Two Impressions of the Proto-Ellen Page
February 1, 2010
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I recently watched the Lifetime “Pregnancy Pact” movie. I’m not going to try to pin the blame on anyone else (though I should probably blame our commenter Kerry, who covered the real story extensively at bostonist); I watched the movie because I wanted to see what happened to Thora Birch.
If you asked me years ago, I would have bet that Thora Birch would have become a major actress. There’s nothing delicate about her performance in “American Beauty,” a role that doesn’t require her to leave the archetype of sallow, disaffected teen, but her performance in “Ghost World,” showed an actress of real complexity. She easily could have fallen into the trap of reiterating her character from “American Beauty,” but instead she added nuance and charm to Enid. You can see it in her mannerisms; she carries Enid with what can only be described as an awkward strength. It’s a very physical performance, even as it’s mostly static; Enid is often still or stilted, turning the frame into a comic book panel.
But then she disappeared into a glut of Lifetime and low-rent horror movies (these are arguably the same thing). And when Ellen Page burst on the scene, Thora Birch became the former Ellen Page.
So too, it seems, did Claire Danes. In a profile this weekend, the New York Times referred to Danes as “the Ellen Page of the 90s” given her clear on-screen intelligence. This intelligence became blunted by a series of roles that saw her as nothing more than love interest.
“For quite a while I was bemoaning the fact that I kept playing people who fell in love,” Ms. Danes said. “That was their primary job and experience, to become gaga over a man. It was just starting to feel routine.”
The Times goes on to mention “Shopgirl,” where it’s more correct to say that she is the object of affection rather than the emotional one. Still, the point is taken: in “Shopgirl,” our proto-Ellen Page hardly had to stretch herself.
Are there only two emotions for women on screen: to be scared, and to be in love?
There are, but they tend to be in less prominent films, like “Away from Her” and “Volver.” “Rachel Getting Married” is the strongest recent example. Through the immediacy of the camera we’re able to leave the story-of-the-week plot and recognize that melodrama is still drama, and a powerful one at that. Remember, Fiedler placed the Lovelace/Clarissa relationship, “the seducer” and “pure maiden” at the heart of American Literature in Love and Death in the American Novel. This is a highly developed form.
Most of the best roles for women are on television. Thora Birch is good in “The Pregnancy Pact,” and her character has a narrative arc, undergoes some change. It’s good Marjorie Morningstar style entertainment.
But long-from TV is where it’s really at.
Characters can’t stay flat in a good long-form series. They need to change or viewers will remain uninterested. Rhonda Pearlman is a very different person at the end of season five than she was at the beginning of season one; Glenn Close gets to toe the line between evil and justice on “Damages” (she is the anti-heroine on this network of anti-heroes); and Marcia Gay Harden’s attorney on the same show was her best role since “Pollack.” She deftly plays a strong sexual woman whose place in her office is accepted even as it makes her the object of scorn by those around her.
The exception to this rule is Kate on “Lost.” Kate’s character is relatively static. Her changes are external, the result of narrative developments rather than changes to her inner character. Nothing has really changed about her since season 1.
I don’t think it’s that Hollywood has marginalized strong women, but that Hollywood has marginalized adult drama. As my friend Joe says, “It’s the fucking money, Rafi.” It’s not that Meryl Streep is the only woman who is a box office draw, it’s that no one is a box office draw anymore. Hollywood is events and brands, archetypes, and that’s it. The rest is increasingly only seen in small theaters “downtown” or in miniature.