By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
“The problem with women in movies today,” says Scott Frank, “is that their characters, in terms of the storytelling, are often just ‘the girl.’ They serve no narrative purpose other than to be ‘the girl.’ She’s used to amplify the male’s characteristics, his lack of commitment, whatever it is — he’s messy, he’s sloppy, he’s greedy. Women are just there to sort of help out. They’re someone to talk to, a step up from the dog. The bigger problem is character in general. I go on like a broken record, and I’ve said this before — we don’t write characters in American movies anymore, we write attitudes that movie stars then fill in with their own personalities. Who is the character in Mission: Impossible? Who is that guy on the page? It’s Tom Cruise. I don’t know what he wants or what he doesn’t want, what he’s afraid of, anything. I just know he’s the guy getting it done.”
The bigger issue isn’t the number of prostitutes in American movies, but the number of women, prostitutes or not, as well as — perhaps even more crucially — the kind of women they are. During the 1990s, post– Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts made women actors profitable again, and unlike Sandra Bullock in Speed or Helen Hunt in Twister, she did it without special effects — save, of course, for that canyon smile. Roberts’ smile, the most fetishized in film, has not only been the route to her success, it has made her safe for female and male audiences alike. Evidence not only of the triumph of American dentistry, it is the smile of the radically non-difficult woman — pliant, agreeable, pleasant, pleasing. These are not lips that devour (like Angelina Jolie’s plush, labial pads) or curl into a threat (like Sharon Stone’s tight sneer), but that ease into acquiescence at the vaguest hint of difficulty, which sparkle and shine so bright you can see yourself reflected in them. It is this very same mouth that is meant to give head to Richard Gere’s millionaire trick in Pretty Woman— though, of course, not before the camera discreetly cuts away, leaving us to imagine something more romantic than that smile gone astray as its lips purse to swallow.
Thirty years ago, Jane Fonda starred in one of the few American movies that is less about whoring — as metaphor, mortal danger or kinky thrill — than about a woman who whores. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, from a script by Andy and Dave Lewis, Klute stars Fonda as a New York City call girl named Bree Daniels who comes under the protection of Donald Sutherland’s titular small-town detective. With her feathered hair and thigh-high leather boots, her modeling portfolio and therapy sessions, Bree doesn’t seem all that different from any number of women trying to make it on their own. (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s worth remembering, had started its run just the year before.) Only this girl turns the world on for a price. In between auditions, she clocks into hotel rooms for cash, freely admitting (to her shrink, to us) that she gets a kick from making men pay for it. “For an hour,” she says, “I’m the best actress in the world, the best fuck in the world.” A guy will need to save Bree, after a fashion, but since the film’s genre thrills are so unpersuasive, so limp and halfhearted, it’s as if Pakula â wanted us to know that plot twists were beside the point.
What was not beside the point was Fonda’s Bree — sexy and sleek and shagged, braless and ultramodern, the sexual revolution incarnate. She may not have been what Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem had in mind when they raised the banner for the liberated woman, but she was infinitely more interesting than most cinematic waifs of the era, who, with their Keane-cartoon eyes and baby-doll insouciance, hung off men’s necks like love beads. (It’s also worth remembering that Straw Dogs, with big-eyed Susan George and its special brand of misogyny, was just around the corner.) It’s no small irony that Bree remains one of the most complex female characters to emerge (and live) on American screens since the end of the studio system. Heavily influenced by European art cinema in general, and the prostitute films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular, Klute was released by Warner Bros. at a moment when Hollywood, post–Easy Rider, was banking on risk.
Warner Bros. lost its nerve fairly early in that game, but Klute remains one of the studio’s high points during that period, though less for Pakula’s gritty anti-aesthetic or Sutherland’s skin-crawling bedside manner than for Fonda’s rich creation, a woman in whom the contradictions of the era restlessly, relentlessly collide. Good woman, bad woman, lost soul, right-on hippie chick . . . all of Bree’s identities were true and false at once, which made that finale — with Sutherland, the packed cat and final door slam — seem less like a fairy-tale ending than a possible bad trip. Fast-forward two decades to 1990 and the contradictions are replaced by Pretty Woman. An entire history of American film could be written pegged to just Klute and Pretty Woman. Between those two films, the studios were absorbed by multinational corporations, for which the best bets are always the lowest common denominator, and movies got more expensive to make and release. In other words, they became at once more financially risky and less aesthetically risky.
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