There are no good roles for women. There are no good roles for women. About a decade ago, that was a cultural drumbeat, one that sounded from Hollywood screening rooms to newspaper op-ed pages to glossy movie magazines like Premiere, which devoted entire issues to the subject, and the chant didn't let up for years.
With good reason: There were no good roles for women. Or at least not as many mature, thoughtful opportunities as there were for men. (Salary is a far different, more pathetic, story.)
Anyway, last fall I interviewed Susan Sarandon, and she said that for years the well was so dry that when she took a role she began to ask herself: If this character were turned into a doll what would be the few lines it would say when you pulled its string? I asked her what her nun in Dead Man Walking would say. She thought for a moment and said:
“Probably, ‘I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry,' and ‘Let us pray'.”
Do you think that's disingenuous? She is Susan Sarandon, and she did win the Best Actress Oscar for Dead Man Walking. Besides: Is it me, or have roles for women gotten better? More nuanced? More varied? At a glance, it seems many of the most memorable parts of the last couple of years have been from actresses: Diane Lane in Unfaithful, Nicole Kidman in The Others and next week in The Hours, Thora Birch in Ghost World, Reese Witherspoon in anything.
Maybe I'm hallucinating, but here's one very unscientific indicator: A female cast member from Friends was outstanding in a good movie recently and her name wasn't Lisa Kudrow. Her name was Jennifer Aniston.
The movie is The Good Girl ($27.99 DVD), new on video this week, and it has the dubious distinction of being one of the best, high-profile American features from last year that never, astonishingly, opened in Toledo. (The reason is another, more pathetic story.) She plays an everyday cashier at the Retail Rodeo in a nowhere town in Texas. She meets a young guy (Jake Gyllenhaal) who calls himself Holden and can quote long passages of The Catcher in the Rye; she cheats on her husband, and decides she's going to follow Holden out of her zombie-ish existence.
Aniston drops her sitcom tics - the forced smiles, the stammering exasperation - and taps a profound small-town boredom that director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck) and writer Mike White (Orange County) never romanticize.
The disc is a decent package, too: about 10 minutes of deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a commentary from Aniston herself, who delivers the usual “He/she was great to work with” yada-yada track.
A better DVD buy, and a richer female role, albeit one granted breadth and complexity by episodic television, can be found on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Third Season ($59.99), a six-disc set.
For Buffy-heads: This is the season that introduced the morally ambiguous vampire hunter Faith (Eliza Dushku) and a wry demon named Anya (Emma Caufield, who is my personal favorite). The season ended with the mayor of Sunnydale deciding to begin his evil world domination plot on the same day as high school graduation. Bummer.
For everyone else (that is, the uninitiated but curious): Season three is the series' high point, so far, and the disc set isn't too shabby, either. Included is a bunch of commentary tracks from creator Joss Whedon, mini-documentaries, and entire scripts.
The best DVD package of the week, however, and a classic with some of the best roles for actresses ever, is Fox Home Entertainment's remastered edition of the 1950 Joseph L Mankiewicz Academy Award-winner All About Eve ($19.95), starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, a young Marilyn Monroe, and a whole lot of cat fights. Meow.
Part of the first wave of Fox's new Studio Classics line - others include Gentleman's Agreement and How Green Was My Valley ($19.95 each) - the extras are fun and generous: a selection of old Movietone news reels, the AMC Backstory special on Eve, and commentary tracks from Mankiewicz's son Christopher, actress Celeste Holm, and dueling film scholars who (in the spirit of the thing, I guess) even knock down each other's Mankiewicz books.
Incidentally, what would an All About Eve doll say? Let's all say it together, a great showbiz line: “Fasten your seat belts. Because it's going to be a bumpy night.”
NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: Secret Ballot (Maybe the first Iranian movie that critics weren't obliged to call “powerful;” instead, this light Iranian satire about a female election agent who is sent to a remote island to collect ballots is at turns a meditation on democracy and gender; if you've been curious about the Iranian film movement of the past decade, but have never found an accessible way in, here's your chance).