by Patrick Bromley
A week or two ago, I was watching a few minutes of the mostly-forgettable 2001 romantic comedy America's Sweethearts on cable and I was struck by something: it's not a very good movie. But I was also struck by how good certain elements are, primarily the performance by Catherine Zeta Jones as spoiled, self-centered movie star Gwen Harrison, whose promotion of a new movie co-starring her ex-husband Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) provides the main thrust of the plot. Zeta Jones has made a career out of playing unattainable women; her dark and almost impossible beauty coupled with the hint of her remaining Welsh accent give her an air of...well, let's just call it superior breeding. There is something regal about her -- she's born to play the woman on the pedestal, not the Girl Next Door.
High Fidelity and Intolerable Cruelty among them -- despite not really being known for being a comedian. Her best performances tend to be given in supporting roles: not just America's Sweethearts, but also High Fidelity, The Phantom, Chicago (for which she run an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). I think Catherine Zeta Jones is like a female Brad Pitt: a character actor trapped in the body of a movie star.
At least America's Sweethearts and High Fidelity give her the space to be funny (opposite John Cusack in both cases). Intolerable Cruelty, one of the two Coen Brothers movies for which most of us have to make an exception -- the Joel and Ethan equivalent of "I like all kinds of music...except country" -- asks Zeta Jones to play the straight woman while all the men get to run around being clowns and getting laughs. This is nothing new, as the comedy genre has been a boys' club for many, many, many years, but the difference here is that Zeta Jones is actually giving a great comic performance while not actually given opportunities to be funny. I think George Clooney is really funny in Intolerable Cruelty (I actually kind of like the movie overall), but I think he's funny because of Zeta Jones. She's the one setting him up. She's the one providing the chemistry. She's the one giving him something to play against, but she gets roughly half-to-none of the credit.
I'm not really writing this to talk about a lack of opportunity for women in comedy, though. Not really, even though that has existed for a long time (and by "comedy" I mean "all film"). I'm writing this to champion some contemporary performances from women in comedy that don't often get the credit they deserve. I remember seeing The Mask back in 1994 (I know I said "contemporary," but here's a movie that's more than 20 years old [!]) and not thinking it was all that funny -- like Tommy Lee Jones, I could not sanction Jim Carrey's buffoonery -- but being struck at just how good this new actress Cameron Diaz was. She was beautiful, yes, Most actors are. What really turned my head towards Diaz was the way she held the screen opposite Carrey as he mugged and jumped and danced and barfed up a lung to get laughs, even assisted by CG animation to make his character that much more cartoonish. Diaz didn't have to do any of that but still drew my total focus with just how grounded she made it all feel. Sometimes giving a great comic performance isn't about getting big laughs, but rather about creating the space where the laughs can exist. That's what Diaz does in The Mask. Jim Carrey's character is worth caring about and laughing at only through Diaz's eyes. That's not an easy thing to pull off on screen, and yet years later people still talk about Carrey's work even though it's Diaz who gives the comic performance of the film.
Hurley should have done more comedy. She doesn't act much anymore, but outside of Austin Powers she never really got a fair shake in the genre; there was a trophy role in 1999's EdTV and, more famously, her role as the devil in Harold Ramis' underrated remake of Bedazzled. Hurley's good in the movie, but her role consists primarily of dressing up in sexy outfits and vamping it up. It's her co-star Brendan Fraser who gets to be "the funny one." And he's funny! But neither he nor Hurley's costuming should totally take away from the fact that she's really good in comedies.
Sex Tape, The Other Woman). There will still be the list of actors who agree to appear in Happy Madison productions opposite Adam Sandler or one of his buddies as the beautiful, patient love interest and nothing else because it's a paycheck in a hit movie; established movie stars like Kate Beckinsale, Katie Holmes, Salma Hayek, Joey Lauren Adams, Patricia Arquette, Rosario Dawson, Christina Ricci, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Aniston, Michelle Monaghan, and Marisa Tomei have all taken turns in this role, with only three-time co-star Drew Barrymore ever getting anything to do. But as Sandler heads over to Netflix and women headline more and more big theatrical comedies, hopefully we can be better about opening up the scope of what we're looking at when it comes to some women in comedy films. Look past physical appearance. Look past the clowns to the left of her, the jokers to the right. And if we're not going to allow some actors the opportunity to be funny, let's at least appreciate how great their performances are -- whether we're laughing or not.