Sunday, June 1, 2008

What Happened to the Ladies, pt 2

I wrote most of this post two weeks ago or so, but forgot to finish it. Sorry. It's up now!

I heard back from a few of you about my previous post which suggested that an entire generation of female movie stars sucked (Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, etc) and that the one directly preceding it was unaccountably awesome (Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Anjelica Huston, etc). The one thing I didn't hear, which I expected to, was that some of you liked that former group of movie stars. No one said they liked them, so I'm not going to try to argue they don't suck. They do, especially compared to their predecessors.
Reasons 1 and 2: From Luke Johnson: "Dude, it was the 80's. Cut them some slack. Sure their movies sucked, but go back through your pictures of what your parents dressed you in during the 80's. I rest my case.

Also, anyone who got an Oscar nomination from being in a Woody Allen movie should just save some time and transfer it to Woody."

1. It was the eighties, stupid! Luke's right: the eighties were stupid. People looked funny, they dressed funny, they listened to bad music, they did cocaine, greed was good, and they went to bad movies. This definitely carried over into the early 90s as well. And so, just like you can't make the case that all music was bad in the eighties, most musical superstars from that era look horrendous when compared to their predecessors, and the same applies to the female movie stars. Meryl Streep:Meg Ryan::Led Zeppelin:Poison

2.It was the directors, stupid! For those of you who don't know, the Hollywood studio system was in ruins for a number of reasons by the late 60s, and the result was a decentralized system of producers and directors scrambling to make movies. The assemblyline method of making movies was over, and directors, trained in film school and raised on the European classics, were being unleashed to make the movies they wanted with modest budgets and the second generation of method acting. So, when your movies are made by Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Sydney Lumet, Robert Altman, Sydney Pollack, and their compatriots, your performances are probably going to be good. Unfortunately, two of Coppola's students decided to make a new kind of movie: the overhyped summer blockbuster which cost tons of money but made even more. And sure, Jaws, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones were good, but pretty soon the personal, artistry driven movies were out and crap was in, just in time to welcome the new generation of female movie stars. If you'd given Melanie Griffith to Woody Allen and Sydney Lumet, they might have made something of her. Probably not, but as it was, she didn't even have a chance.

A smaller corollary to this is the rise of the romantic comedy/chick flick, which was driven entirely by this crappy generation of female movie stars. Once upon a time, a movie about love could be made by Woody Allen, feature two (or more!) adults who might or might not end up together, and would treat the audience like they had ever met other human beings. For the entire careers of our second generation, that manner of movie has barely existed - it wouldn't have made enough money. Enter "Pretty Woman."

3.The lovely Mrs. Moviesetal weighs in with our third reason: "What I'm wondering is not so much whether these actresses improved by taking on more serious roles earlier - but whether you just like them better because they have more serious roles under their belts and less movies like "Nell" and "An Officer and a Gentlemen" to their names.

Chicken or egg?"
This is another excellent point. The actors in our second, crappier generation have struggled in their new lives as actresses over the age of 28; Julia Roberts, the youngest of them, has managed to move into some roles where she kind of plays an adult, but the rest of them have either tried to play the old kind of role still or just disappeared entirely. But our first generation of actors seems to have been born old, was almost never asked to be just some stupid pretty face (as they weren't all that pretty to begin with, and also see reasons 1 and 2) and thus rapidly made the transition into serious actors willing to take roles that would showcase their acting assets. The second generation, on the other hand, has tried to do the same stupid Hollywood leading lady thing for their entire lives, not noticing that women only ten years older than them have been acting like grownups in movies for decades.

4. What Happened to the Gentleman? Dooley asks: "i'd be interested in your thoughts on whether it is properly generational--do the same trends and their underlying factors apply to male actors, or is it just the ladeez?" My first response to this is that it's harder to define generations of male actors; Hollywood is constantly asking female movie stars to either disappear themselves or start playing mothers or grandmothers, while Clint Eastwood was still playing people in their forties and fifties within the last decade. So I'd have a harder time defining what the generations look like. But, loosely, I'd say the male counterparts to our first generation are: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen, and Warren Beatty (all born between 1935 and 1943). I'd put up all but Warren as candidates for best actor of all time (Dustin would finish last in the voting, but he'd be there).

The next generation would be: the Toms, Cruise and Hanks, Bill Murray, Harrison Ford, and Denzel Washington (all born between 1950 and 1962, except for Harrison, who is older but didn't have any success until after most of the actors in the previous generation already had several Oscar noms). So the answer to Sarah's question is: sort of. This generation is, in my opinion, considerably better than their female counterparts. But Cruise sucks, Ford and Washington are wildly inconsistent, Hanks can be a maudlin ham, and Murray would have been a joke for almost two decades now if he hadn't reinvented himself as the go-to father figure for lovelorn hipsters. And the only reason I can give why both the male and female movie stars of this generation are so much crappier than their predecessors is #2: When Hollywood let Coppola, Scorcese, et al loose to make whatever movies they wanted, the result are masterpieces with great performances. When Hollywood asks Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, et al to turn $200 million into $500 million, the result is something less.

Conclusion: For the most part, it seems we can't blame the Ladeez who sucked because they sucked. Sure, they didn't manage to keep up with their male counterparts, but neither did their male counterparts manage to keep up with their own predecessors. And much of this can be blamed on the fact that Hollywood starting making a different kind of movie with a different kind of star in the late 70s, and the great filmmaking went underground in the form of people like the Coens. The 80s got exactly the movie stars they deserved, which is to say crappy ones, and and the female movie stars were doubly handicapped by the rise of the chick flick, which is even a worse genre than the blockbuster, and one that attracted nearly all of the actors on our list. Again, that's probably not their fault.

Verdict: It was mostly Hollywood's fault, but they helped alot by not choosing the right kinds of roles or movies.

Further thoughts: Can anyone tell me what's going on with this generation of female movie stars (if they even exist)? Who are they? Will they out-perform their predecessors? Are Cameron Diaz in the same generation as say, Scarlett Johanson, or are there two separate generations (Diaz, Witherspoon, Ryder, say, then Gyllenhaal, Johannson, Knightley, etc). If you've got any thoughts, I'd love to hear them - there's definitely another post here to be had.


tri(sarah)tops said...

In theory I'm in favor of dividing the younger batch into 2 "generations," but it's hard to make a logical definition based on age. I mean, Winona Ryder and Cameron Diaz are roughly the same age, but Ryder started acting about 10 years earlier. Maggie Gyllenhaal is only a year younger than Reese Witherspoon, and they started acting around the same time in the early 90's. Even if we put the divide later, say in the early to mid 80's, we'd have a weird separation of Portman (1981) and Dunst (1982) from Johansson (1984) or Knightley (1985).
Again, part of me wants to divide this group, but its more based on the type of roles they are known for versus whether or not they are actually age appropriate.
In any event, it seems that the current generation is more inconsistent than either of the other two, but maybe it's just exaggerated because we're living through every moment of it. I mean, Anjelica Huston's acted her way through some real clunkers, but who the hell remembers Captain EO or Ice Pirates anyway?

Graham said...

Yeah, I agree with you - there's been at least two generations since the ones we were originally talking about, but it's hard to tell how to divide them into generations. Probably it'll be clearer in a decade or so.

Yeah, I also feel that this generation is more inconsistent than their predecessors, but I think you're right: we probably just feel that way because of the nowness of their roles. Bad performances get forgotten because nobody watches those bad movies, good performances are remembered and have film festivals built around them. In the long run, this terrifies me: I fear that 40 years from now, no one will remember Eyes Wide Shut or The Last Samurai but A Few Good Men and Jerry Maguire will be held up as masterpieces and Tom Cruise will be positively remembered. So terrible.

tri(sarah)tops said...

hopefully Tom will be remembered/reviled for his couch-jumping antics and foaming rant about how psychology is all a bunch of razzmatazz & wizardry instead of any acting on his part whatsoever. though i did totally love MI3.