke such a lament; in a perhaps fitting inversion, the purely ornamental roles have for the most part been marginalized to the realm of horror porn, a far cry -- or bloodcurdling scream -- from Ms. Kerr's white gloves and high-mindedness.

Roles on offer for female actors cover a broad range, although mainstream cinema hasn't entirely shaken off the taint of high-mindedness. Still, in a year when Cate Blanchett plays Bob Dylan, and Jodie Foster -- who once had her own onscreen go-round with Thai royalty -- plays Charles Bronson, there's no denying that those white gloves are a thing of the past.

Or of our reimagined past. Digging behind the retro veneer, the 1960s-set AMC series "Mad Men" plays tantalizingly with sexual politics and offers some of the most compelling roles for women to hit the small screen in years. Within that heady cultural moment now fashionably known as midcentury, the show takes young women into the rarefied and seamy atmosphere of the Madison Avenue workplace, a scotch-fueled dream machine -- or finds them gloomy on the appliance-bedecked home front. Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and January Jones get under the surface of the shockingly dated types they play, their characters navigating the ashtray-littered conference rooms and state-of-the-art kitchens, '50s primness meeting the forward leap of modernism in a big, bold American way.

All bets are off for propriety or primness in "The Brave One," which takes the American dream into obvious nightmare territory and uses violence as a transformative force. It's not the first time the movies have given us a female killer, but the film's questionable brand of vigilante justice benefits from Foster's work in the title role. An actress who brings a singular blend of physicality and intelligence to her work, she draws us inside the experience of victimhood and revenge, even if "The Brave One" is only a button-pushing scenario masquerading as a thinking person's "Death Wish." The way Foster owns the screen, though, makes one hope she'll pursue roles that bring true depth to action.

For consummate actors like Foster and Blanchett, who happen also to be movie stars with whom the camera lens is infatuated, the very shorthand of their onscreen impact can also leave audiences feeling shortchanged -- dazzled and duped into involvement with inferior material. The sole virtue of "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" is the chance to see Blanchett modeling Alexandra Byrne's lavish costumes and to hear her honeyed delivery of underwhelming dialogue. Blanchett might have enjoyed taking on this imperious impersonation, but when the lights come up, we're left with little more than the aftertaste of schlock.

Far more engaging and a few centuries removed is Blanchett's Jude in "I'm Not There," a role that is in many ways more concerned with surfaces than her Elizabeth and yet carries considerably more resonance. As the Dylan who taunted London in 1967's "Don't Look Back" and scandalized folk purists by plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival, Blanchett is an artist playing an artist who's self-consciously playing a part. More earnest but less convincing, "Lust, Caution" attempts to do something similar, delving into the matter of false fronts, with Tang Wei giving it her all, in more ways than one, as an amateur actress-turned-spy.

What animates and connects the pieces of Todd Haynes' Dylan puzzle is the unknowable essence behind them. Aptly impressionistic -- like "Chronicles: Volume One," Dylan's first book of memoirs -- the film plays with surfaces, Dylan's and Blanchett's luminous androgyny not least among them. It offers impersonation and posturing as an invigorating antidote to psychologizing.

Though Haynes' portrait of a pop-culture genius is, by definition, not entirely satisfying, his chance-taking is a welcome departure from the by-the-numbers biopics of musicians that audiences have come to expect. Somewhere in between is "La Vie en Rose," a heartfelt mess of a film that nonetheless showcases one of the most extraordinary performances of recent years, Marion Cotillard's visceral and shattering portrayal of Edith Piaf.

At the polar extreme from the unexacting exuberance of "La Vie" is another film about a musical star, "Control." In this small-scale gem of kitchen-sink realism, centering on the brief life of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, Samantha Morton provides a memorable turn as Curtis' teenage wife. Ten years and many complex characters since Morton's breathtaking work in "Under the Skin," the role of Deborah Curtis is a bracing reminder of just how young this fine actress still is. As the blushing, down-to-earth muse to a latter-day Romantic poet, she grounds the story.

The part is also a good example of how much a talented actress can do with a supporting role, particularly in films where male characters predominate. Catherine Keener's off-the-grid earth mother in "Into the Wild" gives us a whole life in a few scenes. In the modern-day Shakespearean tragedy "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," Marisa Tomei creates a vividly passive catalyst, a would-be Lady Macbeth who's half-heartedly searching for a way out of her marital ennui. In "Michael Clayton," Tilda Swinton plays what could have been a cardboard villain in lesser hands, her corporate baddie revealing herself in minor-key details, the sort of off-center observations that compel a viewer to look deeper: the way she lays out her panty hose and dated executive wear on the bed; the way she takes refuge, as though cornered, in the office restroom.

"In the Valley of Elah" gives few lines of dialogue to Susan Sarandon as a grieving military wife, but she infuses those lines and their attendant silence with volumes worth of heartbreak and regret: the story of a girl, a woman, a marriage. Even as she shows us the full weight of her character's emotions, Sarandon refuses to sentimentalize or make a hero of her. Not all aggrieved mothers are people we like: As the mother of a missing child, and someone who has never been in danger of occupying a parenthood pedestal, Amy Ryan delivers a breakthrough performance in "Gone Baby Gone." Ryan inhabits the role of a negligent mother with such ferocious commitment that she's transformed; for comparison, see her brief portrayal of a perpetually pissed-off ex-wife in "Before the Devil."

Such capsule portraits often carry an emotional charge that's disproportionate to their screen time. As a few of this year's higher-profile films demonstrate, if a lead role is thinly conceived or rests upon cliches rather than character specifics, even the most expert actor will be hard-pressed to create a full-blooded individual. This is especially true when it comes to characters who are defined by their maternal instinct, an aspect of personality that many screenwriters still depict in broad strokes.

Of this year's crop of awards-oriented roles for actresses, the least interesting are those that pit a maternal figure against tragic circumstances: Halle Berry's stunned widow in "Things We Lost in the Fire," the unlikely ally of a down-and-out junkie; Jennifer Connelly's grieving mother in "Reservation Road," valiantly standing on the side of life as her husband succumbs to obsessive grief; Reese Witherspoon's pregnant wife in "Rendition," a quietly determined crusader against the dark forces of secret government activities; and, in "Rails & Ties," Marcia Gay Harden's mother manque, who spouts aphorisms and poetry's greatest hits while her resolve to die on her own terms plays out as a string of precious moments.

Ostensibly roles of substance, there's something false and dreary about these characters, however talented the women who play them. It's as though noble restraint in the face of the unspeakable is the same thing as identity. (Of the group, Berry's performance offers the most subtleties and unpredictability.) At the other end of the spectrum is the professional woman: usually icy, ruthless, efficient. Besides Swinton's attorney in "Michael Clayton," we have Meryl Streep's CIA hotshot in "Rendition." (She plays a possibly less hissable professional, a journalist, in "Lions for Lambs.") Charlize Theron's single-mother detective in "Elah" carries suggestions of untidy backstory, lending the part the kind of sketched-in colorations usually seen in male movie cops.

A professional nonpareil is the family doctor/psychotherapist Patricia Clarkson expertly plays in the willfully weird and not quite successful "Lars and the Real Girl." Her character's understated warmth, wisdom and compassion are the heart of this feel-good film's utopian vision: a doctor who respects her patients' delusions rather than medicating them into oblivion.

In the same film, Emily Mortimer puts a lovely spin on maternal effusiveness with her portrayal of the deluded central character's sister-in-law, who's happily pregnant and not above tackling the distant Lars to get his attention. The "real girl" of the title is a sex doll named Bianca, who becomes a small town's beloved do-gooder -- the vessel for everyone's most idealistic projections. That the concept works at all is a testament to storytelling manipulation as much as anything, but the contributions of Clarkson and Mortimer go a long way toward making the concept palatable.

Only occasionally does the big screen give us a character who embodies the maternal and the professional in equal measures; Angelina Jolie's pitch-perfect performance as Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart" is that rare creature: smart, accomplished, funny, self-aware, kind, focused, compassionate. From the take-charge way she conducts the search for her missing husband to her heartrending keen when she learns of his fate, she's a real, recognizable -- if extraordinary -- woman. And Jolie never uses Mariane's pregnancy as a reason to like or care about her, or as a substitute for personality.

Some of the year's strongest performances view women's lives through prisms that aren't shaped by motherhood. The thorniest of roles for any human being, the adult child/sibling, receives an exquisitely vulnerable interpretation by Laura Linney in Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages." Noah Baumbach, who gave Linney a terrific role in 2005's "The Squid and the Whale," this year delivers a less successful family drama, "Margot at the Wedding." Like "Savages," it centers on matters of sibling rivalry and longing for closeness, and though it's more off-putting than involving, it offers a chance to see two fine screen actresses, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in an intimate dramatic setting.

Kidman, who has a penchant for alternating smaller indie fare with movie-star productions, enters the realm of fantasy in "The Golden Compass," one of several high-gloss year-end screen interpretations of best-selling books. Also of note on that horizon are two films centering on women who make things happen, for good or bad: the period psychological drama "Atonement," starring Keira Knightley, and the fact-based political drama "Charlie Wilson's War," in which Julia Roberts plays an influential Houston socialite.

Another book-turned-film has given us some of the year's most affecting roles for women: Julian Schnabel's beautifully executed "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." In this true, clear-eyed tale, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) can move only his left eyelid after a devastating stroke. Three women, visions of beauty all, become angels of the realest and most poignant kind. As, respectively, the mother of his children, his speech therapist and the transcriber of his memoirs, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze and Anne Consigny recite the letters of the alphabet to the immobile patient, and in their voices we hear nothing less than an incantation, the language of hard-won miracles.

Something miraculous of another kind happens in Palme d'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." A story of dreadful bleakness and the antithesis of every bland, hopeful bromide about motherhood, the film centers on an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania. In an unforgettable performance, Anamaria Marinca plays Otilia, who quite selflessly helps her pregnant friend (the excellent Laura Vasilu) through her ordeal. By film's end, the ordeal has become Otilia's as well. And when, in the final tableau, Otilia shares a table with another character, the unspoken sorrow and outrage between them has the power of a life foretold. It's one of the most wrenching scenes in film this year, capping a searingly subtle performance. There's nothing decorative about it.
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