In 1955, Grace Kelly won an Oscar for her role as the wife of Bing Crosby’s alcoholic, has-been actor in “The Country Girl,” donning strings of pearls, clingy satin dresses and a slash of ruby red lipstick in practically every scene.
The year before, Audrey Hepburn got the nod as a spitfire princess who steals the heart of Cary Grant in “Roman Holiday.”
Over the past five years, however, the Academy has favored female characters of a grittier vein, with Charlize Theron winning for her role as a prostitute-cum-serial killer in “Monster” and Hilary Swank nabbing her second statuette as a waitress-turned-boxer in “Million Dollar Baby.”
In this year’s Oscar race, glam again gives way to grunge as a batch of A-list actresses embody femmes in military camouflage and denim cut-offs, swigging six-packs of beer and snorting coke.
Jodie Foster becomes a vengeful vigilante in “The Brave One,” while Kelly Macdonald talks back to a sociopath serial killer in “No Country for Old Men.” Theron pursues justice in a complex military murder case in “In the Valley of Elah,” while Jennifer Garner avenges an Islamic terrorist attack against the U.S. in “The Kingdom.” And then there’s Amy Ryan, who plays a pathetically unfit mother whose daughter is taken in the Ben Affleck-directed “Gone Baby Gone.”
Do filmmakers and audiences now view American women as symbols of scruff and struggle, rather than as models of beauty and aristocracy? Has grit becomes Oscar bait?
“I think, maybe, that Oscar responds to power more than grit,” says Ryan of cinema’s trend toward tough-as-nails women. “The women in the 1940s and ’50s — that was true film escapism. Now we’re at a place of extremes. It’s either the hot fantasy babe or the one who gets run over by a truck. We’re also a lot less innocent now. Grittier women are just more complicated. They are, you know, everything and nothing all at the same time.
“They are women who get stuck in bad cycles. Helene McCready (in ‘Gone Baby Gone’) is one of the most complicated women I’ve ever played. Personally, I would much prefer to explore these complicated people.”
According to Tom Abrams, associate professor of screenwriting and directing at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the political climate has a heavy impact on female film roles as well.
“Wartime has traditionally allowed for a broadening — or grunging out, if you will — of women’s roles in society, and therefore, cinema,” suggests Abrams.
Rosie the Riveter, the iconic character created to encourage women to work during World War II, comes to mind. With her sleeves rolled up and bandana around her head while sexily constructing aircraft, she’s not far from sweaty, voluptuous Anna Magnani in 1945’s “Rome, the Open City,” or Raquel Welch in 1969’s “100 Rifles,” both wartime films.
The insecurity of military engagements has a trickle-down effect on the culture, creating a wider display of behavior models: from Foster in “The Brave One” to the muscular, resilient girls of ABC’s “Lost.”
“For every Sleeping Beauty you get a rough and tumble tomboy,” says Abrams.
Producer Julia Eisenman (“Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) concurs.
“It’s not just that women aren’t just pretty faces anymore and that the role of women in society is changing,” she says. “That would be too simple. We have to look at history. This change has to do with the fact that our country is at war, as we were in the 1940s when there were some tough female movie roles, like Joan Crawford in ‘Mildred Pierce’ and Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Double Indemnity.’
“After the war, women became homebodies again and dependent on their husbands. But now, it’s swung back the other way with even more extremity, with women in Hollywood playing these gritty roles again.”
Certainly, for thesps, these parts bring a desirable creative freedom as well.
“The grit and grime are fun,” Ryan allows. “You don’t have to keep checking your hair, and there’s the freedom of letting it all go and having no vanity. But in terms of the emotional aspect, it weighs on your head and your heart.”
“It wasn’t hard work,” counters Scots-born Macdonald of portraying Carla Jean Moss, a woman who cuts a perceptively savvy figure against the lawlessness and nihilism of the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the Coen brothers’ latest celluloid blood bath.
“It felt like a really comfortable fit. For whatever reason, I just understood Carla Jean. Maybe these kinds of roles are more interesting than the glamorous roles. But I don’t think of Carla Jean as grungy — she’s really the heart and soul of the film. You think she’s just this naive girl and then you see that she’s much more than that, that she’s really got a backbone. If it weren’t for her, the film would just be about a bunch of stupid boys running around.”
That these hardscrabble parts are often celebrated come Oscar time might be a function of Hollywood’s finest females scrambling to get the few good ones out there.
“The roles are Oscar bait, but most actresses would vie for them regardless,” says Abrams, “rather than the by-the-numbers girlfriend, or woman-in-distress roles that permeate most screen stories.”
As for the Academy’s fascination with dodgy onscreen women, Macdonald remains nonplussed.
“I’m not sure why,” she quips, “but the moment an actress starts crying and dying, they start handing her out an award.”