Thursday, May 10, 2012

Actresses We Love

We've already talked about the boys. Let's talk about the ladies.

JB: I have been a fan of Lili Taylor since I first saw her in 1988’s Mystic Pizza. She quickly established herself as the smart, vulnerable girl who would not take shit from anyone.

She might actually be most famous for her role of Corey 1989’s Say Anything, where she practically stole the film with her impassioned folk song, “Joe Lies.”

Taylor began turning up regularly, giving great performances in big roles (Rose in 1991’s Dogfight and Teresa in 1993’s Household Saints) and small ones (Honey Bush in 1993’s Short Cuts and Edna Ferber in 1994’s under-rated Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle). Whenever Taylor would show up in a movie, you knew that you were in for an interesting and unique performance.

She was even great in pretentious nonsense like 1995’s The Addiction.

The 90’s were clearly Taylor’s decade to shine, but I think her Valerie Solange in 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol and her Nell in 1999’s unwatchable The Haunting were obvious bids for Hollywood stardom that never materialized.

Her cameo as Sarah in 2000’s High Fidelity was so well observed that it made me wish that she had been cast as the female lead instead of Iben Hjejle.

I think it is difficult for any actress, however talented, to have a career that lasts longer than ten years, what with Hollywood’s insistence on a constant parade of interchangeable femmes du jour. Like many actresses before her, she sought rewarding work in television and appeared in Six Feet Under from 2003 to 2005.

She was terrific as Paula Claw in 2005’s barely released The Notorious Bettie Page. I eagerly await her future film work.

Patrick: I was a little surprised by how much more difficult it was to pick actresses I love than it was actors. This is not because I am sexist. Or sexy. I am neither. It is because, as JB points out, the majority of modern mainstream actresses have a difficult time amassing a substantial body of work. Their shelf lives are considerably shorter than their male counterparts, because Hollywood is a terrible, sexist place concerned only with youth and beauty -- but only as they pertain to women. Talented actresses lose parts because they are no longer "fuckable." Robert Duvall continues to work in his 80s.

There are plenty of actresses I like a whole lot, but as I look over their filmographies, I am amazed at how much crap they are forced to make in an effort to stay relevant. Oscar-nominated Julianne Moore does incredible work in Boogie Nights and Far From Heaven, but has to star in junk like Laws of Attraction and Crazy, Stupid, Love to try and get a big audience. Sandra Bullock is an adorable brown sweater of a human being, but really only has five or six movies in her entire body of work that are actually any good. Rachel McAdams started her career with promise, but quickly gave that up in favor of crowd-pleasing movies like Morning Glory and The Vow. This is because the only real lead roles available to women in Hollywood are in romantic comedies or romantic dramas. We are ok with a female lead as long as she is defined by her relationship with a man.

But enough complaining. Let me answer the question.

I've always been a big fan of Jennifer Jason Leigh, for reasons other than that she's super pretty and looks a lot like my wife. It's because she's been willing to go to truly crazy places since first catching our eye in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in which she played a 15-year old who loses her virginity to a douche in a baseball field dugout, gets an abortion and can't keep her clothes on for longer than a 20 minute stretch (this is a recurring theme in her career). Flesh + Blood? Medieval Dutch crazy.  The Big Picture? Quirky art student crazy. Miami Blues? Dumb white trash crazy. Even in Single White Female, arguably one of her most "mainstream" studio movies, she does things no other actress would do: masturbates on camera, murders a puppy and blows Steven Weber.

Some of my favorite JJL performances are the ones where she makes big, big choices. The most obvious example of this is her work as fast-talking reporter Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers' homage to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Leigh isn't just playing Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck; she's playing Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck on crank. Her performance makes Katherine Hepburn nervous. Critics blasted it as just being stylized nonsense, but that's what I love about it (besides, there's more to it than that; there is a beating heart at the center of the performances, just waiting to be exposed by Tim Robbins' relentless optimism and sincerity). It's the kind of performance that is both of the thing and about the thing -- it comments on the acting style and characterization of the period while still capturing the essence of what makes screwball comedy so breathlessly fun. I'm ok with critics not liking it, so long as they are ok with being wrong.

Mark Ahn: Audrey Hepburn/Grace Kelly – My favorite “Ginger or Mary Ann” debate point. Both ladies exude class and elegance, but do you prefer the charming Francophile brunette pixie? Or the charming, all-American, cool blonde princess?

Amongst the films I that I really enjoyed, Hepburn appears in Charade, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday and Wait Until Dark. I find an intriguing dichotomy within her: easy elegance coupled with next-door accessibility, comedic timing with dramatic gravitas, and high energy with languid melancholy. I loved her style, the iconic face and the iconic clothes and her musical lilting that she added to every spoken word. I had no chance; I was smitten. John Rhys-Davies tells a spectacular story about seeing Julie Christie for the first time, and how he felt that she was so beautiful that he became more keenly aware of his own ugliness in comparison. I won’t say that’s how Audrey Hepburn makes me feel, but I do know what Mr. Rhys-Davies is talking about.

Grace Kelly dovetails nicely into my favorite Hitchcocks: To Catch a Thief, Rear Window (one of my favorite screen entrances), Dial M for Murder, but also in one of my favorite westerns: High Noon (which Patrick and JB gave love to in the westerns podcast). Loved that she wasn’t just an “icy blond” in the Hitchcock mold, but could exude warmth and vulnerability as well as strength. She also set a standard for the new Hollywood blonde that was more than the proverbial pretty face. She also continues to inspire plain-born girls everywhere who dream of a prince actually coming to sweep them away.

Cate Blanchett – Much to her credit, she’s good (or at least trying to do something) in fare that is not great: The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou, Robin Hood, The Gift, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Shoot Me in the Face. At her best, she can play angelic (Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings), evil (Hanna), and every note in between (Notes on a Scandal, Elizabeth, Veronica Guerin). She’s prolific, she works hard, she speaks intelligently, and she doesn’t get involved with the dirty stuff in the gossip rags. I want all of my movie stars to be like her.

I wanted to honorably mention Marion Cotillard and Jessica Chastain, two other luminous actresses who I love, but didn’t make the list only because I haven’t seen enough of their seminal work (I haven’t seen La Vie en Rose or Take Shelter/Jolene).

Wait...did you ask me something?

Doug: Because Gina Carano's performance in Haywire was, frankly, Eagle, my choice for favorite actress goes to ... Dame Julia Stiles. I AM JUST KIDDING.

I know people (read: douchebags) use words like "fearless" and "brilliant" WAY too often when it comes to describing art (specifically, acting), but I really think Rooney Mara's performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the real deal.

Surprised you, didn't I? Bet you think I was going to pick some ridiculous alien chick with a big rack, huh? WRONG. I'm a rich tapestry. And I have FEELINGS :(

Back to Ms. Mara ... think about it -- if you're a 25 or 26 years old woman (not sure exactly how old she was when she was cast), how many of you would have done what she did? Consider: in said film, you have to a.) get completely naked (A LOT), b.) shave your head, c.) get violently raped, d.) cover yourself in (what most consider) ugly (or, at the very least, EXCESSIVE) tattoos, and e.) fill your face with piercings. Then you have to speak in a fractured Swedish accent while oozing confidence, vulnerability, poise, innocence, sensuality, rebelliousness and virtue. My point? This is really hard to pull off! And she does it! With élan! And I say this knowing full well that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not as good as I wanted it to be!

Rooney Mara was exceptional in that MEH of a movie. And while she doesn't yet have an impressive body of work (barf on you, reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street), I look forward to seeing her flex those legit acting chops in future films.

Runner up: Paula Patton. She can beat up my boner any day.


  1. Actresses I Love

    Barbara Stanwyck: Yeah, Nobody considers her a "modern" actress, but her roles exuded a modern women. The Lady Eve, Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, Sorry, Wrong Number, Christmas in Connecticut, Meet John Doe...The f'n Thorn Birds. There will be nobody like her, ever.

    Audrey Tautou: People might most associate her with "Amelie" or (shudders) "The Da Vinci Code", but pound by pound my favorite is her performance in a little film "A Very Long Engagement". The movie would fail immediately if you didn't sympathize and feel for this complicated character. She is also very good in "He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not" as she plays another complicated but completely different character.

  2. Actresses I Love

    Sandra Bullock
    Laura Dern
    Jodie Foster
    Michelle Pfeiffer

  3. Actresses I Love:

    Catherine Keener (always enjoyed her work and she looks like my fiance)

    Three comments in and now word...Im getting worried. Ill put a missing person report in for Vargas.

  4. I'll second JJL and Cate Blanchett

    Christina Ricci
    Faye Dunaway
    Catherine Deneuve
    Helena Bonham Carter (she was the best thing in Alice in Wonderland)
    Susan Sarandon
    Julianne Moore
    Maggie Gylenhaal
    Helen Mirren

  5. Larisa Oleynik: except for the role of Bianca in 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You" she's done nothing remarkable with her post-TV career (bunch of no-name indie movies). But to me Larisa will always be Alexandra Louise Mack, the awkward pre-teen that doesn't fit in that gets powers and bonds with her genius sister in Nickelodeon's "The Secret World of Alex Mack." It's my #1 favortie TV show of all time, which I guess makes her my favorite actress of all time.

    Setsuko Hara: the leading lady of many a Yasujiro Ozu masterpiece ("Late Spring," etc.), Setsuko's awkward smiles hide a galaxy of repressed emotions that could shatter a wall with their intensity. Japan wins...

    Grace Kelly:...or maybe not. Beauty and class, Grace was the complete package when she stopped making movies in the mid-50's. Thus, the few one's she left behind are like precious jewels worth admiring. I'll fess up to liking "To Catch A Thief" just to gawk at Grace's beauty.

    Audrey Tautou: because "Amelie."

    Brit Marling: (AKA Page from "Community") she's pretty, she's talented, she takes her clothes off in most of her movies (that's my DOUGism for this column ;-P). Most importantly, between her acting/writing/producing for "Another Earth" (my #1 movie of 2011 along with "Melancholia") and this year's "The Sound of My Voice" (what "Martha Marcy May Marlene" was expected to show about cult movies but didn't), Brit is proving to be more than just a pretty face. Whatever she does next I'll go see. Marling's that good.

    Lee Remick: though typecast late in her career as a wide-eyed innocent surrounded by evil ("The Omen," "The Medusa Touch") Lee's body of work ranges the gamut from studio classics ("Days of Wine and Roses") to matriarch 80's TV. A classy lady all-around.

    Jill Hennessy & Carlyn McCormick: in the sausage-fest world that is the "Law & Order" TV universe these two actresses (along with S. Epatha Merkerson and Lisa Hendrix) not only broke the gender barrier but breathed life to compelling TV characters (Claire Kincaid and Dr. Elizabeth Olivet, respectively) you only got to know through mostly their work (ditto for Lt. Van Buren and M.E. Rogers). Many actresses followed, but the original ladies remain the gold standard.

    Jennifer Carpenter: one of the joys of sticking with "Dexter" through the last few rough years is watching Carpenter's Deborah Morgan become a more interesting and compelling character as the actress has gotten better. Forget about the gossip about their off-screen private lives. When Michael C. Hall and J.C. are on-screen sharing a (well-written) scene "Dexter" is on a league of its own.

    Diane Keaton: just from his Woody Allen 70's work Diane belongs in my personal list. Everything else (including aging gracefully on-screen) is just cinephile gravy.

    Katee Sackhoff: because Kara 'Thrace' Starbuck is the ancestor to today's butt-kicking ladies. Opps, did I just...? :-O

    Karen Allen: besides being the only woman that has put Dr. Jones in his place (twice), Karen's supporting work ("Starman," "Cruising," "Scrooged," "In the Bedroom," etc.) make her the Kate Winslet of the 80's/early 90's.

    Margot Kidder: because "Superman: The Movie."

    Jean Seberg: Godard may be a prick but he sure knew how to pick them when she gave Jean the female co-lead in "Breathless." It's with Otto Preminger though ("Bonjour tristesse") that Seberg's gift for looking both tough and over-sensitive achieve full-on stardom.

    Merritt Wever: every time Zoey shows up on "Nurse Jackie" I just want to reach out and hug my TV. :-)

  6. Replies
    1. ^^^ And I only stopped because I hit my 4,096 character limit. Had to leave out poor Hideko Takamine, Brigitte Helm, Isuzu Yamada, Rosario Dawson, Teresa Wright, Barbara Hershey, Anna Karina, Isabelle Adjani (of "Possession" fame), and many, many more. Damn you 4,096 character limit of blogspot, my sworn enemy! :-)

    2. I'm just glad you are alright

    3. If by alright you mean still unemployed and writing/remembering my favorite actresses in the free Wi-fi waiting area of the latest place I'm applying for work... I guess I'm alright! :'(

  7. And yet, I bless the 4,096 character limit, in my prayers at bedtime, half-whispering, "God bless you, 4,096 character limit. You are our friend. You are our savior. You keep us all safe from harm. Amen."

  8. Can you imagine if Vargas had unlimited space?

    1. Then it would be just like at DVD Verdict's Jury Room 'Watching' threads! :-)

  9. I'm with you Patrick on Jennifer Jason Leigh. I have watched films of hers simply because she was in it (and that has led me down some dark roads: "Last Exit to Brooklyn", etc.).

    Other actresses that have had a similar effect on me were Emily Watson and Kate Winslet in the '90s.

  10. Jesus, how did Meryl Streep not get a mention by ANYONE in this article or comment section? Am I alone in thinking that Meryl is not only incredibly talented, but also very charming and funny in "real life"? I don't always love the movies she's in, but I almost always love her in them, and she is without a doubt my favourite actress I have never masturbated to.

  11. I always thought Patricia Neal was shockingly underappreciated as a classic film actress until I found out that, a)she really hasn't starred in that many films and, b) she actually won an Oscar for HUD, which is one of Paul Newman's best films.

    I agree with everyone else's choices of Audrey Hepburn, Jean Seberg, Faye Dunaway and, hell, even Erika's pick.

    Just to have at least one modern actress in this list, I'll add Olivia Williams, who has been great in everything from RUSHMORE to DOLLHOUSE.