Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A little witch in every woman

I have Practical Magic on DVD -- it's been one of my standard comfort movies for years -- but right now it's on ABC Family in my living room because the hubby happened across it as background noise for both of us working.

Different things jump out at me when half-watching something (especially something familiar) than when I'm giving it my full attention. Tonight I happen to particularly notice how much I love Stockard Channing in this movie. I love her in general, and I love pretty much everyone in the movie, but for whatever reason it's Aunt Frances who's getting the love tonight. That no-nonsense attitude, completely at odds with how most people would approach such a fanciful character... love it. The delivery when she asks Sally, "Do you have any friends?" Just kills me.

This is one of two movies where the book disappointed me when I read it later. That doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. (The other, for the record, is Girl With a Pearl Earring, and one of these days I should post about why. The short version is that the movie is much more complex and interesting than Yet Another Romance, and the novel... is not.) I've tried for years to articulate why. The closest I got was that I didn't really like the characters in the novel, so I had trouble rooting for them. But I don't know that the movie characters are really any more likable. Gillian is still needy and self-destructive, Sally is still hiding from everything... I don't know. It just didn't grab me the same way.

Maybe one of these days I'll read it again and see if I can figure out why. :: ponders To Be Read pile :: But probably not any time soon.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

And I heard her exclaim as she drove out of sight

In which our Diva wishes a merry Christmas to all and to all a good night

I would be headed up to my brother's house right now to meet my Shiny New Niece. Unfortunately, the common cold had other ideas -- I'm coughing and sneezing WAY too much to be anywhere near a nine-day-old baby!

Instead, I'll be spending Christmas Eve snug at home with my hubby, then my parents will arrive tomorrow afternoon. It'll be a low-key one, but I'm planning to enjoy the heck out of it. Sunday night I'll be singing at Elgin Opera's annual holiday party. Then next week starts a fresh round of busybusybusy, with more auditions, then gearing up for the Holiday Leftovers variety show and the pilot for the new webseries My Cousin Radu, from 812 North Productions.

I hope you're enjoying your holiday season, and will leave you for the moment with the latest gem from Muppet Studios:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The puzzle of "plain"

In which our Diva does not think Miss Lucas so very plain, but then she is our particular friend

When playing a historical or literary character, there's both a blessing and a curse in the easy availability of other people's opinions about that person. I understand -- intellectually, at least -- why many actors avoid those opinions. (Some with a fervor generally reserved for, say, Barney the purple dinosaur.) Especially when there's a breadth of opinion available, it takes a little doing to take them objectively, with particular care needed to deal with the most thoughtful and the most forceful.

Even before my recent few months of living with Charlotte Lucas, I'm pretty sure I would have rolled my eyes at some of the criticism I've seen. I've always had a soft spot for Charlotte. But that little pang of taking it a bit personally, that's new. Kind of fun, though, if you keep it in its place.

In my various reading around for that show, I rediscovered something that I really already knew: Even more than "the one who marries Mr. Collins" (whether out of simple pragmatism or outright gold-digging selfishness depends on whom you ask, and I'm not even going to touch the blog post I ran across that accused her of duping Collins into thinking she loved him -- as if love and marriage had any bearing on one another in HIS thinking!), she's always "the plain one." Not quite so repetitively as Mary Bennet, perhaps, who has the misfortune to be lost in the middle a sparkling set of sisters. But it's certainly a defining characteristic fixed in people's minds, giving rise to perennial debates as to, for instance, whether Lucy Scott in the 1995 miniseries is "too pretty" for the role.

Which is why one of the first things I noticed about Christina Calvit's script is that the word is not used to describe a person even once.

The closest thing to it in reference to Charlotte is Mrs. Bennet's dismissal of Bingley's having danced first with Charlotte at the Meryton Assembly: "But he did not admire her at all -- nobody can, you know." Nor is her age -- twenty-seven, the Austen point-of-almost-no-return that she has in common with Persuasion's Anne Elliot -- specifically mentioned, though that "She will finally be married!" near the close of the first act is crystal-clear. "The only recourse for a young woman of small fortune" was nearly out of her reach... why?

By the same token, I've seen praise for versions like the Keira Knightley film for showing Charlotte as "actually plain" -- which apparently means dowdy clothes and careless hair. Which, to me, makes very little sense. It seems to me to be projecting onto her the modern idea of an intelligent woman who rejects the trappings of beauty as frivolous. It seems to me, though, that her very intelligence and pragmatism dictate that she make herself as attractive as possible. She's the firstborn daughter of a man with a title but relatively little wealth, and her stated and confirmed goal is to secure her future by marrying well. She's not going to accomplish that by looking like she's given up, and she's too smart not to know that.

My Charlotte, then, was perhaps a little awkward. A little self-conscious of being not as pretty as Lizzy or Jane. Whether that self-image is factual or not doesn't matter. Red hair wasn't terribly popular then, so that was to my advantage, as was the simple expedient of using less makeup than I normally would for stage, resulting in a generally washed-out impression. I didn't have to be a mess for the audience to believe the eligible male attention would be fixed on those younger friends.

So that solved my approach to what "plain" meant for this particular role. But the expression itself? That's a bigger question.

I remember studying the illustrations in fairy-tale editions of my childhood, searching for the oddly elusive meaning in context of that very simple word: Plain. While its usage in the stories told me it was some sort of contrast to the "beautiful" heroine, it was obvious even to my eight- or nine-year-old mind that there were nuances I found murky, which were probably crystal clear to the readers/audiences of the time in which the tales were written down.

That time, I know now, was mostly the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, and sure enough, it's in the literature of that age -- Austen, the Bronte sisters -- that I found more instances of this linguistic enigma to ponder.

During rehearsals for P&P, out of curiosity, I took an informal poll of my online friends and acquaintances. What emerged was a pretty equal balance of two basic interpretations, with a third clocking several votes as well:

One, that it's genteel code for "ugly," reserved for people (mostly, but not entirely, women -- Austen in particular applied it to several male characters) whose class and/or breeding made it taboo to openly describe them as such.

Two, that it refers to someone who's neither beautiful nor ugly, but somewhere in between. There's division within this one on whether it means that the person is entirely nondescript, or that they could have some distinctive features that would disqualify them from "beautiful." (Which merges at the edge into the first interpretation, depending on how narrowly the standard of beauty is defined and how little deviation is tolerated before a person is considered outright ugly. Told you this was complicated, didn't I?)

The third, less common interpretation had less to do with a person's actual physical structure, and more with their demeanor and style -- that a "plain" person was one who did not stand out, but with more glamorous trappings and confidence they might be considered beautiful. One answer in this category equated it with "Hollywood homely," and there's another word -- "homely" -- that one could puzzle over for ages!

Though the first two are the ones that have always played tug-of-war in my head when I ran across a "plain" character in a story, it's this third one I find intriguing me the most. And the one that just might be the most accurate after all. Even if you've never heard that "Hollywood homely" phrase above, I'm betting you knew immediately what it meant: Take a perfectly attractive (if not outright gorgeous) woman, add insecurity and an unfashionable hairstyle and/or clothing, play down every feature a makeup artist is trained to play up, and top off with optional glasses. Boom! Instant "plain."

Real-life women who don't consider themselves attractive (which is, sadly, the vast majority in our society) are then supposed to identify with this creature, but there's a problem: They see right through it. Or they think they do. It's a trick, they say. Under all that stereotype is just another knockout actress.

Sometimes they're right. Sometimes -- usually in cases where the character in question goes through an ugly-duckling transformation (or, as they call it over at TVTropes -- which I will warn you right now is one of the most time-suckingly fascinating sites on the entire Internet, so proceed with caution! -- "Beautiful All Along") -- the actress in question is someone with the kind of flawless physical structure that might make her jump at the chance to have a different image (however silly we all pretty much think it is these days) for part of a movie, in hopes of eventually, somewhere, getting something that will allow her to stretch the chops she's trained for.

(Yes, I know drop-dead-gorgeous-without-a-speck-of-makeup actors -- even guys -- who have to live with that. No, I will never, ever say, "Gee, we should all have such problems." I've seen how much harder they have to work to be taken seriously, especially if they were *gasp* models first. But that's mostly another topic.)

An awful lot, though, I see the "Hollywood homely" label applied to people like Judy Greer or Janeane Garafolo, who've spent much of their career playing best friend to one freakishly gorgeous lead or another. (Yep, we're totally talking about my type here, so I probably think about this more than most people.) And so often I see comments to the effect of "Yeah, but she only looks plain next to THAT. She's perfectly attractive by the standards of the real world."

Which is true as far as it goes... except when it comes from women who I would consider to be equally so, but they don't believe that. They may or may not have realized that, with the careful styling, makeup and lighting going into every frame of film we see, we would ALL look that good. And even if they do, chances are good that they wouldn't be able to see themselves in that light if they tried. Thank you, modern Western culture! *raspberry*

Meanwhile, on the other side of that equation, a lot of the stars I think of as "acknowledged gorgeous" weren't always considered so. Not everyone who captures the public imagination is a flawlessly structured freak of nature. An awful lot of them weren't regarded -- or even cast -- as All That early in their careers, but as they became bigger stars and appeared in more glamorous images, the established opinion shifted. Don't believe me? Look at Jennifer Aniston. Gillian Anderson (the glamorization of Scully over the seasons as The X-Files gained audience is a textbook case). Cate Blanchett. Brittany Murphy.

Not a one of them started out as a bombshell. Now the captions on the red-carpet photos sanction every one of them as gorgeous.

This isn't anything new, of course. Raise your hand if you guessed this winding path would eventually lead back to Lizzie Siddal. (Hey, at least I'm consistent!) Who was, contrary to the romanticized version of the story you run across a lot, discovered because Walter Deverell wanted a Viola for his Twelfth Night painting who could look like a boy. Early letters and other papers of the Pre-Raphaelites indicate that most of them initially regarded her as -- you guessed it -- plain. Her height, angularity, red hair, all worked against her according to the standards of mid-nineteenth-century England.

(I crack up every time I read William Holman Hunt's description of her as "like a queen, magnificently tall." Dude. It's 1851. Your queen is FIVE FEET TALL.)

But the point is, fast-forward a couple years, and Rossetti and the boys have established Lizzie as the archetypal "stunner," and basically nobody admits ever thinking she was anything but amazingly beautiful.

I don't know exactly what the magic formula is of style, confidence, good press, and the herd mentality of the public. But at the end of the day, an awful lot of it really is smoke and mirrors. (Even before the spectre of the airbrush figures into the equation!)

I've wandered rather astray from the "plain" question, though of course it's all related and interlocking and scrambled. One thing that did strike me in the course of this little quest was, while I had assumed it was basically an archaic usage, people actually do still use it! And not just in historical romance novels! I'm suddenly noticing it in movie reviews, casting breakdowns, even several times on that TVTropes pages I linked earlier. People use it like any other word, with the implicit assumption that people reading it will understand it to mean the same thing the writer is thinking.

And the thing that still interests me is that I'm not sure that's ever been the case.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The power of the story

In which our Diva finds new reasons to believe in people

You hear a lot about the "dark side of fandom," about unstable people who go beyond love of a shared story, sometimes to the extreme of threatening or even harming the storytellers.

If you're even casually around the virtual water coolers centered on TV shows or movies, you're also aware of the harmless bulk of fannish activity, the discussion and sharing of delight, and of creativity in the form of fan fiction or visual art or music videos.

What you probably don't hear enough about is the brightest side of all, the fans who harness that energy to make the real world a better place.

I was a smart kid. I'm a pretty smart adult, for that matter, and there are still people who think I'm wasting that gift in a frivolous profession. (They're just usually subtler about telling me so than they were in college.) Smart kids are supposed to cure cancer. Solve our energy problems. End hunger.

Save the world.

Here's the thing: I can't imagine spending my life doing any of those things. I'm not cut out for saving the world. What does hold my passion, what I wake up every day itching to do, is telling stories about people who do.

I'm the audience for a lot of those stories. Most of them tend to take place in worlds not our own - in the far-flung future, or across galaxies, or in secret underworlds of primal magic. But the challenges faced in those worlds are not as different from our own as you might think.

And some people, maybe even some of those who are cut out to save the world, look at those stories and decide they want to be like those characters. They want to face down that evil and defeat it -- not in the created world beyond the glass of the TV screen, but here and now. Sometimes it's a one-off -- fans of Blood Ties drumming up eyeglass donations to the Lions Club in honor of its vision-impaired heroine, blood drives by fans of every vampire show ever, and so on. Sometimes it's a little more ambitious.

Not a Doll is the newest such effort to come to my attention. Whatever you might think of Dollhouse -- and much as I love it, it's controversial for good reason -- for these fans it's an opportunity to educate about "the very real issues of human trafficking, poverty, oppression against women and children, the loss of self, and the negation of human rights." Sure, they're starting small. Writing a few articles and designing a handful of T-shirts might not seem like much. But the people who read those articles and find their eyes opened, the established organizations that receive the proceeds from those T-shirts? I don't think they're going to argue. And the site has just begun.

You might think this sort of thing would be a short-lived diversion, fading when the show that inspired it is no longer the flavor of the month. You'd be wrong. Just ask the folks at the Stuffy Guard Project Association, who've coordinated donations of thousands of stuffed toys and thousands of dollars for children in need since 2000. Inspired by Stargate SG-1 star Teryl Rothery, and embraced by her and her colleagues -- the show and its stars are associated with several children's charities, including Make-A-Wish and the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and various episodes focused on the effect of injustice on children -- they're going strong and continuing to grow.

This is just a tiny sampling. There are plenty more examples out there -- some were featured in an article on Firefox News a while back -- and more power to them all. I'll support them as I can, and keep dreaming of being involved in a project that inspires a save-the-world drive of its own.

Song for today: "Stranger" by Lili Haydn. I know I mentioned it just a couple weeks ago, but I can't think of anything more perfect today. "Goodness brings a chain reaction."

Saturday, December 12, 2009


In which our Diva is finally getting around to playing with vacation videos from September

If you're going to be there, check out Big Island Eco Adventures. Definitely glad we did!

Suzuki Shakespeare

In which our Diva figures this is one kid who won't be afraid of Shakespeare in high school

This is brilliant and utterly adorable. I've always respected Brian Cox, but I think I just became a big fan.

Monday, December 7, 2009

On Beyond 40

In which our Diva settles into her seat at the grownup table

Lately I've been hearing a lot that "40 is the new 30." Just in time for me -- casting-wise, at least, I haven't had much in the way of 30s. I was still playing 19 at 32, and it's only in the last year or so that I've been getting tapped for moms. It's kind of ridiculous how much fun I had at an audition the other day, watching half a dozen preteen girls chatter in the waiting area, considering which of them might be plausible as my daughter.

I come by it honestly -- when my parents were my age, I was a junior in college! But when I look at a family photo from that year, my mom doesn't look any older to me than I do now. Which one friend recently summed up succinctly as "No WAY you're 40!"

But I am, for a whole month now. As an actress, conventional wisdom says I should be depressed, if not outright terrified. Conventional wisdom says my career might as well be over.

Except for the part where it's just really getting into gear.

I love that they look at me now for a mom, or a professional. Or even a wacky neighbor. Wacky neighbors are never in their 20s for some reason. In your 20s, the roles out there are at least five hot babes (not me!) for every quirky best friend. With my castable range finally firmly in the 30s (just as I'm leaving them behind in real life!), there's actually a lot more open to me, and there still will be when I'm actually getting cast as 40. (All while not giving up on my ambition to play a woman who died at 32. But that's for stage, where the illusion is that much more elastic.)

Oh, I know it's not all roses. Leading ladies are still expected to be hot first and everything else second. The industry's idea of women's stories still tends to be frustratingly limited, and older actresses still routinely hit stupid walls. But for now, for me, things are looking pretty bright.

And maybe I'm just noticing them more, but it seems like in recent years there have been more 40-and-beyond actress footsteps to follow, on more and varied paths. A few of my favorites...

During her time leading the CBC series Snakes & Ladders, Catherine Disher said in an interview that she welcomed the kind of characters opening up to her now, having "always been a character actress with ingenue eyes and hair." (I totally relate to those first two, but have coveted her hair since 1992.) Audrey Flankman on that series, and her current role as senior-agent-cum-den-mother Maggie Norton on The Border, are unapologetically the age they are and undilutedly awesome.

Have I mentioned that I got to play sidekick to Patricia Belcher in Cyrus? Oh, right, umpteen times. But it doesn't get any less cool, so please forgive me. Her recurring role as no-bullshit prosecutor Caroline Julian is one of the best reasons to watch Bones, and her resume includes drama, comedy, commercials and standup. There is no mistaking this lady for anyone else.

Emma Thompson is, well, Emma Thompson. I've been hooked since what she refers to as her "good women in corsets phase," and the work just keeps getting better.

Cate Blanchett
is shaking her head at the people who think she seems too young and glam for Blanche DuBois, whom Tennessee Williams' stage directions describe as "about 30." Which either substantiates that "new 30" thing, or supports my hunch that "that old" is often not as old as we think it is, and that maybe what we're confusing for seeming/looking younger is really just being comfortable in one's skin. Oh, and did you notice her on the cover of this month's Vogue? 40 belongs anywhere!

Back to TV (and Canada), Amanda Tapping was my favorite thing about two different Stargate series. Now I get to see her front and center of Sanctuary. Helen Magnus is, of course, well over 40 (over 150, in fact), but there are paranormal reasons for that. This is what 40ish looks like too.

There are plenty more I could mention - Mary McCormack, Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Helen Mirren - but you get the idea. Bring it on, life!

Song for today: "Hold On" by KT Tunstall. Because I woke up with it in my head this morning, and the world will indeed turn if you're ready or not!