My plan for the next three Women in Cinema columns is a ambitious. Throughout the dawn of time, blondes and brunettes have been told they’re different. Blondes are generally perceived as ditzy, privileged, slutty, or the girl next door (here’s looking at you Betty!). The distinction is what being blonde says in cinema today, and two directors are playing around with the concept: American Hustle director David O. Russell and The Wolf of Wall Street’s Martin Scorsese. Each director’s cast blonde women in their movies, but are they changing how blondes are presented for good or ill? I hope to explore that throughout the next three columns, utilizing each director’s movies starring a blonde woman before ultimately comparing the director’s blonde characters to each other. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a brunette so I don’t get to have more fun.
Starting with David O. Russell this week I picked four of his movies where a blonde-haired actress is present: Patricia Arquette’s Nancy Coplin of Flirting With Disaster, Naomi Watt’s Dawn Campbell of I Heart Huckabees, Melissa Leo’s Oscar-winning turn as Alice Ward in The Fighter, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Roslyn Rosenfeld of American Hustle. Let’s start by showing the trajectory and changes Russell’s employed with his blonde leading ladies, before analyzing each film individually.
The problem is Russell’s movement away from women as people to women as screeching harpies whose scene stealing, and thus awards, comes from acting crazy and inane. Russell didn’t start out that way. 1996’s Flirting with Disaster used the Betty/Veronica paradigm to compare and contrast Arquette’s Nancy and Tea Leoni’s Tina Kalb, but each woman was fleshed out with a storyline and significant personality. Nancy, specifically, is a new mother wishing to spend time with her husband (Ben Stiller) but finding him completely distracted by his blind desire to find his birth parents. Regardless of all the hijinks, she remains supportive in his quest and while she becomes jealous of her husband’s friendship with another woman, she never becomes unlikable or harmful to the other characters. Her character is a human being, with flaws, desires, and personality.
Russell continued exploring women’s flaws in the esoteric I Heart Huckabees. More than any other movie, Huckabees presents a biting condemnation of female beauty, albeit with humorous underpinnings. Naomi Watts’ Dawn is the face and, more importantly, the body of a department store suffering from an existential crisis about being pretty. Her turning point comes when she decides to stop being pretty, or at least realizing she doesn’t have to be pretty everyday, hilariously donning a bonnet and coveralls throughout the third act. Unfortunately, she discovers her shallow boyfriend (played by Jude Law) requires her to be pretty, as does the Huckabees store who replace her with a newer, hotter model. Say what you will about the film itself, but I Heart Huckabees presents Russell’s strongest analysis about being a woman today. The obsession with being pretty to please a male audience is enough to drive women mad, and Dawn’s happiness is shattered until she finds a man (played by Mark Wahlbergh), going through a crisis himself, who appreciates her for who she is, bonnet and all. Dawn’s character, and Russell’s script, bitingly question the role of females in media marketing, and the pervasive consumption of beauty and glamour. Both Nancy and Dawn are women who are supportive, stable, and generally upbeat characters going on a journey of discovery within themselves.
Oscar plays its part in rewarding the “ugly” roles for women, perpetuating the trend of it being a stretch to play a less than beautiful woman (Huckabees could certainly connect into this). Leo and Lawrence present the one-two punch of Russell’s harpy scene-stealer; a woman memorable because of her screeching, flamboyant insanity. What audiences forget is how detrimental the character is to the lives of those around her. In the case of Alice Ward, she enables one son’s drug addiction, puts another in dangerous fighting situations, and is the Lady Macbeth of the movie finding her son’s girlfriend (played by Russell alum Amy Adams) a threat to her power. Alice is a power-hungry character whose entertainment value comes from the audiences hate and finding her actions reprehensible. In the end, redemption for her character is unimportant because the story is about the interaction between the brothers. It could be a stretch, but Alice is the first of two Russell characters (the other being Lawrence’s Roslyn) perceived as low-class. Lawrence’s trashiness comes from her instability, but Alice’s starts from the minute the audience discovers the poverty stricken conditions the family is living in. The peroxide blonde of Leo’s hair alerts the audience to her fake personality, as well as the lack of respect she commands for being low-rent.
Closely behind Leo is Jennifer Lawrence’s Roslyn of American Hustle. I wrote a whole Women in Cinema article praising Lawrence, on a personal level, for being a confident lady seemingly untainted by Hollywood. However, I feared scripts were making her play characters with too much age and experience that the actress lacked; maybe her work in American Hustle is proof? Lawrence played a similar character in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, but the difference could be as simple as hair color. As a brunette, Lawrence’s Tiffany is the loveable slut whose crazy antics are supposed to be adorable. She ends up saving Bradley Cooper’s character, curing him of mental illness through love and dance. As a blonde, Lawrence’s Roslyn is another showy, horrific shrew continually putting her young son in danger and is responsible for bringing down the house of cards on her husband Irving (Christian Bale). Her big “awards” moment is a showy rendition of “Live and Let Die” while cleaning. Lawrence is a great actress but the role of scheming shrew doesn’t become her. There’s no nuance to the role, and the audience, again, derives entertainment because of her flamboyance and insanity.
It shouldn’t be ignored that Roslyn’s son isn’t Irving’s while Alice has multiple children with different men, again connecting to blondes to promiscuity. As if the harpy image isn’t bad enough, Russell’s scripts perpetuate the belief that there’s something wrong with women who are married more than once and their bad mothering is an extension of that. Obviously, the reason each woman lost a man is presented on-screen, right? As if each woman’s personality isn’t poor enough, they’re wantonly sexual with their craziness being both a turn-on (Lawrence’s infamous scene crawling on a bed) and a mark of trashiness due to their baby-mama drama.
What’s happened with Russell as a screenwriter? All four movies were written by him, and he went from portraying females as humans to females as screaming nutballs. It isn’t that crazy isn’t fun to see in movies – between Hustle and Blue Jasmine this year crazy is the theme for women – it’s that crazy is all Russell’s female characters are of late. Nancy of Flirting is the girl next door compared to Tina’s neurotic uptown girl; Dawn starts out as a ditz before her crisis, putting her in conjunction to Lily Tomlin’s intellectual Lillian and Isla Fisher as the red-headed, uber sexy replacement model; Alice and Roslyn are the lunatic blondes in contrast to Amy Adams red-headed rationality. In the latter two films, the women are irrational and thus unworthy of love and respect from the other characters, predominately male, around them. The two women are also mothers, and where Nancy of Flirting with Disaster is a loving nurturer to her son, the latter woman are destructive to their children. Roslyn, in particular, is even threatened with losing her son to Irving, although Roslyn threatens to be an even worse mother by fleeing with the kid and taking him away from the only father he knows.
The two halves of Russell’s career and treatment of blonde actresses is jarring and questions arise of why he’s significantly down-graded the writing of female actresses. Is he attempting to ape Scorsese, a director who also presents blondes as shrewish harpies who ruin men’s lives? Stay tuned for part 2 of this series where we look at Martin Scorsese and what being a blonde leading lady looks like.