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06/19/2005 Archived Entry: "Great actors; where are the great actresses?"

ACTORS, ACTRESSES, MUSINGS ON MUSES. Wally Conger praises Batman Begins, which I hope to see as soon as it hits the local one-plex.

I'd probably have gone, anyway, but this week I belatedly discovered the wonders of Christian Bale, who plays Batman/Bruce Wayne. I'd been aware of Bale, but not until my movie-reviewing pal Oliver recommended The Machinist did I bow before Bale's glories. His performance in that film is astonishing.

I've seen three of last year's five "best actor" Oscar performances, including the winner. And Bale demolishes them all (including the performance by my favorite actor, Johnny Depp). So of course, they didn't even nominate him.

Sigh. Not the first time the Hollywoodizens have been so short-sighted.

Bale, who is 6'2", also reduced his weight to under 120 pounds to play the role of Trevor Reznik, a man tormenting himself into non-existence. No camera or lighting tricks; that emaciated creature who looks like he just staggered out of Auschwitz is all Bale -- or what was left of him. Doing that to himself may have been madness, but it was effective madness.

Bale's performance got me thinking about great contemporary actors and actresses. Mostly actors. I have to ask where are the actresses?

In about five minutes with a pen and a notepad, I can think of two dozen contemporary actors who've given at least one performance (and sometimes many more) that just flat blew me off my feet:

And that's the list I can make without even working up a sweat (although I'll admit that I'd gladly work up a sweat for a few of the guys on that list, but that's another story). Given time, I could probably double the numbers of great contemporary actors.

When I think of "blow my mind" actresses, however, hardly any come to mind.

I can think of a lot of good, more-than-competent actresses: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lindsay Lohan, Sandra Bullock, Jamie Lee Curtis, Maggie Smith, Cher (really), Reese Witherspoon, Jodie Foster, Sissy Spacek (whom I could consider bumping up to the "greats" list), Sigourney Weaver, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Glenda Jackson, Helena Bohham Carter, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep (whom I once might have considered one of the great ones; but overall, her characters are too "Meryl Streepish"). Even Bette Midler and Whoppi Goldberg on the "lite" side. (EDITED in: Annette Bening, Kate Winslet.)

But great actresses whose performances just leave me open-jawed? Only a handful.

I don't know how much of this is due to the actresses themselves, how much is "just me," and how much is due to the paucity of good roles. It's a damn sad fact that, even in this age of female triumph, movies still usually relegate women to five roles: mother, girlfriend, wife, assistant, seductress. None of those roles tend to give an actress much opportunity to knock an audience off its feet with emotional intensity or range.

Whatever the reason, it's still sad. Oliver can (and does) praise all sorts of actresses that are just cute as buttons. (Don't even get him started on Kate Hudson.) And even I think Renee Zellweger and Meg Ryan are both adorable and talented. But c'mon, there's more to life than being adorable -- yet Hollywood continues to feature a decades-long series of almost interchangeable young blondes in supporting roles (who, as the years go on, are getting younger and younger than their leading men, and ever more bland).

Not too many movies give women a real chance to portray a central, fully developed character. Performances like America Ferrera's in Real Women Have Curves are a rare exception. And I don't think it's because the women aren't up to the job.

Posted by Claire @ 03:17 PM CST

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