Almost a decade later, ‘Penelope’ still inspires, marks the start of Reese Witherspoon’s producing career

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Christina Ricci, right, who plays the title role of Penelope, is shown in a scene with James McAvoy in the film "Penelope." Summit Entertainment photo

Christina Ricci, right, who plays the title role of Penelope, is shown in a scene with James McAvoy in the film “Penelope.” Summit Entertainment photo

Almost 10 years after its Toronto Film Festival debut, the modern-day fable Penelope seems largely forgotten, but its message continues to resonate.

In fact, it feels more relevant than ever.

I recently pulled it out of our DVD library because my daughter, Brenna, at age 5, finally seemed old enough to see it, but until I watched it again with her, I’d forgotten just how meaningful it is.

Christina Ricci stars as an aristocratic young heiress who is born with an unalterable pig snout because of an ancient family curse. The curse will only be broken if she finds love and acceptance from “one of her own kind,” so her overbearing mother (Catherine O’Hara) embarks on a rigorous search for a well-to-do husband on their social strata. Penelope has the chance for romance with a handsome ne’er-do-well musician (James McAvoy) but what she really needs is not romance but to learn to love herself, pig nose and all. The film co-stars Peter Dinklage, Richard E. Grant and Reese Witherspoon.

The message of women loving themselves even if their features are less than magazine perfect seems even more resonate than it did 10 years ago. With the Star Wars: The Force Awakens due out this week on Bluray and DVD, I’m reminded of a great column Jennifer Weiner recently wrote in the New York Times titled “When Can Women Stop Trying to Look Perfect?,” largely prompted by the fuss surrounding Carrie Fisher’s reprising her role as Princess Leia/Gen. Organa in the long-awaited sequel. Not only was the 59-year-old Fisher asked by the filmmakers to lose weight for the role, but she also became the subject of rampant social media criticism about her appearance.

In response, Fisher tweeted “please stop debating about whether OR not I have aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings.” In response, Kyle Smith of The New York Post, stated in his frequently obnoxious way that Fisher should be as grateful to the studio for making her drop the pounds, adding that “If she didn’t want the public to talk about her, she could have spent the last 40 years teaching kindergarten.”

To which Weiner replied in her column, “Which makes me wonder whether he’s ever visited a playground. Or eavesdropped during back-to-school night. The truth, as any woman can tell you, is that there’s no place, no profession, nowhere that a woman’s looks don’t matter.”

Unfortunately, I would have to agree with Weiner to a certain extent, although I don’t think her question goes far enough. “When Can Women Stop Trying to Look Perfect?” How about “Why don’t women stop trying to look perfect?”

Why not declare, as Penelope finally does, “I like myself the way I am” and stop letting billion-dollar industries based on vanity, shame and unrealistic expectations dictate to us? Maybe the reality isn’t as simple as in a fairy tale – even a modern-day one – but clearly, the ones selling this pervasive, insatiable and apparently unending ideal of female beauty have plenty of cash at stake in keeping women seeking it like rats in desperate pursuit of cheese. They’re the ones who benefit from keeping the expectations permanently just out of reach, so it’s not reasonable to expect them to simply lay off unless they have something to gain.

With The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and Lane Bryant This Body Campaign, there have been some encouraging signs lately that accepting women of all shapes, shades and sizes is financially feasible. Plus-size model Ashley Graham and UFC champion Ronda Rousey both appeared on Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue covers this year; that doesn’t change the fact that wearing swimsuits (or body paint) is as much a sport as Jell-O is a fruit, but at least it’s a sign that ideals of what constitute sexiness are changing.

But the truth is, as Penelope teaches, women don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission to declare their own independence and love themselves just as they are.

Reece Witherspoon appears in a scene from the 2006 movie "Penelope," her first project as a lead producer. Summit Entertainment photo

Reece Witherspoon appears in a scene from the 2006 movie “Penelope,” her first project as a lead producer. Summit Entertainment photo

Reese Witherspoon embarks on more producing projects

Filmed in England in 2006, Penelope debuted that September at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, although it wasn’t released in the U.K. and U.S. until two years after production.

It marked Witherspoon’s first project as the leading producer, and it established the 2005 Oscar-winning actress’ reputation for hiring women to tell stories about women: Penelope was written by a woman Leslie Caveny, best known for her work on the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond.

In 2012, Witherspoon launched with producer Bruna Papandrea the production company Pacific Standard, which continues to develop female-centered projects and build on the success of Academy Award-nominated films Gone Girl and Wild. Witherspoon recently talked to Entertainment Weekly about what prompted her to shift her focus from acting to producing:

“About four years ago, I got sent a script … and it was just awful. It was just a terrible script, and this male star was starring in it, and there was a girlfriend part. And I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. No, I’m not interested,’” Witherspoon said during EW’s Beyond Beautiful roundtable interview alongside Kerry Washington, Elizabeth Banks, and Eva Longoria. “They said, ‘Well, this actress is chasing it, that actress is chasing it.’ Like, three Oscar winners and two huge box-office leading ladies. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s where we’re at? This is where we’re at? You’re fighting to be the girlfriend in a dumb comedy? For what?’ And by the way, two Oscar winners did it. I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”

Witherspoon has since become what The Hollywood Reporter called “a true industry force,” receiving the 29th American Cinematheque Award last fall.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Pacific Standard is now helping bring Big Little Lies to HBO. The limited series is based on the Liane Moriarty bestseller about three women whose children attend the same school and who learn more about each others’ lives as they become friends. Now filming, it stars Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgard and Adam Scott.

Pacific Standard also will produce the soapy drama Broken from writer Meaghan Oppenheimer, according to Variety. The ABC drama pilot is set to star Anna Paquin as a ruthless Dallas divorce attorney, Gemma, as her life begins to unravel when her emotionally damaged, love-addicted sister resurfaces, triggering self-destructive tendencies and exposing long-hidden family secrets. Blair Underwood will play James, Gemma’s boss and sometimes lover; T.R. Knight will play Mark, who is competing with Gemma for the same position; and Penelope Ann Miller will play Elizabeth Hamilton, the wife of a Texas oil billionaire who is seeking revenge after having been left for a woman 20 years younger.

And to think, it all started with a little fairytale film called Penelope.

Amy Adams appears in a scene from "Batman v Superman." Warner Bros. photo

Amy Adams appears in a scene from “Batman v Superman.” Warner Bros. photo

Quick hitters

- HBO cuts into Sharp Objects. The high-profile drama Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams, has landed at HBO with an eight-episode straight-to-series first season order, according to Deadline. Based on the book by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects has UnReal co-creator Marti Noxon as showrunner, Wild helmer Jean-Marc Vallée as director, and Flynn as a writer alongside Noxon.

The serialized drama is an adaptation of Flynn’s 2006 best-selling debut thriller novel. Sharp Objects centers on reporter Camille Preaker (Adams) who, fresh from a brief stay at a psychiatric hospital, must return to her tiny hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls.

Vallée will direct all episodes, just as he did on HBO’s upcoming limited series Big Little Lies.

- Lily Collins to star in Noxon’s anorexia comedy. British actress Lily Collins will star in Marti Noxon’s dark comedy To the Bone, with Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn and Karina Miller producing, according to Variety. To the Bone is inspired by Noxon’s own struggles with anorexia. She will direct from her own script.

- Wonder Woman actress says more female superheroes are needed. EW reports that Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who portrays the fierce Amazon warrior in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and is getting her own Wonder Woman standalone movie next year, said during a Twitter Q&A  that the wrld needs more strong female characters like Wonder Woman.

Asked how it feels to be a role model for girls everywhere, Gadot replied, “It feels great! Being a mother, it’s very important that #WonderWoman comes back to life, we need more female [superheroes].”

Gadot tells the Los Angeles Times that the Wonder Woman depicted in the standalone film, helmed by Monster director Patty Jenkins, will be markedly different than the character in Batman v Superman. Wonder Woman is due in theaters June 23, 2017.

- Allegiant leads to eulogy for YA films. The blockbuster downfall of The Divergent Series: Allegiant prompted Rolling Stone to issue an eulogy for Hollywood’s trend of adapting young-adult novels into movies. The loss warrants mourning since we are talking about the trend that helped make The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence the biggest things in movies for nearly half a decade.

“Say what you will about how The Hunger Games ultimately fumbled its narrative — there’s no denying that Katniss remained a firm totem of female strength in a world determined to limit her. She makes complex and defiant moral choices up until the end of the convoluted fourth film, showing young women that fighting for their rights can be necessary, but that it’s better to live in a world where they don’t have to,” Rolling Stones’s David Ehrlich writes.

“Individually, these films offered young girls a handful of token role models to look up to, but their real strength was in numbers. Taken on the whole, such an avalanche of YA offerings fundamentally rewired a generation to understand that stories don’t naturally default to male heroes. The most extraordinary thing these female-fronted movies have accomplished is to correct the notion that there should be anything extraordinary about female-fronted movies.”

He noted that we are heading into a summer in which only three of the blockbusters currently slated to hit theaters have female leads: Ghostbusters, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Finding Dory.

According Collider, The Divergent Series: Allegiant took the No. 6 spot at this weekend’s box office with $5.7 million, which brings its domestic total to $56.4 million — a number that means it took three weeks for the sequel to earn as much as series starter Divergent did in its first weekend. That certainy doesn’t bode well for next year’s franchise finale Ascendant. 

-BAM

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