Jessica Biel in 'Easy Virtue' (left) and 'Powder Blue' (right)

In this day and age, why can't someone be both? Jessica Biel's dramatic turn as a stripper in Timothy Linh Bui's Powder Blue, which just hit DVD and Blu-ray, has been competing for attention with the theatrical release of Stephen Elliott's Easy Virtue, which opened in New York and Los Angeles before expanding this weekend. Throw in the tempest in a teacup about her interview with Allure Magazine, in which the actress was quoted as complaining that her beauty was causing her to miss out on more serious roles that instead went to Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson, and it may be hard to know what to think of the actress.

I don't know if the Allure quotes are accurate are not, taken out of context or completely made up, but watching her in Easy Virtue made me forget all the career stuff and gossip and get caught up with the characters and the story. That's not something I expected from a period piece based on a play by Noël Coward. Biel plays Larita, an American race car driver from Detroit who marries the young, very British John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) after a whirlwind romance. John takes her home to meet his very proper mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), his remote yet welcoming father (Colin Firth), and his two flighty sisters (Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson).

It wouldn't be fair to say that Biel steals this very funny film (with a more serious streak that's gradually revealed). For one thing, Firth is exquisitely good; for another, Elliot's direction is quite engaging. Still, Biel is something of a minor marvel in the role.



Our own Eugene Novikov even declared: "Jessica Biel gives easily the best performance of her career as the stubborn, complex Larita." (More than by the way, his entire review is well worth reading.) Based on her appearances on talk shows, where she's shown herself to be quick-witted and ready to laugh at herself, I anticipated that Biel could easily handle the comedy in Easy Virtue. The pleasant surprise was her ability to convey the cracks that develop in the deep emotional reservoir that her character has been containing. Some of that is in the script, of course; the rest has to come from the actress. I always come back to the eyes; maybe it's just the lighting or me projecting my own feelings onto the screen, but some performers seem to be able to communicate their thoughts without saying or doing anything. You can see them thinking. I haven't seen everything Biel has done so far, so maybe she's demonstrated this quality before. There's little doubt now, though, that she can handle a meaty dramatic part.

Speaking of things I haven't seen, the few reviews I've read for Powder Blue have been consistent: comments about the mediocre drama, highlighted by notations about Jessica Biel stripping down to display her breasts and bottom. (I want to sound self-righteous or disapproving on the latter point; that would be hypocritical, since that's pretty much all we concentrated on when writing about the movie over the last few months.) The desire to see an attractive naked body may be part of the biological drive common to all humans, but somehow the prospect of an actress uncovering the goods for the first time tends to convert many men, myself included, into sniggering pre-pubescent boys sneaking a forbidden peak at Playboy.

As a result, I've been made to feel like the only reason I'd be renting or buying Powder Blue would be to check out Biel's body. Which inspires the thought: Why do so many actresses end up playing strippers on screen? It seems de rigueur, even if the actress doesn't want to actually take off all her clothes. (E.g. Jessica Alba in Sin City.) That's like someone wanting to play a police officer, even though they don't want to carry a gun or arrest anybody, isn't it? No doubt every actress has her reasons, and every single one is along the lines of, 'The part was too good to pass up.'

A wise woman once said, "In Hollywood, actresses have to prove they're women by showing their breasts. Then they have to spend the rest of their careers proving that they don't have to take off their clothes to be taken seriously." (Or something along those lines; it was in a film magazine and I've never been able to rediscover the exact quote.) Now that Biel has stripped, and, more importantly, demonstrated her depth, maybe she can be accepted as a serious actress.