Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Next Meryl Streep?

Vera FarmigaLynn Hirschberg's piece in the New York Times looks on the surface to be just another star profile, but is really an examination of one actor's potential in the changing Hollywood landscape. Vera Farmiga can be seen in Martin Scorsese's upcoming "The Departed" along with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson, but is the role what she's looking for?

This leads us to an examination of the status quo for female actors in Hollywood -- female characters in mainstream movies are underwritten. Even though Farmiga brings to mind the seamless skill of Meryl Streep, there are no longer parts which call for such talent. Of her part in "The Departed" Farmiga says, "There was no real personality to the character." Scorsese agreed to reworking the character but, Farmiga says, "...the character is still more of a device than anything else."

This is the problem female actors face. Even in a high-profile movies the female characters are thin and supportive when compared to hard-edged male counterparts that carry the action. Hollywood is reluctant to make movies with strong female characters, and this makes actors with the depth and technique of a Meryl Streep superfluous. Hirschberg says:

In the last few years, former child actors like Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson have emerged as the new generation of female stars. Unlike the women of Meryl Streep's generation, they did not attend drama school. Their training has been on the job in Hollywood films, and even when they are talented, they do not have much life experience or sense of craft. They are programmed for stardom rather than for acting.

It's difficult to argue with this. I just don't see many meaty roles for women (there aren't that many for men), and I don't see much technical acting these days. Of the trend, director Anthony Minghella says:

"Meryl Streep is always specific and precise in her interpretations," Anthony Minghella told me. "And I find that those sorts of women are now virtually nonexistent in studio films. Even talented actresses are given nothing to play, and they don't all have Meryl Streep's inventiveness when the material is lacking." Minghella says he worries about the prospects for an actress with the ambitions of Farmiga. "Increasingly, audiences are uncomfortable with any subject that is not aspirational," he said, "and the studios acquiesce rather than provide an alternative that might inspire a new audience. It's too easy and potentially dangerous a label to hang on her, but Vera is of the quality of Meryl Streep. Her characters have the same sense of depth and commitment. The question is, Is it even possible to have a career like Meryl Streep's now?"

Meryl Streep in Sophie's ChoiceMeryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice" from 1982. Can you really see Hollywood making such a movie today? Why is that?

Much of the growing reluctance to feature actresses derives from the changing economics of the business: women are no longer big box-office draws, especially in dramas. Twenty years ago, movie budgets were smaller, there were fewer independent productions and the major studios did not aim as specifically as they do now to entertain a vast global audience that prefers action and broad comedy to dialogue and drama. "Studios are now pressured to make films that appeal to the masses," Tracy Brennan, one of Farmiga's agents, told me. "And although special effects and explosions are great, you can't carve out a career the way that Meryl Streep did in those kinds of films."

Makes a lot of sense. Hirschberg follows through with:

In 2005, there was not a single female-driven drama that was a financial blockbuster -- not "North Country," starring the Oscar winner Charlize Theron; not "Proof," starring another Oscar winner, Gwyneth Paltrow; not "Memoirs of a Geisha". Even romantic comedies, long a showcase for actresses, are being replaced by male-driven comedies like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Wedding Crashers".

And, for effect Hirschberg adds:

Even when a female-oriented film does succeed financially, as with "Something's Gotta Give" (2003), starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, the studio typically credits the box-office bonanza to the male actor. "He's had lots of flops," one agent said of Nicholson. "But no one cares. But if an actress has one flop, her stock is immediately down."

How does Farmiga take all this? In stride with an eye to the future. But, she does have a practical method:

In the grassy land that surrounds Farmiga's house in upstate New York sits a pile of ashes. "This is where I burn the scripts," she said as she circled the scarred earth with her two pet goats. "I stack up all those crass female characters, all those utterly ordinary women, all those hundreds and hundreds of parts that have no substance or meaning and turn them into a blazing pyre." She kicked some charred pages that had somehow escaped the flames. "It's really cathartic," she said. "It's my revenge on Hollywood insensitivity and greed. The ashes go to the compost. At least the scripts can finally help the world in some way."

..."I think I want to quit acting after every movie. Each time I have to decide whether or not I want to go back to the struggle of seducing people into believing that I am an entirely different individual. It's especially challenging when Hollywood would like me to be the same bland character over and over again." She pointed to a pile of scripts on the coffee table. "Those need to be burned," she said.

Read Lynn Hirschberg's complete story at The New York Times

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