Hollywood 2005: Women–Age and Aging On Screen

Due to the peculiarities of movie distribution these days, March 11 is going to be a big day for Joan Allen. By sheer coincidence, two of her films, Campbell Scott’s “Off the Map” (which I saw in Cannes two years ago) and Mike Binder’s “The Upside of Anger,” are opening on the same day.

“The Upside of Anger”, which world premiered at Sundance to enthusiastic response, is not necessarily a better picture than the ultra-modest “Off the Map,” but it’s certainly more accessible and commercial. Allen excels in both films, though in “Off the Map,” she is part of an ensemble, whereas in “Upside of Anger,” she is the lead–the center of the narrative—and appears in almost every scene.

These two indies are released in the wake of two other Allen film, in which she stood out: “The Notebook,” in which she had a small role, and in last summer’s hit sequel, “The Bourne Supremacy,” in which she played tough government agent. There is nothing in common to these four performances, except for Allen’s shining intelligence and limitless range.

The encouraging thing about Allen is that she’s hitting her stride, while pushing 50 (sorry Joan, for disclosing your age, but I mean well), a seemingly dangerous age for actresses in Hollywood.

However, times have changed. It’s hard to believe that as “All About Eve”‘s Margo Channing, her greatest screen role, the real-life Davis was only 42, playing an actress who fights for her career–and her man–or else lose it to the younger and conniving Anne Baxter.

At 50, the enormously gifted Bette Davis, and the less talented but more ambitious Joan Crawford, had basically become horror queens. Having lost their glamour, both Davis and Crawford often looked and sounded grotesque. In a casting coup, Robert Aldridge cast the two rivals in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962)

The list of fortysomething women, who were in decline or retired, goes beyond Davis and Crawford. In 1942-3, MGM, the studio with “more stars than in heaven,” lost half of its most reliable female stars, for one reason or another. Garbo and Norma Shearer retired, whereas Crawford was fired. Hepburn was too independent to be placed under long contract, and besides, she was also interested in doing stage work.

Indeed, despite women’s justified complaints about the lack of substantial lead roles for women, there has been some progress. To be sure, our dominant female stars are all in their thirties, beginning with Oscar’s latest winner Hilary Swank (who just turned 30), and including Cameron Diaz, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Halle Berre, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, and Jennifer Lopez.

Yet, at least a dozen of beautiful and talented actresses, often in secondary roles and in small indies, are still doing good work and enjoy sustained and viable careers.

Just look at Annette Bening, 46, and her spectacular Oscar-nominated performance in “Being Julia.” Navigating smoothly between Hollywood trash (“The Forgotten”) and high-class indies (Far From Heaven), Julianne Moore, 44, is also at her prime. Frances McDonald, 46, who an Oscar for “Fargo,” was at her sexiest in the indie Laurel Canyon,” in which she played the lesbian music producer who falls for her son’s girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale). Holly Hunter, also 46, another Oscar winner (“The Piano”), gave a superlative, erotic performance in “Thirteen.”

Conventions of beauty and sexiness have changed, for the better. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Julianne Moore (in “Boogie Nights”), McDonald, Hunter, and Allen (in “Off the Map”) are either engaged in overtly sexual scenes or appear totally in the nude. We now “tolerate” watching middle-aged actress cast in sexually desirable role, something that would not have happened during the rigid studio system.

Which brings me back to Joan Allen, who in “Upside of Anger” gives the year’s first bona fide Oscar-caliber performance. Over he past two decades, Allen has demonstrated her remarkable range and versatility in both Hollywood and indie movies. Whenever Allen is onscreen, her riveting presence and subtle acting command you to watch, but she is doing it without tricks or flashy techniques. More than any other actress, she seems to have applied to her career Stansilavsky’s motto, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” In lead and secondary roles, Allen is a skillfully accomplished performer who’s often the emotional center of gravity of her films.

Allen won a Tony Award for her first Broadway appearance, in Langford Wilson’s “Burn This!” The following year, she played the appealing feminist in Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Heidi Chronicles,” garnering a Tony nomination. Recognition for stage work opened doors in Hollywood, and Allen made her feature (“Compromising Positions”) and TV (the miniseries “Evergreen”) debuts in 1985.

Allen’s stature rose gradually with memorable turns as a blind girl who humanizes the killer in “Manhunter” (the movie that introduces Hannibal Lecter), and as one of Kathleen Turner’s classmates in “Peggy Sue Got Married.” She then excelled as Jeff Bridge’s wife in Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” and as the sympathetic mother of the young chess prodigy in “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

Allen’s breakthrough came with her on-target performance as the long-suffering Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon.” With a striking resemblance to the former First Lady, Allen gave a sympathetic turn, for which she earned her first Supporting nomination. She was once again the moral center, in “The Crucible,” as Daniel Day-Lewis’ unforgiving wife, garnering a second consecutive Supporting nod.

Allen then landed a major role opposite John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in John Woo’s smash hit “Face/Off”, in which she gave her customary understated performance, leaving the scenery-chewing to her cohorts. She kept Travolta’s and Cage’s excesses earthbound, yet, as she noted with justified objection, she made only a fraction of their fees. That year, she received critical acclaim as Kevin Kline’s estranged wife in “The Ice Storm,” Ang Lee’s stark look at the American suburban mores of the 1970s.

For a long time, Allen was the preeminent interpreter of noble, intelligent, long-suffering wives, enacting the rage, grief, and unrequited passion of troubled women. She began to break the mold of her typecasting in “Pleasantville,” in which she begins as a repressed June Cleaver black-and-white TV mom, who gradually transform to a vibrant woman in color, discovering in the process her art and sexuality.

In “The Contender,” Allen used her trademark intelligence and dignity to an advantage, rendering her first lead Oscar nomination, as vice-presidential nominee embroiled in a sex scandal. One sensed complete identification with the part: Though the scandal threatens her political future and personal life, she remains calm and self-contained, demonstrating heroics that are based on firm commitment to moral principles.

Last year, in the screen adaptation of the best-selling novel “The Notebook,” Allen characteristically nailed her role in brief but brilliant scenes, as Rachel McAdams’ upper-class mother who disapproves of her relationship with a good-hearted but poor youth.

This year, Allen can be seen in three widely divergent roles: In “Off the Map,” set in rural New Mexico, she plays the archetype of an earth mother, married to a depressed husband. In Sally Potter’s upcoming “Yes,” Allen plays an unhappily married scientist who falls for a Lebanese cook. In “The Upside of Anger,” Allen gives her most fully realized performance. Playing a drunken, bitter matriarch, Allen gives such an astounding performance that she elevates the film at least two notches above its melodramatic trappings and conventional visual style. (see review of Upside of Anger emanuellevy.com/article.phparticleID=150)

Allen plays the sharp-witted Terry Wolfmeyer, a suburban wife and mother whose life takes an unusual turn when her husband disappears mysteriously. Struggling to deal with his sudden absence, Terry finds herself at odds with her four headstrong daughters. Feeling sorry for herself, she drowns her anger in alcohol and temperamental tantrums that seem to come out of nowhere; a slight provocation is enough to throw Terry off the wall. Things change, when Terry begins to develop an offbeat relationship with her next-door neighbor, Denny (Kevin Costner), a once-great baseball star turned radio DJ.

A multidimensional character, Terry is the kind of woman who’s incredibly charming one day, and tearing her hair out yelling and screaming, the next day. It’s an ideal role for an actress like Allen, who displays a whole gamut of contradictory states: the domineering mom, who can be as defenseless, dependant, and childish as her youngest daughter; the bitter bitch who under the right circumstances softens up; the sexually repressed woman who goes from complete disregard for her libido to demanding that her sexual needs be gratified right away, even if it’s early in the morning.

James Schamus, who wrote the screenplay for “The Ice Storm,” has observed, “most actors are capable of either absolute technical control, or have the spontaneous passion of being totally physically present, like Brando. But Joan can do both.” The Academy is notorious for its short memory. But hopefully this March release will not be forgotten at year’s end. Appearing in almost every scene, and registering different moods and emotions, often within a single scene, Allen gives the first truly great performance of 2005, one deserving of an Oscar nomination.