Pretty, tough women
The hot trend in movie heroines is not the damsel in distress. It’s the damsel who causes distress.
Today’s top actresses, such as Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel, have cultivated reputations as tomboy sex symbols, women with delicate features who can disarm a tough guy equally as well with a sultry look or a kick to the throat.
They are playing James Bond-type roles that would have gone to men 10 years ago, producer Todd Garner says. Casting a woman helps reverse the Hollywood axiom about what makes an exciting hero: Men want to be him, and women want to sleep with him.
“It’s just flipped around: Guys want to sleep with her, and women want to be her,” he says.
This new generation of tough babes follows in the bootprints left by Alien’s Sigourney Weaver and The Terminator’s Linda Hamilton Even Naomi Watts as the blonde who captures King Kong’s heart in last year’s Peter Jackson remake was more of a firecracker than the original’s Fay Wray or even Jessica Lange in the 1976 version.
Hollywood is learning that a neo-feminist hero ó showcasing beauty, brawn, brains and seductiveness ó can appeal to both genders for different reasons.
Uma Thurman, who had her biggest hits as the volatile gangster’s moll in Pulp Fiction and the vengeance-seeking Bride of the Kill Bill movies, is again testing the limits of male moviegoer masochism with the comedy My Super Ex-Girlfriend, opening Friday.
Thurman plays superhero G-Girl, who makes love to her regular-guy boyfriend (Luke Wilson) while flying over Manhattan and saves him when he falls from the Statue of Liberty.
But she also hurls a live great white shark through his apartment window when she’s angry.
“There’s nothing coy about some of these characters,” Thurman says. “They’re not simpering, soft-moaning creatures. They’re kind of dynamic. And can’t you be dynamic and sexy?”
The joke in the movie is that Wilson’s character is much more infatuated with G-Girl when she’s the intense, miraculously strong, invulnerable superhero and less interested in her secret identity as a mousy, emotionally needy art dealer.
“We’ve all been through it,” Thurman says. “When somebody’s really attractive and great but they suffocate you and need you much more than you’re comfortable being needed, it’s too much. You’re not interested. And as soon as you’re not interested, they desperately want you. And as soon as they desperately want you, they become kind of unappealing.”
The male fantasy explained
My Super Ex-Girlfriend is the reverse of last summer’s hit Mr. & Mrs. Smith, in which Jolie and Brad Pitt were a married couple tired of each other’s blandness until each discovers the other is a covert assassin. The volatility brings them together. In Ex-Girlfriend, the volatility is part of the initial appeal, and the neediness when she loses that strength is part of the joke.
Playboy magazine editorial director Christopher Napolitano says fearsome beauty is a male fantasy. “It’s an exciting thought for a guy to know that a sexy woman can turn on a dime and offer more than he can handle,” he says. “They like the idea of being challenged. On the physical level, that’s what men understand, while an emotional challenge might weary them in some way. It’s mysterious in some way.”
Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane in Superman Returns was slammed by some critics for being in constant need of rescue, with little of Margot Kidder’s bravado from the Christopher Reeve era. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Lois “has lost her dash and pizazz.”
Producers see fiery heroines as potentially win-win. It’s a way to appeal to both men, tempted by the dangerous sex symbol, and women, who like the concept of an empowered babe.
“Movies reflect modern culture, and these films take female empowerment to the extreme,” says Sanford Panitch, production chief at New Regency Productions, which made Smith and Ex-Girlfriend.
“I don’t think women want to see a mousy, submissive persona being dramatized in a movie. That’s not what women are.”
Thurman said one woman she spoke with wished that G-Girl had remained a dynamo.
“She was bemoaning it on some political level. ‘Gosh, she was great, but does she have to be such a cloying (brat)?’ ” Thurman says. “But would it be funny if she was a superhero who was invulnerable and fabulous?”
Characters such as Jolie’s Mrs. Smith, Garner’s Alias spy, Evangeline Lilly’s outlaw castaway on Lost and Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean (who gets more sword fighting time in the new hit sequel) strike a nerve with guys because they clearly don’t need the men in their lives, but they still want them ó maybe.
Thurman and director Quentin Tarantino pushed that dynamic even further in Kill Bill Vols. I and II. Her bloodthirsty Bride didn’t want any man, having lost her fiancÈ in an attempt to kill her, but guys ó from the characters she preyed on to the male moviegoers who flocked to the theaters ó couldn’t get enough.
She played the ultimate game of hard to get and enforced it with the tip of a sword. Nothing Freudian there, Thurman jokes.
With the Bride, “there is something steely. She was not asexual at all, there was something quite sensual about her, but there was complete disinterest, a complete alternate focus. You see it in male characters so often, but in a dynamic athletic woman in the prime of the character’s strength, it’s a different thing entirely.”
Sometimes, just sexy isn’t enough
Not all action babes are a hit. Garner’s Elektra and Halle Berry’s Catwoman flopped, but most believe that’s because the characters and stories were as thin as the barely-there superhero costumes.
Producer Garner says a film has to deliver more than skin to get men and women into the theater. The sexy character also has to be fun, smart, maybe even mean. He’s now working on a sci-fi thriller called Next, which stars Julianne Moore as an FBI agent hunting a psychic (Nicolas Cage) whom she thinks can help fight terrorism.
“She’s very tough, very by-any-means-necessary,” Garner says. “She’s gorgeous and sexy and intelligent and there’s a moral ambiguity to (her).
“It’s not just physical. It’s very appealing to have someone who is your equal and above you, in movies and in life, and these heroes have that.”
Thurman wanted her costumes to be more conservative than the usual superhero garb. “You think of supergirls, and they’re letting it all hang out, promoting a very male vision of sexuality.”
So instead of fluorescent, skintight spandex that is “pushed up and strapped up and huggy,” Thurman chose dark colors, pleated skirts, big belts and tank tops.
“I really wanted there to be something sexy, but very athletic and very confident. A woman dressing for herself,” Thurman says.
For every teenager who shows up to gawk at a scantily clad female hero, a character who comes off as trashy or exploitive turns off many other moviegoers and redirects couples looking for a date movie they both can enjoy. Emphasizing both sexuality and strength “helps you tell a story that broadens the demographic,” Garner says.
Similarly, writer/director Neil Marshall toned down the jiggle factor for his horror thriller The Descent, opening Aug. 4. The movie features female spelunkers who get trapped in an ancient cave and discover predatory subterranean creatures.
“They’re all physically attractive, but we didn’t have them in wet T-shirts running around,” Marshall says. “Instead they’re strong and independent, and for certain people, myself included, that is very appealing.”
Shauna Macdonald, who stars in The Descent, says: “It’s not that men are finding stronger women sexy. I just think women are getting stronger.”
Macdonald says her role model for the performance was Weaver in the Alien movies. “She was extremely tough and very sexy. She had cropped hair and was sweating and covered in snot and dirt and fighting a big alien ó and she still looked good.”
Here’s hoping it’s a good film!
Pretty, tough women