Better-half roles balance support with strength

Eye on the Oscar: Actress Preview

Talk about a pendulum swing.

Earlier this year, Meryl Streep took home the lead actress Oscar for her portrayal as steely Margaret Thatcher in “Iron Lady,” and Octavia Spencer walked out with her supporting actress prize for playing a maid who stands up for herself in “The Help.”

This year a very different field of contending roles is gaining attention. What may surprise voters is that the truly great roles for women this year have largely played on a reverse theme: Call them women who subserviently stand by their flawed men, or women who simply know their place and exercise limited power behind the scenes — albeit of a very specific, and often historical, type.

Take Amy Adams’ Peggy Dodd, the loyal-yet-domineering wife of “The Master,” about a Scientology-like cult guru and his growing legions. Says producer JoAnne Sellar, “I always saw her as the Lady Macbeth character. She’s the strong woman behind the man, very much of the period. If this was a contemporary piece, she’d be running the organization.”

Tony Kushner, screenwriter of “Lincoln,” feels similarly about Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln. “Her ambitiousness was an enormous goad in getting him to become president,” he says. “I think she adored him deeply while suffering for being his wife as well. … As a first lady, she understood about political theater, and that’s what she was meant to do.”

Other actresses and roles turning in standout performances include Emayatzy Corinealdi, who deals with an imprisoned husband in “Middle of Nowhere,” Olivia Williams as the tolerant wife of President Franklin Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson” and Helen Mirren as the co-author of her husband’s success in “Hitchcock” — all of whom exist in the shadow of their men.

But why now? Helen Jacey, screenwriter and author of “The Woman in the Story: Writing Memorable Female Characters,” suggests these roles are a reflection of today’s world. “In very turbulent times, with economic change and global transitions and fear, we do react and retreat to very traditional values,” she says. “These are all women living through a man and a man’s achievements. The movies are about men and male achievements, and how women contributed to that success and were sometimes the driving force behind it.”

“Hitchcock” producer Tom Pollock says he sees the heart of his film’s story as not really being about the making of “Psycho,” but rather the “true creative partnership between a husband and a wife at a time when the wife in effect stood three paces behind and was not in the limelight.”

As Alma Hitchcock, Mirren plays the spouse of a difficult if talented man. But to Pollock, it’s about how she put up with those flaws. “Alma was a woman of her time — we’re dealing with the 1950s, and their partnership began in the 1930s. That’s just the way relationships were,” he says.

And producers don’t really see these roles as subservient. Save for “Middle of Nowhere,” these women live in pre-feminist eras, and the roles reflect their times. “She knows her place because of the period and time, and would never step outside of that to cause embarrassment to her husband or the organization,” says Sellar of “The Master’s” Peggy Dodd. “But she is clearly not subservient.”

That means Academy voters may have to dig a little deeper to identify with the inspirational qualities of these women. It may not be as easy a decision as the more contemporary appeal of Streep’s Thatcher. For Jacey, it all begs the question: Where are all the independent women this year?

“Why are we still having five major Oscar contenders where the females don’t have goals for themselves — other than being the force behind their man?” she asks. “Are we still giving women messages that they are the gender that looks after relationships and is fulfilled by relationships? It’s almost subliminal. They are still very narrow versions of what being a woman is about.”

Eye on the Oscar: Actress Preview
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