The interest of esthetic criticism, which made it for a generation or two a privileged source of anthropological reflection, lies in its intuitive link with the transcendence that is human culture; in perceiving the work one obtains a revelation concerning the human condition, which it is the critical thinker’s task to translate into a rational-metaphysical vocabulary. The recent decline of this form of theorizing reflects, among other things, the decline of literature in comparison to cinema and related screenic arts, which gives rise to a greater difficulty in textualizing one’s intuitions.
Yet film is fundamentally a narrative genre normally involving fictive human subjects. Such works as Deleuze’s two-volume Cinéma suggest that anthropological film criticism was indeed one of the possibilities opened up by French Theory. But this author’s attempt to encompass all of film in two volumes, along with his characteristically Bergsonian disregard for scale that allows him to discuss a single frame and a national cinema in the same breath, makes this compendium of often brilliant observations within a provocative historical framework—opposing modern (pre-war) cinéma-action to post-modern (postwar) cinéma-temps—difficult to adapt as a model for systematic film study. I hope that GA might someday inspire a more disciplined work of similar scope.
Writing about beautiful actresses, as I first experienced over a decade ago with my Carole Landis project, combines the pleasure of celebrating my intuitive sense of value with theoretical interest in a way that makes it a permanent temptation. Such writing is not simply self-indulgent, let alone pornographic. Human, and particularly female beauty is in our “secular” age the closest thing to an object of universal significance. Simple economics assure us that a film actress I find beautiful must be admired by a good many others of all ages and nationalities. However much the modalities of “courtly love” have changed over the centuries, the phenomenon theorized and celebrated in Dante’s Vita Nuova is not only still with us, but its filmic expression has attained in the past few decades a level of refinement and maturity that I believe to be greater than in cinema’s earlier history. And this development is all the more significant in that the general culture, and above all our academic culture, forbids any reference to such matters at the risk of arousing Twitter-storms of invective. Perhaps indeed these two phenomena do not contradict each other; perhaps we are more ready to appreciate beauty authentically when public discussion of it is impossible. The sacred has more than one way of entering our lives.
In order to avoid giving the impression that the three exemplary actresses I discussed in Chronicle 644 were outliers rather than outstanding examples of a flourishing type, I will supplement those reflections with a few others. In contrast to Tolstoy’s famous dictum that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy one is unhappy in its own way, I would claim that although all human beings are unique, the beautiful ones are unique more visibly.
In this spirit, I will discuss Naomi Watts, Margo Robbie, and Anne Hathaway,.
I find it remarkable that Australia, with a population of 25 million, less than one twelfth that of the US, is either the birthplace or adolescent home of Robbie, Watts, and Scacchi, as well as Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett, and in the previous generation, Wendy Hughes, who played opposite Judy Davis in the iconic 1979 My Brilliant Career. Hughes was to my knowledge the last representative of the aristocratic style of beauty represented in the 40s by such as Madeleine Carroll and Valerie Hobson, which Downton Abbey has recently sought to renew, but wisely, not simply to reproduce. No doubt the kind of virile feminism exemplified by My Brilliant Career, produced, directed, and thematically dominated by women—as was its 1901 literary original—has served as a stimulus to Australian women to follow the example of Sybylla in turning even their apparent defects into sources of attraction.
I first saw Naomi Watts in her extraordinary performance in David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive (see Chronicle 269). Seeing her morph from the naïve “nice girl” persona of the first part to the sensual lesbian of the second part was a revelation. Watts is not a great beauty, but as this transformation reveals, she has within her the full range of feminine modes, sensuality very much included. Watts’ magnetism is a product of her ability to fully embody her fictional character to the point of losing herself in it. Hence the strength of her screen presence is dependent on that of her roles. Unfortunately many of these fail to do justice to her acting ability; I need not comment on King Kong or The Book of Henry, or her role as a foil to Lori Petty in the 1995 Tank Girl. Or the 2009 Mother and Child, where she melodramatically dies in childbirth. She did a fine job in Diana (2013), but Princess Di was an iconic figure that Watts could not be made up to resemble altogether credibly, given that Di’s 5’10” presence was unavailable to an actress nearly six inches shorter.
Of Watts’ films other than Mulholland Drive, I was most impressed by her performance in Chuck (2016), where she most convincingly plays Bayonne boxer Chuck Wepner’s second wife, a wise and charming Jersey-accented barmaid. No acting feat seems beyond her, and it is no accident that her most powerful performance was in a film that gives full reign to her ability to convincingly embody entirely different personalities.
Margot Robbie is the classic blonde beauty of our day. It was fitting that, in the semi-satiric 2015 The Big Short, she does a cameo as a tongue-in-cheek babe-in-a-bathtub to present some useful information on the phenomenon of short selling. No doubt in the same ironic vein, the IMDb tells us that Robbie will be starring in a Greta Gerwig film about the adventures of a Barbie doll. The contrast is striking between Robbie and the “babes” of the Monroe generation, who were never allowed to transcend that role. For Robbie can act. In Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), she convincingly plays the wife of A. A. Milne as a distinguished Englishwoman without emphasizing her sexual attractiveness. In contrast, this attractiveness is essential to her role as a journalist in the 2016 Tina Fey comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, where, after Robbie advises Fey that in the Iraqi desert even she would be rated a 9, Fey opines that Robbie must then be a 15.
In what I think her best role, Robbie plays Tonya Harding in the thoughtful 2017 biofilm I, Tonya, which boldly includes dialogue with the real Harding and her mother (played in the film by Allison Janney, a great character actress who won the Supporting Actress Oscar). Robbie certainly “beautifies” Harding, but in a way that only enhances the esthetic and biographical power of the film, in which the presence of the real Tonya allows us to appreciate the portrayal in relation to her own unfortunate but not altogether tragic disgrace. The fully convincing skating sequences are also to Robbie’s credit, as well of course to that of the CGI technicians.
Roger Ebert’s description of Hathaway as improbably beautiful expresses quite well both the insistent nature of her beauty and the fact that she is for it only all the more beautiful. Her large features, notably her mouth, in a narrow face lend her smile a overpowering radiance. This is no doubt the explanation why she is frequently given at the outset an unattractive appearance to contrast with this radiance. There is no hint in Hathaway’s beauty of the self-withholding perversity that would suit her to femme fatale roles of the kind that the young Scacchi could play.
Thus it is no surprise that Hathaway’s first movie was the 2001 Princess Diaries, where she begins as a frizzy-haired, glasses-wearing schoolgirl and ends as a princess, a fairytale plot followed up in 2004 by the real fairytale Ella Enchanted. But Hathaway’s fairy princess is very different from Elle Fanning’s. She is not ethereal but fully pubertal, an image of unsinful sexuality. Her later films may be seen as attempts to nuance this primordial effect of her beauty, notably the unfortunately PC-ridden 2008 Rachel Getting Married, where she plays a mental patient recovering not altogether successfully from drug and other problems. But this role plays down her beauty rather than integrating it into a more mature framework.
The 2011 rom-com One Day, in contrast, which takes place on a series of 20 consecutive July 15ths on which the principals may or may not be together, is a kind of decades-long coitus interruptus, during the first part of which Hathaway once more puts on a pair of glasses and some unfashionable dresses to hide her beauty, which is gradually revealed in the course of the film. Why the storyline can’t let her and her long-time quasi-boyfriend finally get together at the end, instead of killing her off by the absurdly clichéd device of having her hit by a truck, would seem to reflect the challenge of realizing a problematic love-story with a heroine whose appearance makes her so egregiously suitable for a happy ending. Only very recently, in the 2019 Serenity, a fiction-within-a-fiction where she effectively plays a femme fatale against type precisely because it is a role rather than a reality, does the mature Hathaway find a truly satisfying vehicle.**
The upshot of her career so far is that, despite her improbable nubile beauty, Hathaway, like Fanning, but unlike Scacchi, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, Rosamund Pike, or any number of European actresses, has not to my knowledge found a role as a love-object in an unproblematically adult romance. This source of frustration is also one of fascination; an absence of mystery that is somehow a greater mystery. It is as if no American woman, however beautiful, can truly graduate to the adulthood that so many of their Commonwealth and Continental sisters embody. We might add to these two another talented and charismatic actress, Lindsay Lohan, who played a number of highly appealing adolescent roles after her pre-pubertal triumph as the twins in The Parent Trap, but as a result of whose psychological problems, her adult career barely took off at all. Of the younger generation of prominent American actresses, Jennifer Lawrence alone, who had been (e.g., in the 2010 Winter’s Bone) youthful but never girlish, seems to have made a smooth transition from youth to maturity.
In conclusion, two films thematically centered on an actress’s beauty and charisma, as a demonstration that real female beauty, not merely beauty-signification, can be the central source of a work’s scenic/screenic power over the spectator.
The 1995 Clueless, a very free modern interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma, is one of few films that can clearly be said to have had a measurable cultural impact. The use of Whatever! was boosted and As if! effectively launched by this movie, a great triumph for its star, Alicia Silverstone, whose character, Cher, was a truly iconic creation. So iconic, alas, that Silverstone has never been able to recapture her stardom in another role. This wonderfully crafted persona of a perfectly coiffed Beverly Hills adolescent sophisticate in stylish suits, decorated with Silverstone’s unique ironic-but-not-mean smile, was just too narrowly defined to fit into another plot-line. For although Cher embodies an adolescent attitude that a mature actress would have one day to discard, in Clueless, Silverstone plays this role as young woman fully formed.
Cher’s special charm no doubt derives in good measure from Austen’s 200-year-old perspective on young women’s maturation, in her day firmly and unironically linked to marriage—that is, in which adolescence doesn’t yet exist. Clueless’ success in integrating this role into the modern world was a one-off phenomenon. A useful contrast may be made with Parker Posey’s quirky but highly adaptable Party Girl persona. Thus in the 2012 Price Check, Posey is fully convincing as a not at all scatterbrained but hard-driving and somewhat unscrupulous executive, yet without ever appearing “out of character”: her charm, whatever her actions, remains the same.
I have seen but a few of Silverstone’s later films, never with great pleasure. The Babysitter, made just after Clueless, uses her as the obligatory sexy girl in a quasi-horror plot for which her success in Clueless should have foretold her unsuitability. In the 2003 Scorched, an irredeemably infantile if energetic bank heist comedy, in which Silverstone gets first billing above Woody Harrelson, John Cleese, and Rachael Leigh Cook, she plays a sloppily dressed teller, a melancholy pretty girl in decline, of whom we learn in conclusion that, having quit the bank after stealing a load of cash, she went on to UCLA to major in economics. It was sad to see the unique asymmetric smile that Silverstone used with such wonderful effect in Clueless reduced to a pathetically charming effect in such a tawdry role.
Finally, a truly great film, one of my all-time favorites, in which the life-affirming sexual beauty of the heroine is central to the entire narrative: Rolf Schübel’s 1999 German-Hungarian Gloomy Sunday, after the haunting Hungarian “suicide song” “Szomorú Vasárnap.” Hungarian actress Erika Maroszán plays Ilona, a waitress at a fashionable Budapest restaurant, in a tale that begins just before WWII. The three male principals, László, the Jewish restaurant owner, András, the young pianist who (in the film) composes the song, and Hans, a young German tourist who returns as a Nazi officer during the war, are all in love with Ilona. She eventually takes over the restaurant to shield László, her dearest lover—who nonetheless, despite Hans’ promises of protection, and the fact that László had earlier saved Hans from drowning himself in the Danube in despair over his love for Ilona, ends up on a train to Auschwitz.
Ilona is not only a love-object, she is the main agent in the plot. The film begins with a flash-forward to long after the war: an elderly German, whom we later recognize as Hans, brings his wife to Budapest to celebrate his 80th birthday by dining on his favorite dish in a beloved restaurant. Hans had built a postwar career as a successful and respected businessman—as we later discover, from the money extorted from the few hundred Jews he had saved. But after a few mouthfuls, he suffers a sudden heart attack, collapses, and dies.
The film then goes back in time to tell the story of Ilona and her three lovers. She and László had been lovers from the start, although she rejected his offers of marriage. András fell in love with Ilona after being hired as the restaurant pianist, and composed his song under her inspiration. For a time Ilona shares her favors with both in a ménage à trois. But when Hans in his SS uniform forces András to play the song in the restaurant—the only time we hear Ilona sing it—András shoots himself with Hans’s pistol.
Hans’s love had never been reciprocated. But near the end of the war, when Hitler was forcing Hungary to deport its Jews to the death camps, Hans, promising to rescue László, forces Ilona finally to sleep with him, then rushes off to the railroad station. Yet to our surprise, as the Jews are being shoved into the boxcars, Hans, no antisemite but a cold-blooded opportunist, passes up László in order to save a Jewish scientist whose life would be worth more to him in the postwar era.
We next see a pregnant Ilona in the cemetery just after the war, sharing László’s and András’ memory with her unborn child—whose father, we realize, might be any one of the three men. And thus we discover, as we may already have suspected, that Hans’s death was no accident, but the result of Ilona’s 40-year wait for revenge.
In the final scene, after Hans’s body is borne away, the restaurant’s new owner goes into the kitchen. We see an old woman’s arm washing the pan in which the German’s favorite dish had been prepared, and we recognize the poison vial that László had not had time to use before his capture. The new owner, we now understand, is Ilona’s son. The final dramatic shot shows him embracing his mother, whom we recognize as Ilona from a brooch in her hair that László had given her. We see her only from the rear; our image of Ilona’s mesmerizing beauty remains undisturbed.
For this beauty, that of Erika Maroszán, is truly the thematic center of the film. Most “sex scenes” are embarrassingly gratuitous, but Schübel had good reason to generously display Maroszán’s half-naked body. The spectator had to be made to appreciate this woman’s sensual attraction as a life-affirming, hope-inducing moral force in a time of mass murder—an Eros not cheapened but confirmed by her love-goddess role in the ménage à trois.
Ilona’s deferred act of revenge is the final demonstration of the transcendent agency of the bearer of this beauty, even as it must lose its physical reality through the time of deferral. For we understand that it was not mere nostalgia, but above all his memory of the beautiful Ilona that had brought Hans back to László’s restaurant. As with the other actresses I have discussed here, it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing this role with the same glorious intensity as the dark-haired Maroszán.
**Coda (added January 19, 2020)
The 2005 film Havoc, with Hathaway in the role of a privileged high-school girl slumming in East LA, certainly demonstrates her ability to act in a surprisingly convincing manner the role of a teenage femme fatale, even if a woman of 23, mature beyond her years, is hardly credible as a high school student. Her several half-naked scenes (and filthy language) were all too clearly symptoms of one more unconvincing attempt to get past her Princess image. Which only demonstrates that Hathaway’s obvious talent and intelligence cannot transform beyond a certain limit the character projected by her improbable beauty.