Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing a great little gem of a film called Hello, My Name Is Doris starring an in-form Sally Field. Her portrayal of Doris brings with it a mix of longing and vulnerability of a woman, emotionally stumped by her overbearing mother, who begins to fall for a younger man (played by New Girl‘s Max Greenfield). From that brief synopsis, the film could seem like a quirky older woman/younger man comedy, but at its core is really a character study of a woman struggling to finally find her own identity after years of being suppressed by her family. Many reviews have been saying “Sally is amazing,” “An awards-worthy performance,” but my response was, uh yeah she’s always been a force of nature.
This brought to mind what an earthy and steely presence Ms. Field has continually brought to her work over the years, harking back to her golden age of 1970s and 1980s. Go back and look at Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, Sybil and Steel Magnolias and you’ll see unique portraits of women all intensely powerful yet multifaceted. Her characters are truly as real as you can get yet even with two Oscars to her name, it seems like actresses like Field, and many others of her generation, continually get taken for granted or cast aside.
The work of subtle actresses such as Sissy Spacek, Ellen Burystn, Diane Keaton, Dee Wallace, Susan Sarandon are just a few of the names that come to mind in comparison. In their primes, they all possessed a deep inner life and a strong resolve we rarely see anymore on the silver screen. These women played characters who were not simply the wife or the girlfriend, but complicated and resolute women; akin perhaps to the naturalism of Marlon Brando evoked in A Streetcar Named Desire, these women were unpredictable and exciting to watch. This style of acting was more organic and realistic than been seen before on film and seems to be a near endangered species on the silver screen.
While strong women such as Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis were prolific in their times, their approaches tended to be more presentational; they were quite real in some ways, yet you could see the work and their personas at times did the heavy lifting. Their work never quite came from that organic core but more from the idea who they thought their characters were. Many actresses of the 1970s and 1980s were birthed from a turbulent and vibrant time that was going on around them – when you watched Sissy Spacek’s gaze of torture and horror overcome her in Carrie and then erupt into a volcano of vengeance, you could feel it and be transfixed. She wasn’t playing her pain, she was exposing a young woman’s broken heart and spirit in that moment.
While certain actresses such as Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange are celebrated, rightfully so, in today’s film landscape, I think we should also be honoring a forgotten generation of actresses who were just as memorable in cinema. Meryl and Jessica possess that rare gift of being character actresses and movie stars. Whether it was the idea that there could only be a few working at the top, somehow gradually the pool of earthy actresses has became smaller and smaller towards the end of the 1980s through today. I ask myself, why that is? The honest answer is simply we stopped making those kinds of films and these women were left behind. A film like 1978’s An Unmarried Woman (featuring an incandescent turn from the late Jill Clayburgh) has become an afterthought, if not forgotten altogether, to the testosterone driven action films that filled out the rest of the decade and continue to dominate the silver screen.
Many of these stellar actresses became relegated to maternal supporting roles, leaving us with a sense of longing, just to go back to the shadows awaiting us to remember them when we should be celebrating them. Some of their respective careers I’m sure weren’t just stalled by Hollywood but by their own will, but I honestly think its more the ladder. Actresses of this generation such as Jessica Chastain, Marion Cottilard, Gugu Mbatha-Raw are prime examples of that same organic quality once so prominent, so when they come along it feels revelatory. Actresses like Chastain have often risen above their material and made their characters much stronger.
When Jennifer Lawrence first burst onto the scene in the 2010 indie Winter’s Bone, there was that hint of a similar vibe that one could get excited about. Yet somehow that has been lost within her last few films and her approach is no longer naturalistic and honest as in that film – she was “playing” the unhinged wife in American Hustle as oppose to “being” unhinged. Of course one couldn’t fault her entirely, often she has been miscast in roles that would honestly require years of living that would change her scope of those women; I think we really haven’t seen just how much she’s capable of.
Sally Field’s performance in Hello, My Name is Doris is a prime example of just what is needed in the cinema for actresses, a great complicated character in a good movie. I can enjoy a great superhero movie like the rest of them, but still long for that balance of complicated women characters that burn and entrench on our minds. Cate Blanchett proclaimed in loud in her Oscar speech for Blue Jasmine a few years back: “People wanna see these films, they make money, the world is round people!” I honestly feel we deserve to give these forgotten actresses their due. Hopefully we can move towards that.