From all the films made every year, the Academy must choose the performance that deserves its Best Actress accolade—and avid watchers of their annual awards might well conclude it has no sensible criteria. Some years, the voting body wants to show its integrity. Other years, it wants to pet its poodles. This year, it wanted to pretend that racism isn't an industry given, and rolled out an inelegant glut of tardy tributes. And there are, clearly, yet more social and political complexities polluting the field. Perplexed, we watch from the comfort of our homes while agreeable, bobbing revue turns like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love or Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich are credited with the same talents we recognize in, say, Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. Refracted through the ponderous shimmying of the Oscars, it is the film industry that dictates to us all what a "talented actor" is; and all too often there's something vital missing from its skewed definitions. What that something is was demonstrated best, perhaps, by Halle Berry's overwhelmed acceptance of this year's Best Actress statuette. Looking at her contorting face, gaping mouth, and swollen eyes wasn't exactly like looking at Everywoman—since it's a little difficult to destroy three solid days of laminating and spraying in a single sobfest—but Berry showed more powerful, genuine emotion in her shocked speech than most Hollywood females have done in decades of high-octane, high-drama filmmaking.
It's a bizarre celluloid convention, the way that emotions such as sorrow, anger, or pain that leave your average female civilian looking like a just-birthed baboon simply shimmer over the airbrushed expanse of a Hollywood star's face to leave the tiniest damp mark, like a fairy lick. This can perhaps be chalked up in part to the wildly varying levels of acting ability manifest in our movie-star standbys, but I think there's more to it than that. Maybe it's worth wondering whether there's also some weird complicity between the people who make these movies and the people like us who pay to see them. Think of your own face in the mirror after a particularly bad crying jag or a heated, tearful argument. How often do you see Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz exhibiting that kind of piggy, swollen rawness on film? And is that what we pay for—to see our own emotion cleaned up, sanitized, beautified?
How often do we see women looking as confidently angry, with flecks of spittle flying from their contorted faces, as Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys or John Cusack in High Fidelity? Don't the ladies aspire to the sweaty, walleyed aggression of Brad Pitt in Fight Club or Edward Norton in American History X? Don't they long to expand their physical boundaries into the full-on vomiting and dead-eyed fear and exhaustion portrayed by the male cast of Apollo 13? There's no shortage of leading men out there bellowing, gibbering, and rolling their eyes. But leading women?
When Cate Blanchett's Lord of the Rings Elf Queen gets angry, her whole head morphs into that of a mystical, shimmering and very cross wraith. When she calms down again, her perfect unruffled features are revealed. Instead of a human face with a big, yelling, angry mouth, we have an ethereal, representational one. This happens frequently in Hollywood, without the need to resort to special effects. Cinema has evolved a balletic and complex collection of signifiers to save faces, a formalized code that mimes deep emotion without ever showing their ravages. Female stars employ a bevy of recognizable acting tics to exhibit emotion: Hysterical crying is indicated by dry, rasping sobs, carefully controlled to eliminate the possibility of gurgling phlegm. The face is hidden, only to be raised as the sobs die down. And then, instead of a ketchup-colored head covered from nose to chin in a thin slick of snot, the sufferer raises a honey-hued, ironed-out visage, unaltered apart from a smudge of eyeliner, like a paint-by-numbers Pierrot. Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner epitomized this perfectly. (And, yes, though it was a romantic comedy, the moment in question was meant to be genuinely moving.) Then there's the Well and Spill style of tears, wherein the star stares directly into the camera in dizzying close-up. You can see her dredging it all up, straining desperately to relive the terrible time before she had an entourage. Finally, and thankfully, she squeezes out some moisture, locking her jaw as though struggling to produce a small urine sample. A tear trickles down the waterproofed cheek. The eyes sparkle, madly refracting the manufactured emotion.
But if celluloid crying is bad, it is celluloid anger that is, fittingly, the most infuriatingly insufficient. In a normal woman, anger is as debilitating as tears—if not more so, as its physical manifestations can make one look like a congested boil as well as compromise one's inherent wit and grace. Hollywood has dealt with the ugliness of anger by not only placing carefully reasoned and brilliantly articulated expositions in the mouths of its furious girlies, but by developing a whole style of temper tantrum that justifies the terrible phrase "God, you're beautiful when you're angry." Actually, it should probably be, "Gee, you're cute when you're miffed," because its practitioners never seem to emote beyond a level of irritation more appropriate for a bungled Starbucks order. In this little set piece, whose chief abusers include Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, and Renée Zellweger, the actor begins by letting her mouth drop open and her eyes pop out in incredulous amazement at what's just been said to her by that sassy clerk/pompous bureaucrat/obnoxious-but-clearly-perfect-for-her man. She punctuates her expression by slamming hands onto hips in a feisty, kooky manner. Then, there's a cutesy double take, as if she's at a loss for words, followed by a momentary pause, in which she alternately frowns and pouts; finally, she lets lose a stream of indignant, energetic, but basically quite polite insults.
As her fury grows, the actor's face miraculously remains the same color as it was pre-tantrum, but she varies her original pose with some of the following movements: the 5-year-old's foot-stamp (a Ryan romance speciality), the emphatic lean forward (so that the audience might glimpse uplifted half-moons of breast, a movement used to great effect by Roberts in Erin Brockovich), the energetic double-hand slap on a flat surface, the completely steady pointed finger (Ryan in Proof of Life; Roberts in The Mexican) and the incredulous gasp plus hair-toss. These little performances are not only completely unrelated to real life—in which the average gal doesn't generally choreograph her movements to show off flattering clothing during arguments—but they are also calculated to emphasize how "comical" female anger is.
Though this is acceptable in the romantic comedies that Hollywood churns out like sweet butter (although surely having a little genuine emotion in there would make the stories less facile and the endings less trite), these rote moves require only a little intensification—and perhaps a pained and quizzical frown—to qualify as drama. Underwear helps too, because it's more dramatic and grown-up to emote half-naked. In Proof of Life, Ryan indicates the torturous battle between anger, frantic worry, trapped desperation, and burgeoning desire by leaning against a fridge in her skivvies, knock-kneed and grizzling gently. Then there's the scene in Eyes Wide Shut where Nicole Kidman points an "angry" finger at Tom Cruise while rubbing up and down against a radiator in a pair of panties.
Contrast these actresses with Emily Watson; though she has never received an Academy Award (despite being nominated twice, most recently in the same year that Gwyneth Paltrow achieved her Best Actress award for apparently just being ubiquitous), Watson's film performances have an anguished power that can truly move an audience—and, indeed, disturb one for hours. Her mud-smeared, naked hysteria in Hilary and Jackie reveals the source part of at least some of this power: Watson's characters often look shockingly ugly. In Breaking the Waves, she doesn't evince distress at her lovers' departure with huge, puppy-dog eyes and a trembling bottom lip; rather, she is an elemental force with a face that disintegrates into human mulch and a tearing, mad cry that has no gender.
Watson is, of course, with her tangle-headed, moon-faced sweetness, not at all ugly in actuality. But her most un-Hollywoodlike propensity for messing up her looks in the throes of emotion, unreservedly letting herself go, ensures that she looks like a real person when doing so. And perhaps that's why her performances don't slide off you like cheap foundation once you've finished watching the film—and can we really say the same about stompy-foot twins Ryan and Roberts and others of their ilk?
Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, is another actor given the green light to transform herself into a truly scary, dribbling mess of emotion in a recent film, and then rewarded for it with a Supporting Actress Oscar. But there are a few points to consider here. First, Jolie is a one-person lunatic fringe, as much a precious Hollywood exception-that-proves-the-rule as Watson, a wacky little human flag waved when movie people wish to demonstrate that even the most conservative creative industry can tolerate unconventional people. Second, she's exceptionally good-looking even by movie standards, possessing flamboyant, fleshy features that can withstand emotional engorgement in a way that, say, Paltrow's fluttery pastel looks would not. Third, Girl, Interrupted was set in the enclave of a girls-only institution; thus, Jolie's character had not the faintest possibility of getting it on with available males, liberating her character from the emotional/physical constraints of playing the cinematic Love Object. And regardless of how these factors were involved in freeing up Jolie to give the incredible performance she did, it was heartening that the attention to her performance focused on its quality rather than on the ruination of her remarkable looks through real, live acting.
Of course, if you're a star like Paltrow or Roberts, you should be able to do what you want—and if that happens to include compromising your hundred-watt looks for the emotion demanded by a role, so be it. But by a certain stage in an actresses's career, her In Style-cover image is like the grossly inflated tit in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, ballooning ahead of her with a life and earning power of its own, squishing all in its path. She is afraid, perhaps, to puncture that kind of appeal. Hence such feeble attempts at uglying down as Paltrow's and Roberts's much-discussed fat suits (for Shallow Hal and America's Sweethearts, respectively), and Renée Zellweger's "daring" Bridget Jones's Diary weight gain—all gimmicks that substituted physical transformation for actual acting and did nothing but emphasize the perfection of the stars who temporarily tried them on. Emotion may be the carbohydrate of the industry, but consistency is the key when serving in bulk. Movie stars are simply brands, guaranteed to look and behave in a predictable way: To show Meg Ryan displaying a level of anger or sadness beyond what her audience has come to expect would be a serious devaluation of her brand and a could result in loss of faith, customer loyalty, and revenue. With no plot or point to speak of, a film such as America's Sweethearts, say, exists only so we, the imperfect masses, can pay money to watch improbable perfection in motion. If these people started looking and behaving more like ourselves, we could sit comfortably gawking at each other in street cafes rather than shell out cash to sit in an itchy theater seat for two hours.
Perhaps the outcome of this year's Oscars are evidence of an upward trend. Of the five nominees, three gave truly emotional performances—Halle Berry's almost making up for the buttock-clenching moment in Swordfish where her character was strung up from the ceiling and registered her fear and pain with no more than a mild pout. The subtle, heart-rending performances of Berry and nominees Sissy Spacek and Judi Dench served to emphasize the stilted stylisation of the other nominees, for films that seemed to demand facial evocations more suited to Elmer Fudd than to flesh-and-blood humans. Renée Zellweger was apparently worthy of nomination because she porked up a bit and did a funny accent in a cartoonish caper. And Nicole Kidman's performance in Moulin Rouge was a porcelain collection of feminine cinematic conventions, from the tubercular "coughs" delivered as if she was blowing out the candles on her 12th birthday cake to the wobbling close-ups, a single tear leaving no trace on her rubberized spray-on pancake base. Perhaps, in this whirling, ironic, faux-naîve film, that was the point. But how should we distinguish? It also seems worthwhile to mention that while Russell Crowe revelled in limps, twitches, dribbles, and psychotic episodes, his costar Jennifer Connelly's single emotional breakdown in A Beautiful Mind took place entirely in the dark. (She received a Best Supporting Actress statuette for her decorous restraint.)
Part of the draw of movies and their stars, of course, is the fact that we obediently desire those beings so carefully packaged to be desirable—even when they're packaged with gender assumptions galore. Just as the studio execs assume that females always want to be rescued by the likes of Nicolas Cage and Russell Crowe, perhaps they also think that their average male audience member has had quite enough of his real-life partner's real-life tears and anger. Perhaps they worry that, however lovely they are, if Julia or Sandra or Cameron seems too irascible and emotional, too "hysterical" up there on the screen, she'll drive the boys away.
Yet the truth is that much of the abovementioned mulch is aimed at us undiscerning women, a part of the paradoxical conspiracy that includes women's magazines, hair-color commercials, and Ally McBeal. We have a collective, masochistic urge to submit to these saccharine entertainments, with their syrupy smiles and cooing, joshing advice disguising the shrieking, brass-clawed commercial raptors forever pushing us towards some mummified idea of perfection. The rigid control we are supposed to have over our own lives extends beyond physical appearance to emotions themselves and, in the struggle to be lovely, we are urged to be as mean and sparing with tears and anger as we are with our food.
Hollywood, despite the way it eagerly seizes on every inoffensively hip global trend, is still alarmingly conservative. Its images of women remain mostly proscriptive, not reflective; and for some of us, this is beginning to curdle. Otherwise excellent films like Vanilla Sky and A Beautiful Mind are spoiled by their vapid, unthinking depictions of women. Once you start to notice them, the examples are all over the place, becoming more discordant every time. Perhaps in the end, we'll simply refuse to pay any more to see these morbid annoyances; and finally witness raw, complex, real emotions reflected in the faces of Hollywood females as they watch what happens to their paychecks.