Mary-Louise Parker may be one of the feistier actresses onscreen or off. She’s put the fear of God in publicists and photographers and has played plenty of self-possessed people, from “Fried Green Tomatoes” to Showtime’s “Weeds.” Yet, in her virtually nonspeaking role opposite Brad Pitt in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” she may as well be wearing the Reconstruction-era version of a burqa.
Granted, the movie is set in the 1870s. But the way things have been going for actresses this year, it may just as well be 130 years ago. Women seem to have been reduced to property, prizes and pregnancy, with Jesse James’ mute wife a symbol of what’s become of the women in mainstream movies. It’s surprising, given how late in the year it is, but coming up with five prospective best actress nominees is something of a struggle. Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard. Who else? The actors are crowding the field, while the women have been sidelined.
On one hand you have the movies in which women are virtually absent, or their roles are immaterial: “There Will be Blood,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” among them. Kelly Macdonald may be terrific in “No Country for Old Men,” but she’s really playing the littlest of little women while the boys wage the war of testosterone, shotguns and pneumatic hammers. In “Knocked Up,” which is ostensibly about a woman’s pregnancy by the wrong guy, the good lines go to the guy(s), while the pregnancy is often discussed as if the ever-widening Katherine Heigl were not in the movie, much less the room.
One of the more prominent roles of the year is the mail-order blow-up doll Bianca in “Lars and the Real Girl,” which really has to say it all. Because she certainly won’t.
When the women have made it to the screen this year, their characters have been shrill, vapid or outright grotesque. Tilda Swinton, who never fails to impress, is positively gorgonlike in “Michael Clayton” as a kind of Frankenhillary monster whose control-freak machinations are completely out of proportion to reality. Naomi Watts is her usual solid self as the tenacious nurse, Anna, of “Eastern Promises,” but there’s never a question that it’s Viggo Mortensen’s movie. And Tang Wei’s would-be assassin in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” has her killer instinct nullified by sex — spectacular sex, for sure, but can lust trump patriotism without making a heroine look bad?
It’s been a season in which audiences seem to be avoiding “serious” stories in favor of a “Game Plan” or “Bee Movie” or “Enchanted,” which, coincidentally, has one of the more prominent female roles of this holiday menu — a princess. Which proves that some things never change, including the idealization of females and the good times to be had when boys are allowed to be boys, and men are allowed to be mugs. There seems to be little doubt that the most fun had during “Knocked Up” or “Superbad” was when the lads were cutting loose. It’s like real life: When a woman walks into a room full of men, behavior changes; when a woman walks into a movie full of men, the movie changes. It gets more serious. And since audiences are avoiding serious, they’re also avoiding women. And the movies are avoiding them, too.
The women-friendly films — which, in this climate, means that women are actually in the cast, and speak — prove to be exceptions to the rule. “Margot at the Wedding” features two of our best actresses, Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, with Jack Black relegated to whiny nebbish. But neither of the two actresses plays a character of much nobility or warmth. Jodie Foster is a vigilante (“The Brave One”), Amy Ryan is a negligent, coke-snorting mother (“Gone Baby Gone”) and Angelina Jolie morphs from the emotionally frigid wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” to the monster Grendel’s mother (“Beowulf”). Tyler Perry’s movie is called “Why Did I Get Married?” Emile Hirsch forsakes women for books in “Into the Wild,” and Anna Faris is stoned out of her gourd in “Smiley Face.”
Of course, there’s always Cate Blanchett. Her “Elizabeth” may be coldly regal, but her Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” is a twitchy, mumbling triumph. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, during a year when many of her sex were treated like second-class citizens, she got another Oscar nod for playing a man?