Apr 1, 2014

Playing hardball with the male gaze

Last week, The New Yorker sent its film critic Anthony Lane to profile Scarlett Johansson, to mark the occasion of two new movies featuring the actress, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Under The Skin. He found the newly-pregnant Johannsson “radiant”, possessed of a “dry and dirty” laugh “as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini.” But the libations really flowed around her performances. In Vicky Christona Barcolona, she “seemed to be made from champagne.” In Her, she acted using only the “honey” of her voice.  Johannsson is well “aware of her sultriness” onscreen, noted Lane. “If the opening shot [of Lost in Translation] was a sly joke, presenting us directly with Johansson’s backside, barely veiled in peach-colored underwear, the rest of the movie was dedicated to the principle that she would no longer be treated as a nice piece of ass.”

The reaction to the piece was swift and merciless.  “Try to imagine The New Yorker running this about Matthew McConaughey, or Michael Fassbender” fulminated Esther Breger in a piece for at the New Republic, entitled Anthony Lane's Scarlett Johansson Profile Turns The New Yorker into a Men's Magazine.” She found itthe worst profile I can remember reading in The New Yorker.” Over at Slate, Katy Waldman said that the problem with the piece was  " not [just] that it salivates over ScarJo, but that it refuses to treat her as a human subject, with qualities of mind” she said. “A real profile would have peeled back the sex appeal altogether and shown us the woman underneath.”

Ah. That, certainly, is the illusion we have come to expect from the modern-day celebrity profile, which turns an hour of carefully-alotted time with an actor or actress into a cunningly crafted facsimile of intimacy, from which all PR apparatus has been carefully photo-shopped. Lane’s piece stood in stark defiance of such conventions.  He pointed out that not only had he been forbidden from asking personal questions, but also that a member of Johansson’s PR team hovered in constant view lest he should; he hung around for the 17-minute photo-shoot to observe something of the actress’s chemistry with the camera, and when writing up his piece, showed much more interest in elaborating  and toasting her onscreen persona— the “honey  of her voice”, the “champagne” of her skin etc — than he was in probing the performer for tidbits.

It’s what happens when you send a critic to write a profile. “The first duty of a film critic — the sole qualification, to be honest — is to fall regularly, and pointlessly, in love with the people onscreen,” wrote Lane in his review of Before Sunrise.  Send them to meet the people behind the people onscreen and the results tend toward controlled delirium. Kenneth Tynan’s profile of Greta Garbo, for Sight and Sound in 1961, began with this famous declaration of intoxification:—

“What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober. She is woman apprehended with all the pulsating clarity of one of Aldous Huxley’s Mescalin jags. To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which like a flower or a fold of ilk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself.’

Objective? Of course not.  Smitten? Almost certainly. Personal info? Almost none. By the standards of today’s celebrity profiles, Tynan’s piece is as much of a wash-out as Lane’s. He spent an afternoon walking around Westminster Abbey with the actress, noting  the “broad ivory yoke of her shoulders,” which “belong to a javelin thrower”, her “secret half smile”, strong knees and “sidelong, tentative,” way of entering a room “like an animal thrust under the a searchlight”. Walking, she “seeming to idle even when she strode, like a middle weight boxer approaching an opponent.” Of her famed androgyny he wrote,  “she has sex but no particular gender. Her masculinity appeals to women, her sexuality to men.” As for the  ‘woman underneath’ the sex symbol: phooey.  Tynan gave us the woman on top, the triumphant exterior, the shining chassis, lovingly polished  in a 3,000-word rhapsody to lay alongside James Agee’s prose bouquet to Liz Taylor  and Pauline Kael’s to Cary Grant.  “If it is true that no clothes seem meant for her, much less to fit her, that is because her real state is not in clothes at all… She implies a nakedness which is bodily as well as spiritual,” he wrote, adding “I dwell on Garbo’s physical attributes because I think the sensual side of acting is too often under-rated. Too much is written about how actors feel, a too little about how they look.”

If that seems a shocking statement today, it is because we are  probably more, not less, conflicted about the question of looks onscreen than we were in 1961. The level of beauty required from our actors and actresses is probably even higher than it was in the hey-day of the studio system — just look at the winner's paddock at this year's Oscars — but our denial that this is so is ten times greater, with performers fleeing any hint that their success is tied to their sexual availability as if the mere mention of it were career death. That's why I find Scar-Jo so refreshing: she's the only A-List actress I can think of to dare to touch this third rail and live to tell the tale. She plays hardball with the male gaze. She has received her fair share of flack for it, often from female journalists — "she's no Natalie Portman" sniped a reporter from Forbes, after the actress self-depracated about her SAT scores — but shrugged off that nude selfie with an equanimity worthy of Monroe: "I know my best angles."  This disapproval of her is partly fueling the disapproval for Lane's piece, I feel.  But he didn't ask her about Woody. And that would deliver her quintessence as a screen performer how exactly?  Under The Skin is fantastic, by the way: a horror-sci-fi fantasia on human desire and as seen through the Baconian meat shop, featuring Scarlett as an alien preying mantis in dark wig and laddered tights, feasting on Scotsmen who seem to have wandered in from a Ken Loach docudrama about unemployment figures. A film of vast ugliness and surpassing beauty, sex and death, Hollywood star wattage and Caledonian grunge, it's Lynch without the camp flourishes, just a hard driving through-line of images as dire and unignorable as oncoming headlights in rain. I white-knuckled my pen throughout, and later found a near undecipherable trail of words in my battered critic's notebook: strobe, desire, meat, mountain, baby, pitiless, Tommy Cooper!, burr, death. My first A- of the year.

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