By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
IN THE MIDDLE OF FIGURING OUT WHERE she'd like to rank among the rich and famous (not too famous, a little more rich), Nicole Holofcener spots a buxom tan woman and a tiny girl strolling through the lobby of the hotel Casa Del Mar. "Oh, just look at those boobs," Holofcener mutters with evident disapproval, directing my attention to a woman whose shoulder-length hair rivals the shade of her slinky white sheath. "Oh my God! And she's got collagen lips, dyed hair -- andshe's wearing sunglasses in here. Poor little girl, she's going to grow up thinking this is how women are supposed to look.
"And I," Holofcener remarks, twisting her chin to catch her reflection in a shiny object on the table, "have the biggest zit on my face." I dutifully stare, but see only a red mark from where she's rubbed her skin. "Don't write about my zit," she pleads. "Okay?"
In Holofcener's new film, Lovely and Amazing, the writer-director's first full-length feature since her 1996 indie-house hit Walking and Talking, a mother (Brenda Blethyn) presides critically over her three beauty-conscious daughters even as she submits to liposuction to trim the flab from her middle-aged belly. Having made a film so plainly about women and body image, Holofcener had to become an expert on the matter -- which is different, of course, from breaking free of the values imposed by a culture that finds physical perfection in a clothes hanger. "I keep thinking I should be beyond it. I'm too smart for this," she complains. "Who cares? But I'm a product of this culture, like everyone else. I just try to be aware of how stupid it is."
At the moment, however, Holofcener seems altogether nonchalant about beauty, in a boy's Wave Surf Board shop T-shirt borrowed from a friend's son, with cascades of undirected curls falling around her shoulders and not the slightest shadow of makeup. She is also sharply aware of the ironies to which she submitted her actresses, who include Emily Mortimer as Elizabeth, an actress neurotically preoccupied with her relative sexiness, and Raven Goodwin as her 8-year-old adopted sister, Annie, a black girl among white women who persuades her Big Sister sponsor, a black woman, to straighten her hair. As with Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazingis a subtle, straightforward, quietly funny movie financed outside of any studio's control. But it's still an American movie, not a French one -- its women still have to be pretty, and Holofcener often had to impose on them the very standards her script implicitly critiques.
"It's completely life imitating art, art imitating life," says Holofcener. "I wanted them to look their best, always, and so sometimes I had to do to them what they were doing to themselves." When Elizabeth gets called for a "chemistry" audition with hunky TV actor Kevin McCabe (Dermot Mulroney), "she has to figure out what to wear to the audition, and at the same time I'm trying to figure out what she should wear to the audition. At one point I thought, 'Who's evil here? Am I any better than the directors in the movie?'"
The ironies ran even deeper with Goodwin's character, Annie, who gets called "fat girl" at a public pool. Like the little boy in Monster's Ball, Annie is a kid with a weight problem, portrayed, inevitably, by an overweight child actor.
"I talked to her a lot about how the issues in this movie are about really shallow things," Holofcener says, "that the characters are focused on really shallow things, weight being one of them. I tried to instill it in her that that's not who we are, that weight doesn't measure how beautiful we are."
Even better: Beauty and thinness are not indicators of intelligence, tenacity or sound morals. When Elizabeth asks Kevin, whom she briefly dates, to evaluate her naked body, and he complies -- at first reluctantly, but with escalating enthusiasm -- he does for her what he does for himself, separating her physical qualities and imperfections from the greater notion of her self-worth. Yes, her breasts droop from the side, the skin under her arms is loose, and her bush is too big. Still, he calls her for another date.
"My husband actually inspired that nude scene in the movie," says Holofcener, "because I was always complaining about my nose. 'It's so big! Look at me in that picture, oh my nose looks so big! Don't take me from that angle. Turn the light off, on, back up.' All these nose issues! He had no patience for it. But he also said, 'Nic, you're beautiful. I love you. Andyou have a big nose.' I thought, 'Hmm. Okay, can I live with this?'"
She and her husband recently separated, but she credits him for the lesson in self-acceptance. "It's what inspired me to write that scene. I like the idea that you can say to someone, 'Yeah, you're sexy -- andyou have a fat ass.'"
After giving birth to twin boys four years ago, says Holofcener, "I certainly look at the changes in my body and think they were well worth it. But there's another part of me that's still 19 years old, and wants to look great in the same clothes, and tells me if I'm not really skinny, I don't seem really smart. But so be it. I'm not going to hate myself for being shallow."
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