Saturday, March 15, 2008

There May Be Cracks But The Comedy Glass Ceiling Still Exists...

In this town (Los Angeles) and this industry (in case you’re tuning into my blog for the first time, I write primarily about entertainment), there are a handful of strong, intelligent, funny women who-- once they finally broke onto the radar-- have worked consistently in equally strong, intelligent, funny roles. Some of them are featured in the current issue of Vanity Fair, under the headline “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” which is interesting if for nothing else than the inherent implication that there are people today who still think the best comedians are men-- Dane Cook’s ADHD rants and all. There is nothing revolutionary about the VF article: no one featured comes as a surprise, the author devotes an ungodly word count to the idea that a comedienne’s physical appearance weighs more on her audience than her ability to deadpan does, and the only question raised is why more beyond the current “it” girls were not included. So allow me a chance to rectify that now, hmm?

Christopher Guest comedies always employ the same talents time and again, with Catherine O’Hara leading the pack for the women. There is something about her overtly animated eyes and voice that just elicits laugh-out-loud moments (notably in Home Alone but even in the trashtastic Surviving Christmas-- like when she read aloud from a script within the script and couldn’t find the right way to emote; there’s something chuckle-worthy about acting ingénues who have to pretend to be dumb in that respect). O’Hara is fearless in her performances—from teasing her frizzy hair out to an almost electric Afro in (Best in Show) to manipulating her facial muscles to appear Botoxed beyond salvation (For Your Consideration). O’Hara has mastered adult comedy and will finally cross over for new generations, next being heard in the classic Where The Wild Things Are.

As little as O’Hara might be written up in the press, her recurring Guest co-stars, Parker Posey and Jennifer Coolidge, grace the insides of magazines and entertainment news sites even less. Both steal any scene they are in with the oxymoronic nature of their inherent acerbic wit yet soft baby voices. Though she is most commonly known as “Stifler’s Mom,” Coolidge has mastered simple one-liners, bringing a third dimension to some otherwise flat characters. Who can forget her turn as faux-Brit Amanda on Friends, where eye-rollers like “I feel like a perfect arse” and “It’s not perfume; it’s my natural scent” caused guffaws so hard they were interspersed with snorts? With three films in post, Coolidge just signed onto Soul Men with Samuel L. Jackson, in which she will undoubtedly be relegated to a supporting role once again, but in which she will also undoubtedly add a whole lot of comedy cred.

Posey on the other hand is finally starring (no more supporting roles for her!) in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s sophomore series, The Return of Jezebel James, so the gripe that she doesn’t get celebrated enough might become moot in a few weeks. Posey is such a natural talent that she comes across as the girl-next-door despite the shrill, snappy bundle of nerves she portrays (see past performances in Best In Show, Scream 3, and Will & Grace as examples of variations on the type). Her big, bright smile offsets any oddities that fly out of her mouth and the tenseness at which they do, creating a well rounded-- if slightly neurotic-- woman. It is in those flaws and complications that make her real.

I already waxed poetic about Judy Greer pretty recently, so I won’t bore you with that repetition now (though she should be on the list, too!), but similarly, Lizzy Caplan has also unfortunately had to take a backseat to bigger names (Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls) and too-many-to-know-what-to-do-with ensembles (Related and The Class). Caplan’s raw talent is sophisticated, but she is unafraid to appear imperfect, taking on roles that often require some very unladylike outbursts—something for which she is unapologetic. These semi-flawed women make her seem that much more accessible, like she could easily be your childhood best friend all grown-up. Caplan is branching into multiple genres lately, with the upcoming Crossing Over about immigration, The Pitts a satirical look at the world's unluckiest family, and My Best Friend's Girl, yet another romantic comedy in which a plan to win an ex back goes awry.

From slicked-down hair and odd accents (Austin Powers) to matronly suits and odd accents (Drop Dead Gorgeous) to baby-bjorned miniature dogs and yet another slight accent (Reno 911), Mindy Sterling is the epitome of a “That Gal” actor: she is the quirky aunt or neighbor whose stories you will tell for years but whose name unfortunately you probably will not remember even if when you see her, you immediately shout out: “Oh, it’s that gal!” Though she pulls out all of the punches for any role (no matter how small, or even if it goes uncredited like her second stint on Friends), and consistently has audiences laughing out-loud, like Caplan, her recognition (let alone love) from critics or the studio higher-ups is minimal at best. She will continue her small but memorable roles with Weiners, a road trip comedy that sounds to be all slapstick and no substance.

Aisha Tyler’s most recent front-burner work (24, CSI, Ghost Whisperer) has been on the serious side of things, but she started her career making people laugh (Talk Soup) and still dabbles in jest with bit parts, like her recent stint on Reno 911 as Lt. Dangle’s half-sister. Her dry sense of humor got buried in the indie comedy Meet Market, which favored visual prop gags to get a reaction from their audience, went over the heads of the Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause's demographic, and went just plain unseen with the monstrosity that was Balls of Fury. Tyler is at her best when she utilizes her serious nature to play the straight-man... err, straight-woman, but without laudable material, she is returning to the solemn in Black Water Transit.

Finally, I’d be remiss if Lauren Graham was passed over from yet another list of acknowledgment. Never nominated for an Emmy despite pulling out snappy, bubbly banter week after week for seven seasons on Gilmore Girls, Graham has not yet been given the opportunity to really shine on the large screen. At least on The-WB-turned-CW, Graham was allowed to be both the beautiful romantic lead and the quirky (usually secondary) character who always has something offbeat to say, but in the half-dozen or so independent comedies in which she has acted during and since (Seeing Other People and The Amateurs, to name two) and even the fewer big studio films (Bad Santa, Evan Almighty, Because I Said So), she has been resigned to take a backseat as characters who flit on-screen just to offer a few meek punch-lines. Perhaps it should be no surprise then that Graham is moving into slightly more dramatic material with the upcoming Birds of America and Flash of Genius, in order to prove her intense training (she holds a Master’s Degree in Acting) will not be wasted on second-best roles. And whatever happened to that seven-figure deal she inked with NBC? Presumably the scripts they tossed her weren’t worthy because she is in development on a show of her own—the only one on my list to follow in the footsteps of many in that Vanity Fair profile and make something happen for herself.

Yes, women in television and film are no longer just pretty faces and fit figures at which the male characters who get things done gawk and get distracted by. They accomplish things on their own as more than just mothers or wives or girlfriends: they are career women now, too, and they multi-task as the mother, the wife, the girlfriend, and the ad exec/student/doctor/artist. So, yes: women in television and film have made great strides in shattering the glass ceiling-- that cannot be denied or disputed-- but to say there is not still an unfortunately long way to go for the real women behind the reel women would be a gross understatement (*cough, Vanity Fair, cough*), especially considering the immensely talented aforementioned who still haven’t been given the right big-screen roles in which to shine. Maybe the lesson here is really that there are dozens of funny women in this town, but not nearly enough quality material to match their sense of humor and style. Now we need the up-and-coming funny female writers to get to work and carve out a more permanent place for these immense talents. But maybe that’s another list for another blog…

1 comment:

Kate, Dating in LA said...

I loved (!!) For Your Consideration. Of course, I really enjoy most of the Guest movies. Sadly, I didn't love Jezebel James (and I'm usually a Posey fan). There were decent moments in what I saw, but overall, it wasn't working for me. Maybe I just need to give it another shot and my full attention.