Welcome to Girls on Film -- a Monday-night Cinematical column full of female-centric musing, rants, love and aggravation.
Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Lange, Penelope Cruz, Kathy Bates and Angelina Jolie -- what do they all have in common? They've all won Academy Awards since 1990 for delving into the lives of women with varying degrees of mental illness. Come February 27, there's a really good chance we'll see another; actress Natalie Portman is poised to enter the club with her performance as Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan.'
The increasing sure-thing buzz surrounding Portman's performance recently inspired Newsweek to look into the trend and ask the question: "Why does it take a nervous breakdown to get a girl noticed in Hollywood?"
Ramin Setoodeh writes:
By his estimation, these female roles conquer the big screen. It would be hard to disagree. We've currently got 'The Roommate' and 'Frankie and Alice' amping up the imbalance, plus any number of past films -- 'Prozac Nation,' 'It's Kind of a Funny Story,' 'Sylvia,' 'The Three Faces of Eve,' 'Chloe' and 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,' to name a few. And we also can't forget the woman who really gave the "crazy girl" modern life -- Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction.'
If you want to know why Natalie Portman is a shoo-in for the Oscar, here's one answer. It's not just that she lost 20 pounds for the role, spent nearly a year practicing ballet, and delivered a performance that made us forget she was once the annoying Queen Amidala. It's because she played a crazy chick.
There's always been this chilling affection between Hollywood and female mental illness, stemming from and exacerbating the early theatrical figures like Ophelia and Medea. New York psychiatrist Sharon Packer simplifies it as a combination of female insecurities and male chivalry. She says women "can console themselves, thinking, 'That woman is really attractive, but she's crazy, so I'm better than she is,'" while men get "the Sir Lancelot feeling. Men might be more attracted to someone who has a degree of helplessness: being crazy is being helpless."
While partially applicable (though demeaning to women because all dysfunctional characters carry a side pack of "I don't have it that bad" to console the movie viewer), actress Erika Christensen really hit it on the head. The star of 'Swimfan' said in the article: "the aggressive sexuality is part of the draw."
Take a look at nearly all of the "crazy" women Hollywood has offered forth. They are objects of overt fetishism -- vixens ready to conquer, to stalk, tortured by their sexuality or ready to share it freely and happily. They don't so much offer up views of dysfunction, but rather the dark, forbidden, sexual nature of being a little off. They titillate and tease danger while being held safely in the confines of the screen. It's the forbidden extension of the gaze, the woman as a sexual predator, off-kilter and unpredictable.
It's a habit that serves the fetishized forbidden over forays into mental trauma. It's a method to provoke tantalizing danger just as much, if not more, than it is a moment for actresses to delve into raw mental frameworks. Though 'Black Swan' has a very beautiful metaphor between the white and black swan and a passive woman trying to battle her inner demons, it also relies on the unleashed lion hungry for blood and sex, willing to bite the advance of unwanted lips, or seduce with fiery intensity. In Nina's toughest, wildest moments, she's still chained to that gaze.
Setoodeh writes: "For many actresses, playing crazy is [a] good way to get noticed." But perhaps it's more apt to say that sex is a great way for actresses to get noticed (the list of accolades grows substantially when we throw sexual dysfunction into the list of Academy winners and nominees). "Playing crazy" just allows them a richer character than the typical sexual conquest or agressor.
In Hollywood, the "crazy" label is a way to ease discomfort, one that often gets used as an adjective to downplay or protect against the female influence, much like PMS getting used as a signifier for so-called female inadequacies. Countless films showcase its female stars falling into wildly erratic emotional outbursts and paranoia -- even when they're sane. They rage; they jump to irrational conclusions. But we just shrug ... "They're women..." Perceiving imbalance weakens the threat. The New Yorker recently shared some thoughts from Tina Fey, who "has the suspicion that the definition of 'crazy' in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f**k her anymore."
Comfort also comes from the familiar. As an audience, we embrace "crazy" characters and Hollywood uses them as a way to gain favor. Though Portman has continued to work over the years, there was always the whistful sigh that the little girl from 'The Professional' became the disappointing Queen Amidala. But sexual, raw and mad, Portman catapulted to the top of the actress food chain so quickly that it already feels strange that she also stars in 'No Strings Attached.' Likewise, Angelina Jolie quickly morphed from cinematic bad girl and resident weirdo to action star and one of the most influential women in Hollywood. A year after 'Girl, Interrupted,' she co-starred in 'Gone in Sixty Seconds.' A year after that, 'Tomb Raider.'
Playing "crazy" has a transformative effect. It makes careers, and no matter how many times we see it, we eat it up like a spoon. For sure, Portman gave a stunning performance. She physically, mentally and emotionally gave her all to this film and created what is surely one of the best performances of the year. But at what point do we look beyond it?
Will Hollywood's "crazy" ever feel old?
Follow the column on Twitter for extra femme-centric buzz: @girls_on_film.
Related: Why Jennifer Lawrence Deserves to Win the Best Actress Oscar