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by Harlan Kennedy


The 62nd Venice Film Festival proved one point above all others. We need no longer listen to that whiskery wisdom, heard in Hollywood and points north, south, east and west. “They don’t make good roles for women.”

Actresses at Venice this year trounced the truism. They trounced the actors too. The women had the greater talent; no less interestingly they had the better roles. Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Isabelle Huppert and Fiona Shaw – to name but four – ate all the scenery they were served in THE QUEEN, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, NUE PROPRIETE and THE BLACK DAHLIA, while the men in those films, and in many more, struggled for scraps.

Which of us did not think immediately of the famous Botticelli painting of Venus and Mars? A post-coital god of war lies in snooze mode in a spring meadow, a young paragon bereft of his vital essences, while a complacently twinkling Venus, semi-recumbent at his side, looks on at her conquest.

So it was at Venice. So it will be at next year’s Golden Globes and Oscars. There is a crisis in masculine identity today. (Remember where you read it first). Men have been proved incompetent as leaders, boring as superheroes – witness this year’s ragged returns from comic-strip blockbusters – and tedious as role models. Now they are up for redundancy as actors.

When Tom Cruise’s services were suspended by Paramount last summer, it was a seismic signal to the world. Hollywood’s numero-uno testosteroner was deemed a prancing twerp, with a propensity for capering on sofas and insulting feminine colleagues. His furniture-wrecking stunt was on TV’s OPRAH, in supposed celebration of his new love for Katie Holmes. Shortly before or after this – no one can remember an exact order of events when the events themselves are daft beyond caring – he brought the full weight of his Scientological authority, based on the scriptures of L Ron Hubbard, to his condemnation of Brooke Shields for taking post-partum antidepressants.

Enough of Tom Cruise. And enough of Superman. And enough of George W Bush, primus inter primates. Instead of these failed males, abusing their loaned omnipotence, the movie world has turned to Johnny Depp, camping it up as an incompetent brigand in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, to henpecked techno-twerp Adam Sandler in CLICK! and – beyond them – to performers who make no bones about the fact that they are not men at all. They are, to put it bluntly, women.

At Venice, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, a truth-based New York magazine editor putting the fascism into fashion, each cut a more convincing figure as a commander-in-chief than the C-in-C now ruling the western world. Whereas some years ago we might have viewed Her Majesty QE2 and Anna Wintour (the American Vogue editor-in-chief who inspired THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) as, respectively, a chilly monarch and a dislikable tyrant of the typeface, today we warm to their stylish obduracy, their icy politesse, even the way each woman camouflages her occasional cockamamie caprice as cool rule and consistent agenda.

For, there are three sub-clausal reasons for the plate-shift in present-day comparative gender perceptions. First, everyone wants Mrs Thatcher back, the last western leader who had a strong but commonsense worldview and the clarity of mind to implement it. Secondly, women are less swayable – for the most part – by claptrap creeds like Scientology and suicide terrorism. Thirdly, women have taken over a historic number of top or next-to-top jobs in the present day, from managing companies to editing newspapers to running offices of state. And they show that they do not fall flat on their faces or have hysterics or run off and buy hats: they manage themselves just as well as, possibly better than, men.

Mirren and Streep prove that women can command. The iconic image in THE QUEEN is that of Tony Blair, a nominal head of state, kneeling before Her Majesty, with no hint of incongruity in this tableau of ascendancy. The iconic refrain in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is Streep’s sovereign “That’s all”, a guillotine sigh, at once lofty and feminine, that cuts short any conversation with a subordinate that has ceased to interest her.

These are women in control. But as Isabelle Huppert in NUE PROPRIETE and Fiona Shaw in THE BLACK DAHLIA proved at Venice, women out of control can be just as compelling – and more compelling, once again, than their corresponding menfolk. In other words, when they succeed, modern women are more interesting than men. And when they fail, they are also more interesting than men.

Huppert is tremendous in the role of a divorced mother warring with inheritance-greedy sons in NUE PROPRIETE. Huppert’s specialty as an actress has been to take the notional passivity of femaleness and turn this ‘negative capability’ into a positive, into an expressiveness varied, supple and absorptive. At first she seems a victim in this clever French domestic drama, shot like a fly-on-wall documentary or reality TV saga. Yet it becomes clearer and clearer that victimhood has its own vanquisher prowess. Not so much passive aggression, more an anger that seems pure, virgin-born and self-directed, like an arrow that finds its own way from the quiver to the bow to the target.

(Some years ago Huppert played Mary Stuart in Schiller’s play at London’s National Theatre and again made a hero of a victim, a protagonist of a persecutee).        

Fiona Shaw in THE BLACK DAHLIA acts everyone else off the screen, possibly off the map. Brian De Palma’s film of James Ellroy’s 1940s-set Los Angeles detective novel needs a little madness. It has needed it for an hour before Shaw appears: we have tramped knee-deep in faux-baroque story complications and hardboiled Chandlerian (we wish) dialogue. We need a saviour and we get one.

As the rich, mentally disturbed, dipsomaniacal wife of a Scottish-American millionaire living in a Hollywood mansion – possibly a murderess too – Shaw could have gone over the top. But she is not content to do that. She goes over the roof, over the biosphere, over the moon and planets. Her trippy drawl, woozy gestures, dazed eyes indicating a damaged brain, above all her rubato delivery – now presto, now druggy-lento – are spellbinding.

She suggests that women go to pieces far more interestingly than men. (Shakespeare suggested this with Lady Macbeth). She suggests too that some movies pick the wrong character(s) to put centre screen. Or else a great performer can make us think they do. A De Palma/Ellroy melodrama about Shaw’s character, her backstory, her battiness, her raison de vivre, her raison de boire, her raison de tuer (there, we’re giving the plot away): now, that would be a movie we’d circle blocks to see.   

In despair at finding a male to equal the females, the Venice jury gave this year’s Best Actor prize to Ben Affleck in HOLLYWOODLAND. Ben Affleck! Yesterday he was the face that sank a hundred movies from all walks of Tinseltown (PEARL HARBOR, JERSEY GIRL, GIGLI). Today he is apparently better than anyone else with a double-X chromosome.

It proves the point, doesn’t it? For the record, there was no better male performance at Venice than Affleck’s. And he played nothing other than a failed Superman: the true-life actor George Reeves, who in the 1950s was TV’s first Man of Steel before he killed himself, his career having failed to take off from living-room fame.

Crashed comic-strip heroes, dying white males – this is the new carpeting of the new cultural landscape, wall to wall, horizon to horizon. Across this battleground walk the women who know to act, how to rule, how to command, how to conquer. Or how to command our attention even when they are doing none of these things.

The actor is dead. Long live the actress. At least until the next revolution.

Anyone for Hillary?






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.