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2011 In Film: Iron Ladies And Rowdy Women

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 20, 2011

Meryl Streep has served up more than her share of ice queens in her time, but her rendering of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the new film The Iron Lady is a peak experience.

In a horrifically funny scene toward the end, we see Mrs. T. — a grocer’s daughter who clawed her way up the all-male political ladder — roll her eyes through her Tory Cabinet’s mumbled objections to her proposal for a flat income tax for all Britons, rich or poor. A vision in bouffant and pearls, Thatcher waves away their warnings of political suicide, unconcerned.

But when a luckless subordinate goes further, venturing timidly that a flat tax might also be “unfair,” Streep’s Thatcher erupts into a stream of scalding invective that doesn’t merely cow her colleagues into sniveling submission. She freaks herself into a baffled silence.

Until that moment, director Phyllida Lloyd has more or less spun Thatcher’s rise as a feminist parable of triumph over men of little faith and lesser talent. That has proved a stretch for British critics, especially women who have pointed out that when it comes to Maggie Thatcher, womanhood is not the same as sisterhood. But that cathartic scene, which reveals the strength and weakness of a woman congenitally incapable of backing down from any fight, is a great leap forward for women in film.

Why? Because women have been marooned in the territory between cute luvvies and bunny-boiling sluts since Hollywood time began. On-screen, if not in life, we need more Maggie Thatchers — unlikable, power-grabbing, not greatly gifted in the maternal department, capable of as wide a range of behavior and motivation as men.

In that spirit, here’s my salute to all the Iron Ladies of film, 2011. It’s been a banner year for misbehaving divas, and that’s without so much as a hello from Jane Fonda. Note: Shopaholics and action girls (sorry, Hanna) don’t count.

Top honors go to screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for taking back that girliest of genres, the romantic comedy, and pumping it with transgressive pep. Also to the cast of Bridesmaids for settling the question of whether women can do comedy — physical, verbal, aggressive, raunchy, any kind you want. Special mention goes to Melissa McCarthy as a nuclear engineer in golf cap and pearls, a woman who steals puppies, propositions an air marshal midflight, and sets Wiig’s woebegone protagonist back on her feet by sitting on her chest and bullying her out of self-pity.

Armed with a cowlick and a basso profundo growl, the towering British actress Janet McTeer steals Albert Nobbs from under Glenn Close, playing (like Close) a 19th century Irishwoman who passes as a man to get work — and finds that she likes it enough to set up house with another woman.

One scene is worth salvaging from Carnage, the otherwise dull Roman Polanski living-room drama about overprivileged New Yorkers shouting themselves into an existential corner. Call me twisted, but the sight of Kate Winslet flogging a vase of very pricey tulips to death filled me with joy.

Charlize Theron begins Young Adult as a spoiled Pomeranian-toting brat who, pushing 40, has deluded herself into thinking she can wrestle her former high school squeeze away from his happy marriage. She ends the movie as a spoiled Pomeranian-toting brat whom adversity has taught absolutely nothing. When did you last see a Hollywood chick flick in which no one learned a damn thing? Consider us refreshed.

Mila Kunis, dialed modestly down from Black Swan, nevertheless satisfies as a love-bruised headhunter who lays down the romantic law to Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits: “No relationship. No emotions. Just nookie.” Or words to that effect, and of course she takes it all back when he stages a flash mob in her honor at the film’s close. But while it lasts, her wounded rage is belligerent, palate-cleansing fun.

In the category of Silent But Deadly: Charlotte Rampling may be the most maliciously conceived mother ever in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. But you have to admire the pathological brio of a monster mom so lacking in nurturing instincts that she’ll kick a weeping daughter when she’s down. Demi Moore is coolly insidious in Margin Call as an investment banker who will sell just about anyone downriver to save her own creamy skin.

In Meek’s Cutoff, Michelle Williams, wearing lank hair and a flapping bonnet, sees off a blowhard Oregon Trail guide with a steely stare, a few understated threats and a gun she’s never used in her life. And Elizabeth Olsen goes quietly nuts as a cult victim, then loudly berserk while laying waste to her sister’s marriage in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Okay, I’ll slip in just one action heroine. I haven’t yet seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but Rooney Mara’s makeup and body art alone are enough to shrivel every man within her gun sights.

Finally, in the unlikely event that you see In the Land of Blood and Honey without knowing who made it, you might judge it a solid, affecting war drama that speaks for the Muslim women of Bosnia without flinching from depicting the brutality visited on them by Serbs. That’s exactly the way to look at it, and not as the directing debut of the most expensive lips in Hollywood. This is one instance of Angelina Jolie’s clout properly wielded. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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