Illuminating real-life women challenging for female actors


As a collagen-enhanced actress in 1996's "The First Wives Club," Goldie Hawn famously lamented that "there are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy."

Things perhaps haven't changed all that much in the decade since that comedy was released. It's often the case that when critics are compiling their year-end lists, they find a surfeit of noteworthy male performances and somewhat fewer standouts on the distaff side. The men aren't more talented -- they simply have a greater number of complex roles from which to choose.

Helen Mirren, who as Britain's reigning monarch has delivered one of this year's finest performances by any actor, has suggested in interviews that film and TV roles for female actors will grow more interesting as women become more visible in the upper echelons of public life. Although domestic dramas can offer their own rich rewards, there's no question that getting women out of the house, as it were, is a crucial step toward imagining and depicting compelling characters.

Working from a sharp script doesn't hurt, either, and that's certainly the case for Mirren and director Stephen Frears in Miramax's October release "The Queen," with Peter Morgan's smart, funny and literate screenplay exploring that most fascinating line between the public and private. It's a line that has grown increasingly blurred in this "reality"-obsessed age, and one of the subjects of Frears' film is the clash between old-school British tradition, defined by reserve and privacy, and the culture of celebrity.

If Mirren's Elizabeth II can't quite grasp the public outpouring of grief over the 1997 death of Princess Diana, she might find some unlikely common ground with Kirsten Dunst's "Marie Antoinette," who also donned the crown at a young age. Although Sofia Coppola's sumptuous mille-feuille of a film (released in October by Sony) couldn't be more different from "Queen" in style and tone -- Manolo Blahniks vs. Wellingtons -- it also offers one of the year's most extraordinary screen roles for a female actor.

Whether the history is 10 or 300 years old, real-life characters often present the juiciest opportunities for performers. Mirren -- who picked up an Emmy earlier this year for the title role in the HBO miniseries "Elizabeth I" -- is no stranger to the court, but dowdiness is not her natural element. Known for playing women who aren't shy about expressing their sexuality, she embodies the prim, pincurl-wearing Elizabeth II with quiet power: not the highfalutin member of royalty one might expect but a practical countrywoman. "I did kind of nail the walk," she told National Public Radio of the monarch's stride, but the performance transcends mere impersonation, as do all great portrayals of real people.

"Queen" also quite pointedly underscores one of the most intriguing aspects of such roles: how unknowable the most well-known of figures are. Never having given an interview, Elizabeth II is an extreme example of this disconnect. But rather than trying to explain the character, Frears, Morgan and Mirren aim to do something much more subtle: illuminate her.

A number of other films this year about famous women -- among them Picturehouse's April offering "The Notorious Bettie Page" and the November release "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" -- aim to honor the mystery between the public face and the private self by opting for stylized approaches over conventional psychology. While the results are mixed, in each case the female actor has risen to the challenge.

Coppola has conceived her teen monarch as giddy, openhearted and tragically sheltered. Beneath "Marie Antoinette's" fashionista profusion of tulle and organza is a poignant portrait of what critic Lisa Schwarzbaum called "a new breed of post-postpostfeminist woman" that wears its New Romantic anachronisms proudly. Whatever autobiographical currents audiences might detect in Coppola's view of lonely-at-the-top privilege, her film packs a delayed charge that echoes the doomed protagonist's insular life.

Dunst, who also toplined the filmmaker's debut feature, 2000's "The Virgin Suicides," is a simpatico muse. In a film told entirely from her character's point of view, she carries the story's emotional weight with the same grace she brings to costume designer Milena Canonero's pastel palette.

But as Meryl Streep's sublime villain makes ultraclear in Fox's June release "The Devil Wears Prada," high fashion is no mere frivolity. Although the film's story arc is, in many ways, unconvincing, the accomplished female actress' portrayal of a Manhattan-style fairy-tale witch is one of the most delectable performances of the year, and her sheer joy in playing the part of Miranda Priestly is clear in her every scene. It also is a joy to watch her fling designer coats and purses onto her assistant's desk or to hear her murmur a lethally dismissive, "That's all."

Manhattan's fashion and beauty business is a jumping-off point of sorts for the highly metaphoric art film "Fur," whose subtitle, "An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus," serves as capsule description and disclaimer. "Marie Antoinette" might take liberties with historical accuracy, but it sticks to the basic chronological facts of its heroine's life. "Fur," on the other hand, creates a fictional story line, which it uses to express the renowned photographer's transformation from white-gloved wife and mother in late-1950s New York to fiercely individual artist.

Nicole Kidman, who couldn't look less like Arbus, is an art object herself here. Director Steven Shainberg uses her ethereal beauty to paint a picture of a strange, possessed creature in the midst of polite society. The beauty-and-the-beast blend of fantasy and psychology doesn't quite work, but as a woman whose fascination with outsiders awakens her own creative vision, Kidman delivers a striking, committed performance.

For all its determined oddity, "Fur" is, in some ways, more conventional than "Queen" or "Marie Antoinette." The "imaginary portrait" embraces an accepted notion of the opposition between etiquette and passion. Although they, too, understand the friction between appearances and inner life, the latter two films provide a somewhat fresher take, suggesting unexpected ways in which etiquette and other cultural mores can be conduits for passion and self-knowledge. That tension creates more complex roles for Mirren and Dunst than the one Kidman fearlessly tackles, however outre and challenging "Fur" is on the surface.

The outre and challenging is not a new subject for Shainberg. In 2002's entertainingly transgressive "Secretary," he directed a breakthrough role for Maggie Gyllenhaal, who this year finds a showcase for her considerable talents in IFC Films' September release "Sherrybaby." Laurie Collyer's drama is one of several smaller releases receiving acclaim mainly for their central female performances.

It's hardly a surprise that, apart from real-life characters, some of the most substantial roles for female actors are in independent films written and directed by women.

As a recovering addict in "Sherrybaby," Gyllenhaal gets inside the skin of a not-quite-likable character without pandering to audience sympathy. She gives it her all, but Collyer hasn't succeeded at crafting an individual who's more than the sum of her 12-step struggles. "Without her slutty clothes, her cigarettes and her junkie's jones for drugs, sex and a toy baby to love her, she's more or less a cipher," Los Angeles Times critic Carina Chocano observed.

We don't have to know and understand everything about a character to find her compelling, but performances do often transcend the films in which they appear. In the case of Roadside Attractions' November release "Come Early Morning," Ashley Judd plays a small-town Southerner who must face up to her self-destructive behavior. Female actor Joey Lauren Adams' writing/helming debut is a low-key film that's too episodic and underdeveloped to be dramatically satisfying, but Judd is a potent, luminous presence as Lucy, who must do nothing less than change her life.

Favoring long and medium shots over close-ups, Adams structures the film in a way that makes Lucy very much a product of her environment, for good and bad. The film is perhaps most interesting as a bookend to Judd's eye-opening feature debut, 1993's "Ruby in Paradise," another story of a Southern woman making a fresh start, albeit one marked more by promise than by struggle.

A good-hearted country girl also is at the center of a far more stylized film, "Bettie Page." Director Mary Harron and co-scripter Guinevere Turner have done a creditable, stylish job of crystallizing the 1950s pinup queen's life story, but the film unfolds more as a series of episodes than as a biography of cumulative emotional impact. That, perhaps, is a function of Page's ultimate status as enigma, both in and beyond the images that defined her brief, sensational career. (She ended her work before the camera just as Arbus, in "Fur," is picking up her Rolleiflex to chronicle life at the fringes.)

Gretchen Mol's Bettie is an exuberant creation. As much as Streep's Miranda and Dunst's Marie Antoinette love covering themselves in finery, she loves taking everything off. Mol perfectly captures the disarming innocence of someone with a healthy regard for her own beauty, who views her work in fetish photos and films as just a bunch of silly play-acting that pays the bills.

Other real-life roles of note this year include Sigourney Weaver's pitch-perfect society matron Babe Paley in Warner Independent's October drama "Infamous," a memorable supporting role marked by self-aware humor and vulnerability. In Focus Features' September drama "Hollywoodland," a film that mixes real and fictional characters, Diane Lane is at once elegant, ferocious and heartbreaking as George Reeves' older mistress. And in IFC Films/Picturehouse's August drama "Factotum," Lili Taylor, who provides terrific support in "Bettie Page," delivers a lived-in performance opposite Matt Dillon's Charles Bukowski alter ego. Taylor finds the charm and sweetness in a tough, hard-drinking gal who likes her barfly boyfriend better when he's an on-the-skids bum than when he's making money and wearing suits.

Alcohol also plays a key role in Cinema Guild's September offering "Le Petit lieutenant" -- mainly by its absence in the life of recovering alcoholic and Paris cop Caroline Vaudieu. Nathalie Baye embodies the character with exquisite subtlety, effecting an understated, moment-to-moment balancing act between delicacy and steeliness, despair and control. Technically, the role might fall into the "district attorney" category of the Three Ages for Women in Hollywood, but this is the kind of part that defies Hollywood formula and stereotype -- and which American actresses rarely get to play.

A far more high-profile European film, Sony Pictures Classics' November release "Volver," directed by Pedro Almodovar, gives Penelope Cruz what might be her finest role to date. Italian neorealism meets 1940s Hollywood melodrama in Almodovar's vision of a matriarchal world of alternative justice. Cruz brings a salt-of-the-earth vivaciousness to the film that recalls Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani long before the latter appears on a character's TV screen, in a scene from Luchino Visconti's 1953 film "Bellissima." Cruz, co-star Carmen Maura and all the women of "Volver" clearly are objects of the director's affection.

The same is certainly true of Streep, Lily Tomlin and Lindsay Lohan as members of the singing Johnson family, viewed through the camera's fluidly gliding gaze in Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion," which Picturehouse released in June. The meandering film might lack a firm center, but it's not without its lovely moments. Chief among those delights is Streep's Yolanda, a character as warm as her Miranda Priestly is cold and forbidding. It's hardly the first year Streep has shown her remarkable range, which this time around includes some dulcet singing.

Music is the heart and soul of one of the most-anticipated films of the holiday season, DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls," which offers potentially star-making roles for Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose. The Broadway-show transplant charts the career of a Supremes-reminiscent trio of soul singers who find pop success. And as Reese Witherspoon's terrific, Oscar-winning turn this year as June Carter in "Walk the Line" attested, roles that combine real musical chops with well-etched characterization can have far-reaching resonance. Time will tell whether Bill Condon's film spotlights three noteworthy performances.

At least two other upcoming winter releases that are not of the song-and-dance variety might contain head-turning work by actresses. Yet another real-life character comes to the screen in the Weinstein Co.'s "Factory Girl," with Sienna Miller portraying the storied and troubled Andy Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick. A more seasoned actor, Naomi Watts, tackles a fictional character conceived by W. Somerset Maugham in Warner Independent's "The Painted Veil," a role previously played by Greta Garbo in a 1934 screen adaptation.

But in the right circumstances, it doesn't take the lead role -- or even a line of dialogue -- for a talented female actor to make an indelible impression. In the opening sequence of Douglas McGrath's "Infamous," Weaver's Babe Paley and Toby Jones, as her dear confidant (and betrayer) Truman Capote, stop their gossiping and look up from their cocktails at El Morocco. On the stage, a lanky, elegantly dressed singer has paused in the middle of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" clearly choked by emotion. Based on Peggy Lee, the character Kitty Dean is neither babe nor district attorney nor Miss Daisy; the particulars of her story are as unknown as her ache is real. And yet in that scant screen time, Gwyneth Paltrow delivers one of the most heart-stopping performances of the year.