The other day I sat down and watched an indie that came and went without much buzz a handful of years ago -- 2006's I'm Reed Fish. The film starred Jay Baruchel -- after the likes of Undeclared, but before the likes of Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder -- as the radio voice of the people for a small town called Mud Meadows. Trying to exist under the heavy arm of his dead father's shadow, Reed has it rough, being romantically linked (either in real life or his own art) with the following beauties: Alexis Bledel, Schuyler Fisk, Shiri Appleby, and Valerie Azlynn. Additionally, one of his only friends is played by DJ Qualls (the weird guy from Road Trip), who is engaged to A.J. Cook (Mary Lisbon from The Virgin Suicides) in the film. Another apt title for the comedy would have been: How Awkward Geeks Get the Hotties.
Of course, this is nothing new, though I'm Reed Fish stretched the idea to its limits. When lots of boy geeks/dorks/nerds/etc get successful in Hollywood, of course they're going to perpetuate the dream -- that they'll get the girl that Duckie lost all those years ago. And that's not the only reason. Certainly, unlikely matches happen in real life too, like the oft-used example of Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. But it's also a matter of beauty.
Hollywood is no longer comfortable with a female lead or love interest who offers a different type of beauty.
These days, Hollywood actresses can relish in a myriad of hair or eye colors, but that's about it. Classically beautiful faces are the name of the game, especially when it comes to romance. It is, perhaps, the biggest imbalance in Hollywood. While any list can go on and on naming men who aren't Robert Redford types, but get beautiful women on the big screen anyway, it's going to be a challenge to even come up with a quarter, a tenth, or even a twentieth of the non-Ingrid Bergmans who get super-hot beaus. Or even sexy beaus. Or heck, sometimes even the chance to be on the screen at all. Awkward and dorky minimal supporting role here they come!
Some say it's because of the male gaze in cinema. Some say men just can't handle women who aren't attractive, but women can handle (and like) men who aren't. Some say it's because of who is making the movies, and what they want to see (the whole geek guy behind the camera idea). But there's another thing to consider: It wasn't always this way.
In the seventies and eighties, Neil Simon whipped up a number of stories that featured Marsha Mason, including The Goodbye Girl and Chapter Two, letting her suffer the turmoil of romance with Richard Dreyfus and James Caan. Neither film gets much love today, but both stints earned her Oscar nominations, though she was never considered one of the big beauties of Hollywood. Back then, leading women had any number of looks and visages and had some luck bringing them to the screen. The irreplaceable Carol Burnett could play the romantic lead opposite Alan Alda in The Four Seasons. And of course: Barbra Streisand made her career out of being the alternative pick.
In Funny Girl, she made herself the brunt of the jokes, professing to Mr. Ziegfeld that the audience just wouldn't accept her as beautiful, even though she skillfully and quickly won the eye of Omar Shariff. But five years later Streisand got her biggest coup, stealing the heart -- albeit temporarily -- of one of Hollywood's biggest and sexiest legends, Robert Redford in The Way We Were. She even got to hold a double whammy as Katie Morosky, getting the popular looker despite the odds, and doing it as an outspoken and sassy communist. The film might have wimped out thematically -- for example, she speaks out against McCarthyism but never really feels its wrath, though she's a prime target -- but the film has elicited long-standing love as a classic romance.
Of course, Streisand's whole popularity was predicated on the idea of Babs as an unlikely romantic possibility rather than simply a romantic lead without qualifiers, but at least it was an option, one that was accepted and successful.
These days, whether the guy is uber-dorky or stunningly sexy, he gets the looker. And unfortunately, there aren't even that many variations of beauty for him to choose from. While some women stand out as extremely sexy, many actresses have the same general look and features. And if they don't, Hollywood's strong, airbrushing machine will help homogenize them, if botox and other injections don't do the job first.
From the "ugly" girls played by beautiful women (whether altered with makeup a la Monster, or simply given some glasses), to the romantic leads, and even the funny girls, there seems to be room only for one distinct and small notion of beauty. When Tina Fey is seen as the dowdy everywoman, one has to wonder what Hollywood would do if Gilda Radner hit today with her off-the-beaten-track charm and sea of wonderfully frizzy hair.
It's hard to even find the language to discuss this, since it's about so much more than beauty, but about what beauty is and what boundaries our cultural atmosphere imposes. I don't mean to single these women out. Each of these women are beautiful in a myriad of different ways, and they have every right to the fame they achieved, but none of them have looks that fit in with today's stringent, narrow, and ridiculous standards. Considering this, I can't help but wonder if any of these women would've had the same success today.
There should always be ridiculously beautiful people in Hollywood. It's a system strongly influenced by notions of fantasy and attraction, of leaving the everyday world behind for whimsy and wonder. But not every film caters to that mindset, and some fantasy requires relatability, so as some semblance of reality filters through Tinseltown, real women should follow. Men come in all shapes, sizes, and looks on the big screen, and it's sad that the women of Hollywood can't get even a small sliver of that freedom, especially since they once could.
Is there no longer room for a varied set of leads? For a realistic woman to fall in love with a realistic man and have looks never come into play? For women with talent to find success because of their skills, rather than because they're lucky enough to be super-hot too? What changed, and how can it be changed back?