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Onscreen for the Holidays

December 18, 2006

This is the time of year when Hollywood rolls out its “prestige” pictures, angling for a coveted nomination from the year-end lists that build momentum towards an Oscar. Most years, critics concurrently perform another ritual—writing the essay bemoaning the lack of substantive roles for women. Shockingly, it turns out 2006 has been a good year for women's roles on the big screen—see Helen Mirren in The Queen, Ashley Judd in Come Early Morning, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby, and several more to appear in the coming weeks. As LA Times critic Carino Chocano commented in a November 5 article, “notable this year is the extent to which the roles seem to represent a panoply of female behaviors and inner lives and social spheres.” Building on this phenomenon, the newly formed Alliance of Women Film Journalists has joined the fray by creating the EDA awards (Excellent Dynamic Activism). Among other categories are Best Drama and Best Comedy and Best Documentary by or about women and Best Screenplay By A Women. NY Press film critic Jennifer Merin and president of the group, said a goal is to give women equal opportunities “to express their artistic visions” without copying “the male dominated form of commercial success.” Yet, more meaty women's roles don't necessarily mean more admirable role models up on screen. In fact, the array of women portrayed this holiday season runs the gamut from feminist to creepy, which I guess is progress in itself. What to go see? Here are some notes to wade through the holiday information glut. Miss Potter is the story of Peter Rabbit’s creator and writer of dozens of children's books. Beatrix Potter was a feminist stuck in Victorian England. Not your typical upper middle class 19th century woman of letters, she was unmarried, financially independent and in love with a man her parents deemed unacceptable. Having fought against conventions and learning that she had become quite wealthy, she bought up some 4,000 acres of land in the Lake District and started a new life. Renee Zellweger, by now an honorary Brit, gives an understated, sensitive performance as Beatrix. Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as her editor, publisher and fiancé Norman Warne, and Emily Watson plays Mille, Norman's sister, a kindred spirit to Beatrix. The Secret Life of Words, the latest from Spanish writer/director Isabel Coixet, questions what it means to be a survivor. Sarah Polley's character, Hanna, after prolonged imprisonment and abuse during the Balkan war, spends her days locked inside her head—she is deaf as well as traumatized—performing monotonous work in a factory. Forced to take a vacation, she winds up tending to Josef, a survivor of an oil-rig fire. While on the isolated rig, Hanna is finally able to reveal and free herself from what she feels as shame at surviving. Polley, a young actress who has not gone the Hollywood route, imbues Hanna with such deep sadness that is heartbreaking to watch. The Dead Girl, the second writing and directing effort from Karen Moncrieff, is a series of five vignettes, linked together through a dead young woman, that explore the insidious effect of violence against women on whole communities. Before the end (when we meet the title character, played by Brittany Murphy), Toni Colette finds the body and this discovery allows her to escape from her violent relationship with her mother. Rose Byrne plays the sister of a girl missing for 15 years who wants to move on but her parents can't let go. Mary Beth Hurt, playing the bitter wife of a man who repeatedly disappears, makes a terrible discovery about his absences that binds her to him forever. Marcia Gay Harden, on a journey to identify her daughter, the “Dead Girl,” learns why she left and how she lived before she was brutally murdered. The movie dares to be different and substantial. In press notes about why she wanted to make this film, Moncrieff said: “There's just something about violence, specifically violence against women, that's . . . so much a part of who we are and the news we read.” For big budget studio fare, there is the highly anticipated Dreamgirls. Much of the pre-opening buzz surrounds the debut of Jennifer Hudson playing Effie, the part that brought Broadway fame to Jennifer Holliday. Hudson is terrific and her show stopping number, “And I Am Telling You” does stop the show—which never ever happens on screen. But there are other reasons to cheer for a film where all the leads are African American and women are front and center driving the story. Their power pours out of the screen, most especially from Hudson, who as Effie is kicked out of the group but never wavers from her decision. Some of the highest profile films starring women this season are not the most feminist films around. Here’s why two warrant a look. The Holiday from writer/director Nancy Meyers is her follow-up film to the 2003 hit Something's Gotta Give, which made her the only female director playing in the big leagues. The premise—two women getting over heartbreak trade homes to escape their lives—makes for light fare, but Meyers does supply interest by fiddling with the typical rules of romantic comedies. Just having women leads (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz) instantly changes the onscreen dynamic, with the men relegated to a typical female support role. Jack Black becomes the not so skinny “girlfriend” and Jude Law the weepy and complicated “girlfriend.” More intriguing, the film is an opportunity for Meyers to educate viewers about the strong female roles of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Eli Wallach is an old-time screenwriter who befriends Winslet's character and helps her rebuild her confidence through watching women in films of the 40s and 50s. My favorite line is his to Winslet's Iris: “Iris, in the movies, we have leading ladies and the we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady but for some reason, you're behaving like the best friend.” The Holiday would have been great if Meyers had written the whole film at that level. The creepy factor is on display in Notes on a Scandal, based on the book by Zoe Heller. Judi Dench gives an Oscar worthy, disturbing performance as a lonely teacher who falls into an obsessive, predatory and one-sided love fantasy with Cate Blanchett as the flighty art teacher. Dench discovers that Blanchett is having an affair with a student and uses that information to insinuate herself into her colleague’s life. As we move further into the awards season, the women of 2006 should be remembered for quality performances in diverse roles. Dare we hope this becomes the norm rather than an aberration?