Only Foreigners Can Pull Off Playing A Beautiful American
August 4, 2009 4 Comments
I was watching the Nic Cage flick Knowing when I realized that, although I didn’t know who the main actress was, I was pretty sure I’d seen her before – and I was pretty sure she was Australian.
Turns out I was right. Meet Rose Byrne, Australian:
This made me wonder: Why does Hollywood mostly use Brits and Aussies – increasingly, Aussies – to play its American leading ladies? Can’t American women portray American women anymore?
Here’s a short list:
Isla Fisher (throwing her in here cuz I realized she’s the one who looks like Amy Adams)
Charlize Theron (South Africa)
let’s not forget Catherine Zeta-Jones
Between them this handful have probably portrayed 2/3rds of the leading-lady roles in various conventional Hollywood movies, from action to comedy.
And half the time, they fake American accents to do it. (Maybe not Zeta-Jones)
Anyway, again and again, it seems that Hollywood turns to British/UK/Aussie women when it needs someone to portray a female American. I asked at the beginning whether American women can’t play American women, but if you think about it what’s really going on is:
Hollywood has decided that audiences won’t pay to see American women portraying American women (in classical leading-lady roles).
After all it’s not a question of ‘can’ vs ‘can’t’, in these big-money casting decisions it’s a question of what will fill the seats. Rightly or wrongly, Hollywood appears to think the answer is: non-Americans.
Now Hollywood could be wrong about that, I suppose. Hollywood is wrong about lots of things. Hollywood thinks we want to see seven dozen Iraq war movies per year, and we don’t. Hollywood also tends to overestimate the bankability of certain actresses. Nicole Kidman comes to mind as someone who is thought of as a bigger star than ticket sales would actually suggest she is. Similarly, I remember sometime in the ’90s Hollywood seemed to spontaneously decide that Julia Ormond (another Brit!) was due to be our next big star actress, putting her in a Brad Pitt movie and then a strangely ill-adivsed remake of Sabrina with Harrison Ford, and as we all know, since then, Julia Ormond has become a household name, beloved by young and old alike, all across America…
Well not exactly.
So maybe Hollywood has misjudged in their UK-philic calculations. I doubt it though. The pattern and trend is too strong. Hollywood thinks audiences will pay more to see Brits faking American than Americans being American, and I think the safest assumption is that Hollywood is onto something.
But what? What could it be about American women that would turn off audiences? And what could it be about women from, like, Australia that would turn them on? (Or does that question answer itself?)
Off the top of my head, I think part of the answer may be that American women aren’t women. They’re children. Even if they’re grown up, they’re childish. Who are our well-known American female actresses? I tried to think of some famous American actresses, and for whatever reason the list started like this: Lindsay Lohan. Katie Holmes. Kirsten Dunst. Um, the one from the Lizzie McGuire TV show/movie. The other one from that other Disney show/movie who is Billy Ray Cyrus’s kid. Natalie Portman. Donnie Darko’s sister. And, um, Jodie Foster I guess.
Maybe I’m being unfair. I notice one thing about that list which is that virtually everyone on it first got into TV/movies as a kid. At least half of those people are from the Disney Channel. (Or in Jodie Foster’s case, 1970s Disney movies.) Katie Holmes grew up on Dawson’s Creek. Kirsten Dunst was in that vampire movie at age 10. Natalie Portman was in The Professional at age 12 or something. All these people have grown up on screen. So maybe they’re too familiar, and audiences can’t think of them as women – it’s like looking at your best friend’s kid sister. That’s one possible answer.
Let me try a different tack and just look at the top-paid female actresses. Surely this would reveal something? According to this, the list starts with Reese Witherspoon. Cute and nice actress, but another grown-up kid star.
Then there’s Angelina Jolie. I’ll certainly not deny her womanhood; she’s also sort of a freaky larger-than-lilfe bisexual assassin-goddess at this point, sort of our ’00s film version of Madonna, whom it’s probably a mistake to extrapolate anything from. Have to put an asterisk next to her name on any list.
Moving on, we’ve got Renee Zellweger, Drew Barrymore and Sandra Bullock, all of whom get girl-next-door type of roles in rom-com’s nowadays. These actresses’ strengths (it seems to me) all being that they’re variously unbeautiful but in a cute-ish sort of way that doesn’t threaten the females in the audience. Am I getting closer to an answer here? Audiences will pay to see American actresses as long as they’re not more beautiful than they are?
Finally rounding out the list we’ve got people like Jodie Foster, sort of the spiritual forerunner to Angelina Jolie: lesbian, manly, strong, protagonist, no rom-com’s. Julia Roberts, sort of in the Bullock/Zellweger/Barrymore camp but more “leading” of a leading lady. And Halle Berry, still hanging in there – probably the most classically womanly actress in the top 10. (Shame she can’t act…)
Collecting these two lists together, our top American actresses seem to fall into one of these categories:
1. Cute, petite, immature, could still be a teenager (Witherspoon, Lohan, Dunst)
2. Lesbian/manly, or at least the ‘strong’ protagonist type (Foster, Jolie)
3. Ugly-in-an-attractive-way, ‘nice’ (Zellweger, Bullock, Roberts).
Those are the American actresses that Hollywood puts in their movies. Guess which type seems to be left out?
4. Tall, classically beautiful, mature, independent but feminine.
When Hollywood needs a #4, they turn to non-Americans. Why is that?
One theory I had was that Hollywood doesn’t really want to have “classically beautiful women” roles in their movies. After all women shouldn’t have to be beautiful anymore (that’s sexist), women just need to be “independent” and “strong”. So all the top American actresses are given the Strong Independent roles, and that makes everyone proud. But Hollywood still wants to make money, and sometimes that means putting a hottie as your leading leady. This is a sort of un-PC embarrassment that Hollywood is sort of ashamed to acknowledge. Thus when they do their casting searches they cast the net far and wide, to like Australia or New Zealand, sort of in a vain hope that the news won’t get back to anyone they know that they’re being so retrograde.
That’s a nice half-assed theory but it’s only half-satisfying (multiply those together, and you’ve got a quarter of a satisfying ass. Ugh).
Another theory I had was that it has to do with the quality of American actresses themselves: they all grow up wanting to play, and training for playing, Strong Independent roles rather than Beautiful Leading Lady roles. So, that’s what they’re good at & what they know how to play. I think there’s probably something to this.
A third theory might say it just has to do with our culture. Maybe our culture is so intrinsically debased and infantilized that real American women are indeed (like I say) childish. So the role of a “mature American woman” is a role no actual American woman could play, just because it’s so unrealistic. Foreign women, not knowing this sad fact of American culture, don’t have this baggage and assume American women can indeed be mature, thus have no trouble pulling it off.
Whatever the case the trend only seems to be increasing. Not that I’m complaining per se. I have no trouble with Rose Byrne on our silver screens. None whatsoever.