AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, May 1, 2010 — MaryAnn Johanson

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Botox, breast implants, and dye jobs: suddenly not what Hollywood wants?

DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON’T? Is today’s typical Hollywood actress “A Little Too Ready for Her Close-Up?”, The New York Times wondered this week:

It took years for Hollywood to create the perfect woman. Now it wants the old one back.

In small but significant numbers, filmmakers and casting executives are beginning to re-examine Hollywood’s attitude toward breast implants, Botox, collagen-injected lips and all manner of plastic surgery.

Television executives at Fox Broadcasting, for example, say they have begun recruiting more natural looking actors from Australia and Britain because the amply endowed, freakishly young-looking crowd that shows up for auditions in Los Angeles suffers from too much sameness.

“I think everyone either looks like a drag queen or a stripper,” said Marcia Shulman, who oversees casting for Fox’s scripted shows.

Independent casting directors like Mindy Marin, who worked on the Jason Reitman film “Up in the Air,” are urging talent agents to discourage clients from having surgery, particularly older celebrities who, she contends, are losing jobs because their skin is either too taut or swollen with filler. Said Ms. Marin: “What I want to see is real.”

Where to begin?! Is the depressingly bland “standard” Hollywood idea of beauty — a Caucasian anorexically skinny but abonmally huge-breasted 23-year-old with a blonde dye job — really considered “perfect”? Perfect? That’s a horrifying notion.

And yet… whether we like it or not, Hollywood has clearly liked it very much for quite a long while. This is the ideal that Hollywood has been pushing for many years. Is it any wonder that now we have a generation of young women who’ve dreamed of Hollywood stardom who’ve felt compelled to transform themselves into something that looks like “a drag queen or a stripper”? Because this is what Hollywood has told them it wants. I hate the bland sameness of many of the faces — particularly female faces (and bodies!) — Hollywood has offered us (and I said as much very recently). I hate the forces of conformity, and I hate that people give in to those forces. Still: these women, these aspiring actresses, have only responded to what they’ve been told they need to do in order to make it in Hollywood.

Now, I can’t say I actually feel sorry for anyone involved. Not Hollywood and its fickleness — it’s hilariously ironic to listen to casting directors suddenly complaining about the environment they themselves created. And not the young women who’ve had plastic surgically implanted in their chests and poison injected into their lips and who’ve starved themselves just so they could be mistaken for every other female face onscreen these days: if you live by what is popular at the moment, you will forever be at the mercy of shifting tastes.

But it is yet one more reminder that while men, even men in image-conscious Hollywood, are allowed much greater freedom, as the Times notes:

Men, of course, are not immune to the youthful lure of a surgeon’s scalpel. But it is women, to the surprise of no one, who are being scrutinized most closely.

it is women who continue to feel far greater pressure to conform, women who face far greater punishment for failing to conform, and women whose bodies are dictated by “fashion” in ways that men’s are not.

I have no doubt that 20 years from now, we’ll be hearing about how casting directors are suddenly tired of seeing laugh lines and frizzy hair and small breasts on all the actresses they’re seeing in auditions, and how they’re now calling for women who aspire to be seen on screens big and small to “take better care of themselves,” that they think that “everyone either looks like a librarian or a housewife.” And the vicious circle will continue.

REASONS TO HOPE. As much as I complain about Hollywood’s treatment of women, there are always — always — small films coming from filmmakers working outside the studios that focus on female characters who are closer approximations to real human beings than Hollywood typically manages. And I choose take it as a sign of hope that these films may be starting to draw even more attention when, in the same week that it ran that story on the shift in what Hollywood is demanding from female actors, The New York Times also ran two pieces on two new movies in which women already look real, on both the outside and the inside.

Re Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give:

This is a movie about women, with no vanity lighting. “Please Give,” which will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and open on Friday, is about the aging or, to put it more charitably, maturing self. For Ms. Holofcener, 50, and an independent-film stalwart, it is another example of the highly personal, of-the-moment stories that she often cribs from her own life or those of her friends.

It was inspired by a friend who bought a neighbor’s apartment, and was filmed in another friend’s building, using props from her home. In real life nothing much happened; in Ms. Holofcener’s screen version the situation allows for a meditation on the value of holding on to things, whether they’re objects or relationships or notions of self, across four generations of women.

Re Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child:

“When I read this script, I was a mess because I was so moved,” [star Kerry] Washington said. “I was thrilled to see a script in which the women aren’t just arm candy. These characters are so rich and three-dimensional, each more than the next. To find something so beautifully written, that’s rare.”

Garcia’s film also broaches topics about motherhood that even Hollwyood films, which often give women characters their greatest breadth in roles as mothers, dare not touch:

People who analyze how women are treated in film suggest that the paucity of serious movies about adoption reflects in part the subject’s often thorny nature.

“Unlike movies about stepfamilies, which tend to be upbeat and positive, adoption frequently has a less happy ending,” said Jennifer Merin, president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. “Adoption traditionally involved lots of secrecy, and there was often stigma and shame. It doesn’t let people escape from painful issues.”

(Congrats to the AWFJ’s Merin on her Times appearance!)

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s not merely a coincidence that two such reality-based movies about women are opening in the space of a week, and that the day will come when such won’t even be worth highlighting.

ON THAT POSITIVE NOTE… This will be my last Week in Women column. Thanks for reading for the past year and a half.

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her AWFJ.org archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).