I interviewed Meryl Streep a week ago, and one of the many things she said that struck me was this: Asked to describe how she chooses her movies, she said, "I'm always drawn to difficult women." She continued, "There are plenty of roles for difficult men. The more flaws a male character has, the more we like them. But for women, it's the opposite." Movies, by and large, prefer women to be decorative and malleable, or at most, a fantasy of difficult - the way the women in, say, Couples Retreat are a titch crabby at the beginning, but all sweetness and sex two hours later.
For Streep, "difficult" means real. This includes angry ( Manhattan , Kramer vs. Kramer ), elusive ( The French Lieutenant's Woman , Sophie's Choice ), stubborn ( Silkwood , Out of Africa , Heartburn ), yearning ( Adaptation , The Hours ), imperious ( The Devil Wears Prada ), over-certain ( Angels in America , Doubt ) and plain nasty ( Rendition , The Manchurian Candidate ). Her women are genuinely complicated - and, even rarer, not planning to change.
Lately, I've been heartened to see new films with actresses who seem equally fascinated by difficult women. First, Charlize Theron. Her drama The Burning Plain (it opened in selected cities yesterday) is lugubrious, but I can see why she signed on. Her character, Sylvia, may be burdened by a big ol' secret (which anyone can see coming for miles) that keeps her from connecting with others, but Theron plays her as a woman who just doesn't like people very much. In the opening scene, she kicks a lover out of bed unapologetically, and then stands naked in front of a window, smoking, shocking the schoolchildren walking below. Other than at work (she's a hostess in an upscale restaurant), she doesn't smile or murmur encouragements. She doesn't make nice.
Looking back on her films, I realize that Theron's been on this track for a while. Early on, she played her share of luscious catches ( The Devil's Advocate , The Cider House Rules ) and femmes fatales ( 2 Days in the Valley ). But that splinter of an edge was there, in the way she mocked her glamour in Celebrity , in her chemistry with Johnny Depp in The Astronaut's Wife and in her flinty handling of the boys in The Italian Job . Writer/director James Gray, who makes films about difficult people of both sexes, used her well in The Yards . And then of course her work in Monster as serial killer Aileen Wournos won her a best-actress Oscar and freed her to use her sensational beauty however she wanted - rather than how Hollywood would prefer her to.
In North Country , In the Valley of Elah , the upcoming The Road and even the silly superhero movie Hancock , Theron's women withhold. I imagine that's a truth for a lot of beautiful women - everyone wants something from them, and it's wearing - but it's not a truth you get to see very often on a movie screen. I haven't seen nearly as much from Abbie Cornish, the 27-year-old Australian actress (for example, I have yet to see Candy , where she and Heath Ledger play junkies in love), but I'm encouraged by what I have. She brought an arrestingly open sexiness to her small role in A Good Year , and she was palpably pained as Ryan Phillippe's girl-back-home in Stop-Loss . Now, in Bright Star , the new film from writer/director Jane Campion, Cornish plays Fanny Brawne - an outspoken dressmaker who was the love of John Keats's tragically short life - with a fearlessness that's really appealing. Fanny is vain and superficial, but also full of feeling and fierce in love.
Cornish possesses both a stillness and a direct, confrontational gaze that together are wonderfully disconcerting. It makes perfect sense to me that, as her bio on the Internet Movie Database reads, she started modelling at 13 because she was "bored"; that in her first acting job, at age 15, she took on the role of a quadriplegic (in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation series Children's Hospital ); and that her favourite actresses are Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton - two women who've made careers out of playing difficult.
Audrey Tautou is another actress with an appeal that can't be tamped down, and she uses it to great affect portraying the early days of the great couturier in Coco Avant Chanel . Her Coco is willful, driven, uncompromising. She uses a wealthy lover for his money and doesn't pretend otherwise. He's a horse trainer, and we see how she would be a similar challenge. But he doesn't break her; no one does. She dresses like a man and makes a name for herself snipping the feathers and frippery off of other women's clothes. She smiles, but rarely, and she never goes soft, not even when she falls in love. And when grief strikes, she doesn't show it; she becomes more focused, more successful.
Tautou was indelible as the impish lead in Amélie , but the best Hollywood has been able to come up with for her was The Da Vinci Code . It's no surprise that it was a female writer-director, Anne Fontaine, who finally gave Tautou her head in Coco . In fact, many of the standout performances I've mentioned were directed by women: Patty Jenkins directed Theron in Monster ; Cornish was directed by Kimberly Peirce in Stop-Loss and Campion in Bright Star . Do you see a pattern here? (I haven't seen Amelia yet, with Hilary Swank as the aviator Amelia Earhart, directed by Mira Nair, but I suspect it fits, too.)
The pattern continues with the last film on my list, An Education , directed by Lone Scherfig, the (female) Danish director who made Italian for Beginners .
An Education is about Jenny (Carey Mulligan, already considered an Oscar contender), an Oxford-bound student circa 1961, seduced from her studies by a glamorous older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Mulligan, a 22-year-old Brit who shone in small roles in the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice and the miniseries Bleak House , was nominated for a Drama Desk award in 2009 for the Broadway run of The Seagull , where she more than held her own against Sarsgaard and Kristin Scott Thomas. Her Jenny isn't difficult, exactly; she's just so impossibly bright and alive with possibilities that no one knows what to do with her.
For me, the impact of An Education is felt in one short scene, a meeting between Jenny and a teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), who really sees her - and is a formidable woman herself. Watching Williams convey the gift of being difficult to Mulligan was one of my great movie-going pleasures of 2009. And make no mistake, it is a gift. Not an easy one, but essential to any movie - or any life - of substance.