Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Nina Sayers (Black Swan)

   For Nina Sayers, perfection is not an ideal: it is the only acceptable option. She doesn't strive for it the way most people do; most people would like to be the best at what they do, but accept that perfection isn't attainable 99% of the time. Nina, however, doesn't feel that way.
    Nina Sayers is a ballerina in a prestigious company. The director, Darren Aronofsky, takes no great pains to make the world of ballet seem glamorous. It is a world of high stakes, taxing physical pain, and extremely high expectations. In the film, toes crack a little too hard against the floor, ankles with deep veins seem a bit too tight, and emaciated frames seem to stretched, too otherworldly to be healthy. This is not a world of pink tutus and make believe, but backbreaking, difficult, highly competitive work.
     Aside from the physically draining aspects of her job, which Nina seems to genuinely love, there are the mentally painful parts. Nina is naturally shy, timid, and over-sheltered. She has lived with her mother, with whom she has an eerily co-dependent relationship. Even thought Nina must be at least 24 or 25 years old, her mother still insists on helping her undress every night. Her mother gave up her own career to give birth to Nina, and never seems to have gotten over the loss. She sits in her room and paints self portraits of herself in her younger days and cries, and when she isn't doing this, she is barging into Nina's room, forcing herself into aspects of Nina's life and career, and depriving her of any privacy.  They live in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment stuffed full of memories of Nina's childhood. There is no mark of evidence that this home is inhabited by a forty-something year old woman and her adult child. 
     Because of her upbringing, Nina is timid, quiet, anxious, and highly critical of herself, qualities that are only exacerbated by her work. Her ballet instructor is by turns sexually abusive and neglectful. He approves of her technical skill but harasses her daily about not 'losing herself' in her work and 'letting go and just feeling it.' For over analytical Nina, this is an impossible demand. She has no idea how to go about it, and when he offers her the coveted role of the Swan Queen, which requires a softer, more timid persona as well as a lustful, bold one, Nina is unable to please her director with her interpretation of the evil twin, the Black Swan. This constant criticism, self doubt, and the extraordinary pressure pushed on her from one hundred directions ekes into her already fragile mind, and Nina begins to crack.
     There has been much discussion over exactly what Nina's diagnosis is, because the film goes through no great pains to tell us. As the pressure mounts on her, Nina resumes an old habit of self injury, scratching herself at night. She constantly picks at her skin and pulls at her cuticles until they bleed, and in her quest for perfection, seems to have an eating disorder. As her mind dissolves, she begins to hallucinate. She frequently sees violent and terrifying scenes which are not there, such as the prima ballerina stabbing herself in the face with a nail file or a horrifing monster roaming around the ballet studio. Throughout the film, it is difficult to determine what is real and what isn't, just as it is for Nina.
      One of her main sources of anxiety is Lily, a fellow dancer who has all the passion and abandon that Nina lacks. Nina becomes increasingly paranoid that Lily is after her, that she will do anything to take her spot as the Swan Queen, and her paranoid delusions begin to run her life. Some say that Lily was never a real person to begin with and that Nina's sick mind invented her, but I don't believe that's true. I think Lily is a real person who is genuinely nice, but also very talented, and Nina perceives this threat to be the worst.
       Much has been made of the infamous lesbian scene between Lily and Nina and whether or not Nina's repressed homosexuality had anything to do with her mental breakdown. I definitely think that the repressed home environment has lead to a great lack of sexual awareness or sexual maturity in Nina, as is evidenced in other parts of the film, but I don't believe she was in love with Lily. I believe the fantasy about sex with Lily was more of her weak mind trying to become something it isn't. Nina is not passionate and bold and lively, as Lily is, but she desperately wants to be, and so, as she slowly loses herself and her sanity to a role which demands more sexuality from her than she's ever experienced, her brain translated this pressure into a lesbian fantasy. However, as with many things in the film, this is entirely my interpretation and others view it differently.
       Many psychologists have praised the film's portrayal of someone's first psychotic break, and say that it is the most accurate movie as far as the person's feelings and mental capacity they've seen. However, they seem to agree that Nina has no set diagnosis. Many say it is impossible for Nina to have all the characteristics she has in the film, such as hallucinating so vividly that she harms herself, as well as an eating disorder and a history of abuse and a smothering household, and also be as high-functioning as she is. So the film gets no points for accuracy as far as a certain diagnosis. However, I find this to be one of the film's better traits. We have no idea what is happening to her, just as she doesn't. Nina is losing her mind, and it is frightening and sad, and that's all we know. That is all she knows. We are privy to someone who is dying of a mind that cannot take anymore, and that is a great tragedy, just as this is a great, compelling film. If you haven't experienced 'Black Swan,' make a point to: it is one of the great tragic films of our time.

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Lisa Rowe (Girl, Interrupted)

   If there’s one type of character I like, it’s a crazy bitch. Women who are insane, scorned, vengeful, or just not quite all there tend to be my favorites. (There are no fewer than 5 on this list, depending on who you ask.) However, the Crazy Bitch that tops them all is definitely Lisa Rowe, a reckless young sociopath who delights in chaos, disorder, and the power she has over others. The film is ‘Girl, Interrupted’, based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Kaysen. As an avid fan of the book and the film, for very different reasons, I feel that I understand Lisa better than someone who has only watched the movie. Much was made over the character that Angelina Jolie created, (she even won an Oscar for her fearless, disturbing performance), but Lisa Rowe was a real person, who really did live in a mental hospital for a while, and that is infinitely more exciting.
      Lisa is a side character in a story that is mostly about Susanna, a young girl growing up in the late sixties and discovering that life is kind of difficult. She has suicidal thoughts, is recklessly impulsive with her sexuality, has problems with drugs, and has an overall gloomy outlook on life. She is the complete opposite of her mother, a bubbly socialite who wants Susanna to get married and settle down. Susanna is a writer, and as is the wont of many writers, tends to brood over her problems until she finds herself so isolated and desperate that she attempts suicide. She is then committed to a mental hospital for ‘a rest’, and ends up staying there for six months. At first, she is horrified; the women around her show various levels of being ‘crazy,’ from anorexia to nervous disorders to homosexuality to catatonia. She feel starkly out of place, and even refuses to admit that she actually tried to kill herself. Her first night at the ward, she encounters Lisa, who has been caught from her second or third runaway attempt and has been returned to the ward by force.
       Lisa is wild, reckless, impulsive, violent, magnetic, and cold. She speaks without a filter, seems to be indiscriminate with her sexual encounters, and can and will bully the other inhabitants of the ward to get her own way, or just to frighten them. None of the others cross her; they respectfully, if begrudgingly, grant her enough space. She has proven time and again that she has no sense of morality, no impulse control, and no conscience, and while she is mostly just mean-spirited and not outright harmful, one easily gets the sense that harming someone wouldn’t bother Lisa at all.
      Throughout the course of the film, Susanna moves from being afraid of Lisa to genuinely admiring her. While Lisa’s diagnosis seems to be sociopathy, Lisa doesn’t see it as a sickness. As far as she’s concerned, she’s just free of societal conventions. Crazy people can do whatever they want and they can get away with it, because they’re crazy. Susanna envies this quality; Susanna dislikes the clean-cut, prissy society she was born into and longs for the freedom to disregard the conventions expected of her and do her own thing. Lisa’s magnetic personality attracts her, and at one point, she even develops sexual, and possibly romantic feelings for Lisa. Lisa seems to regard Susanna with some sort of friendship, but also a complete detachment. She seems to like her, but the viewer does not get the idea that if Susanna were to disappear, Lisa would not notice or care. The one person Lisa seems to truly respect is the head nurse, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who is the only person in the hospital whom Lisa cannot manipulate.
        In a dramatic departure from the book, Lisa and Susanna escape from the ward and plan to move to Florida, to play Cinderella and Snow White in Walt Disney World. They stay at the home of a very disturbed former patient (Brittany Murphy), who was released from the hospital due to her father’s influence, not due to her health. Lisa bullies the girl so painfully and so cruelly that she inadvertently contributes to the girl’s suicide, and then feels no remorse in stealing the money out of the dead girl’s pocket. This is a wakeup call to Susanna; she begins to lose her respect for Lisa and realize that Lisa is ill, that this is not something to aspire to be, and that she is not safe in Lisa’s company.
       The interesting part about Lisa's interaction with the other patient is her tactic for hurting the girl. She doesn't say anything untrue; in fact, she says what everyone else would say if they lacked a mental filter.  The whole ward has known about the girl's unstable persona, as well as her uncomfortable and entirely too-intimate relationship with her father, they just have the good manners not to discuss it. Lisa doesn't. Lisa brings up very plainly that the reason the girl's father moved her into a house and out of the ward is so he can have better access to her, and that the girl actually craves her father's attentions. These accusations, disturbing and terrifying to most, seem all too true to this girl, who doesn't admit to or deny any of these accusations. To this end, Lisa isn't cruelly manipulative: she is cruelly honest. 
        In the book, it is written that Lisa has a history with hard drugs, and when another girl named Lisa is admitted to the ward and claims to be a junkie, Lisa Rowe has to establish her dominance by challenging the new Lisa’s authenticity as a ‘shooter.’ She badgers the new Lisa so shamelessly that she unhinges the new Lisa's self-awareness, and she begins to doubt herself and her own history. Lisa Rowe does this just to provoke her and establish herself as the superior Lisa. Eventually, the new Lisa is released, and as Lisa Rowe returns to the ward from another escape attempt, she ominously quips, “I saw the new Lisa. She’s a real junkie now.”
          The heart of ‘Girl, Interrupted’ is about the legitimacy of some mental illnesses. Susanna herself carries the label of ‘borderline personality disorder,’ a disease whose symptoms sound remarkably like every teenage girl in the world. Lisa’s diagnosis of sociopathy, or as we call it now, antisocial personality disorder, seems only to exacerbate a culturally unacceptable free-spiritedness, as well as an impulsive sexuality that didn’t fit in with the norms of her world. Are these characters crazy? The film, it seems, would have us believe so. The book, on the other hand, isn’t certain. The real Susanna Kaysen wrote that she ran into Lisa many years after leaving the ward and discovered that Lisa had a child and was holding down a job. Was she truly insane? Or did the world she lived in create a monster for her, from her, without giving her a chance? It seems that Kaysen believes the first: as she notes with some wry humor, “Every window in Alcatraz has a view of California. Just as you can see us, we can see you."

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Mary Hatch (It's a Wonderful Life)

    Mary Hatch is something of an anomaly on this list. While it seems that I tend to favor crazy people, backstabbers and spitfires, Mary is a ‘good girl’ in the black-and-white-movie-era meaning of the word: she’s a homemaker, a lover, a mother, a doting wife, and the backbone of a very good man who leans heavily on a very good woman to love him and help him.
       ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is mostly the story of George Bailey, the hero, a man whose daydreams of life and grand ambitions have little reality in his day-to-day struggle. Determined, clever, and enterprising, George starts his life as a young man full of vision and enthusiasm, who wants to travel the world, have grand adventures, see the pyramids, and live the high life. This is in stark contrast to his small-town, middle class upbringing. His father runs a small Building and Loan, a business George detests, though he loves his father dearly. At the untimely death of his father, George takes over the Building and Loan to keep it from falling into the hands of Mr. Potter, the veritable Ebenezer Scrooge of the town who hates everyone and owns everything. Thus, the stage is set for George to become the Everyman. He lives a life he finds shameful, but keeps selflessly pushing through, never realizing how many lives he has touched with his devotion to everyone’s dreams but his own.
        Mary grows up with George as the little sister of one of his childhood friends. She has loved him for years, and when they are reacquainted as young adults, he begins to return her affection. Mary is bubbly, smart, deeply goodhearted, and not without a clever streak. Though she is in most ways the definition of a proper lady, she has a lighthearted spirit around her that occasionally enjoys being shocking. At first, George doesn’t want Mary’s affections, though he cares for her deeply. He has never wanted the married life, and has always snobbishly seen it as best fit for those with no other ambition. However, he can’t stay away from her, so in one very famous scene, he walks into Mary’s mother’s home to visit her, but won’t admit that he desperately wanted to see her, and so shuffles around her house aimlessly, grumbling in disgust of his own weakness. Mary is currently being courted by a wealthy suiter named Sam, someone her mother loves, and when her mother demands to know what George Bailey is doing in the house, Mary calls out, “He’s making violent love to me, Mother!” and enjoys the look of embarrassment on George’s face.
        Mary’s main ambition in life is to marry George and have a family with him. This definitely wouldn't fly as the leading lady’s main goal today, but it was considered highly acceptable at the time of the movie’s release. Therefore, Mary is a homemaker. George works, and Mary has children and keeps house, but also takes time to volunteer for the war effort and make as many contributions to the community she loves as she can. She is the solid rock that George leans on as he shoves through a life he hates, and while she understand that this isn’t the life he would have chosen for himself, I don’t believe she understands until the crucial moment just how disappointed George is with the lot he’s been given. However, there is nothing more fierce than the love of a loyal woman, and at the end,  George finally appreciates the treasure that Mary is, and the great joy she has given him. The movie is rife with heavy sentiment and is known one of the sappiest films of all time, but we revisit it for a reason: there is no one in this world who wants to feel that their life has been worth nothing, and we all want to realize that we have indeed had a wonderful life, even if only because of the great people we have been fortunate enough to love.

Monday, February 20, 2012

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: June Carter Cash (Walk the Line)

          I accept that I may be cheating a bit here, since June Carter-Cash was a real human being and "Walk the Line" is based on the love between her and her husband, Johnny Cash. However, I feel that Reese Witherspoon was able to make June believable, sympathetic and genuinely likeable, and so was able to build a good character, as well as pay homage to a human being with music in her soul.
        "Walk the Line" is mostly about Johnny and his struggle with drug addiction, his failed first marriage, and his great love, June, who tours with him and a ragtag group of soon-to-be icons, like Jerry Lee Lewis and a young Elvis Presley. While Johnny grew up living a type of hard, back-breaking farm life that today's country singers cannot fathom, June was born into showbiz; her whole family travels the country singing in sold out theaters, and as Elvis tells Johnny backstage one night, "She's been singin' longer'n you and I have been alive. They used to have her a crib at the Rhyman." Since June has grown up before an audience, she has a carefully guarded personality that she hides behind a ditzy, lighthearted stage persona. While the stage June is fun-loving, confident, and goofy, the backstage June is a more sensitive person with some lingering insecurities. She admits to Johnny one evening that, "Let's face it, John. I"m no singer. My sister Anita's the one with the pipes. That's how come I learned to be funny, so I'd have something to offer." June has consistently had to fight her older siblings for the spotlight and as such, feels she has little to offer outside of being silly and entertaining. She has taken this insecurity into two failed marriages, unheard of and quite scandalous at the time, and become the dark mark on the name of the famous Carter family.
      Johnny falls for her almost instantly, and with good reason. Both aspects of her nature are appealing and Reese Witherspoon does a superb job in making this woman relatable and real. She loves Johnny, clearly, but she refuses to accept his drunken, drug-ridden antics. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she "refuses to be that little dutch boy with his finger in the dam no more."
     As June's love begins to save Johnny from himself, we notice how strong she is. She has made some mistakes and carries a burden of lifelong fame and unfortunate self criticism, but she is very goodhearted and genuinely kind, making her a flawed but lovable character. Of course, by the end, Johnny proposes to June onstage, after asking many times before, and she finally says yes. While this may seem like a trite Hollywood add-on, this is a true story. Johnny really did propose to June during their famous duet, "Jackson" onstage, and the pair lived together quite happily for thirty five years before June passed away in 2004. Johnny followed her four months after, presumably from pining for her so much. I suppose that is the great message of this film: no matter who you are or what baggage you carry, you can find true love, just like this amazing (and very real) pair.

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Cruella deVille (101 Dalmatians)

   You know you're evil if you have a whole song devoted to the subject. Enter Cruella deVille, the most fiendishly fabulous villain in the Disney canon, who has an entire song devoted to her delightful wickedness. 
      The only thing Disney does better than princesses is villains. While their heroines are often bland do-gooder types who lack any real impression on the viewer after the movie is over, Disney creates villains with style, flair, motive, and really definable characteristics. Cruella is one such person; she is wildly flamboyant, theatrical, self-indulgent, and demanding, like a hybrid of Norma Desmond (more about her later) and Bette Davis in her 'All About Eve' days. She makes her grand entrance by throwing open a door and prancing inside, saying, "Anita, DAAHHLING!" When Anita asks how she is, she answers with the most diva-esque answer possible: "Miserable, dahhling, as usual. Perfectly wretched," while sweeping around the room like a furry hurricane. (I've always wanted to use that line in a social situation.) She smokes a cigarette that looks like it is leaking green slime and slings it carelessly around her, uncaring about its affect on others. To boot, she actually wants to murder (and SKIN) hundreds of puppies. There are Disney villains who kidnap, steal, lie, kill, and all sorts of other horrible things, but killing puppies? This is just an evil of an inconceivable ilk. 
       The thing that always interests me most about Cruella is how she stands up against the sub-protagonist, Anita. Anita is a beauty and seems to be happily married to Roger, the songwriter who pens the tune about Cruella. She's nice, but pretty bland. From what we know, she likes dogs and is a housewife, standard fare for the time the film was released, but it seems she doesn't have much to do. She even has a housekeeper. What does a housewife with a housekeeper and no children do all day? Cruella, on the other hand, seems to have a very busy life. Of what, we aren't sure, but she sweeps in and out rather importantly, constantly has new clothes, has a luxurious life of comfort and some importance, and doesn't seem to have a husband or any family at all. In that way, she is the self-made woman in a time that these were fairly rare to come by. (That she is the villain is of some concern, but I'll let it go due to the time period.) 
      Not much is known outside of Cruella's great desire for furry luxury. We don't know her backstory, except that she and Anita were 'schoolmates' (although they never looked like they were in the same age bracket to me,) and once she loses the puppies in the end, we assume she just stayed in that snowbank and cursed out her henchmen and cried on her muffler for all eternity. However, I'd like to think that at some point she developed a new fetish. Like maybe leather.
       Cruella as a leather fetishist? That's a whole different story that Disney might should keep its clean hands free of.

My Favorite Movie Heroines: Roxie Hart (Chicago)

     One very distinctive trait in actors and performers is this: the ones who are amazingly talented often don't believe they're very good at all, and the ones who are only moderately talented believe that their craft was never fully invented until they were born. These types of performers have an excessively inflated ego without the chops to back it up, and Roxie Hart is one of those performers.
      The 2002 film 'Chicago,' based on the Broadway play of the same name, is about Roxie Hart, a 'two-bit talent with skinny legs' (according to her lover) who dreams of a career as a star on the vaudeville/jazz club circuit. She's married to a kindhearted but dimwitted mechanic named Amos, whom she abuses and virtually ignores. Her lover, Fred, tells her he can make her famous, and when she learns that his boast was only to get her into bed, she does what any sensible person would do: she shoots him, and finds herself on Murderess Row in the Cooke County Jail, right next to her vaudeville icon, Velma Kelly, who has been put away for a similar crime.
      In the jazz age of Chicago, newspapers and radios promote scandals and crimes to sell papers, and soon, with the help of a sleazy lawyer named Billy Flynn, Roxie has become the new, misunderstood darling of the Chicago Tribune, and her cheap, tawdry persona is masked behind a lot of amazing publicity and a good alibi. This certainly doesn't help her already over-inflated ego. Roxie believes that this fame is the break she's been looking for, and starts planning an elaborate stage career just like Velma's.
      The great contrast between Velma and Roxie is interesting. Velma is a showbiz veteran, selfish and conceited, but also strikingly beautiful and very talented. She is the opposite of Roxie; while Velma's attitude is no less unpleasant, Velma has the skills and the looks to back up her sense of entitlement. Roxie, on the other hand, is a common criminal who dreams of a life she doesn't fully understand, and who is of only mediocre talent and beauty.
     Alas, the life of a celebrity is a brief one: once Roxie is acquitted of her crime, she finds that the very reporters who were clamoring to take her picture an hour ago have left the courtroom in search of new stories. As her lawyer quips, "Nothing beats fresh blood on the walls." This realization comes as a cold slap in the face to Roxie; she has built her entire future on the idea that she would be remembered forever, and that she is special. She finds out that neither is true.
     The ending is fairly bittersweet. She does eventually get her fame and her stage act by teaming up with Velma (apparently two jazz killers are indeed better than one,) but we don't really want her to. While we have grown to love her despite her flaws, she did kill someone. Does she deserve to have all her dreams come true on the back of a heinous crime? Well, according to the logic of the film, and often the real world, yes she does. Criminals and murderers who gain notoriety are often paid for book deals, script rights, and various other memorabilia, just relating to their crimes. (See: Casey Anthony, Aileen Wuornos, OJ Simpson, etc.) Roxie's 'fairytale ending' isn't really all that difficult to fathom.
     The character in itself is interesting because Roxie's idea of herself is so grandiose, and it is always fun to watch someone wrap their mind around the fact that they aren't what they believed. Renee Zellweger does add a lot of likeability to a character who could be detestable, and the part is well played. Thanks, Roxie. Apparently murder is, indeed, an art.