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Working Girls

Why Hollywood Won't Turn the Best Comic Actresses Into Movie Stars

By Ian Grey | Posted 10/13/1999

"I just adore little babies," Joan Cusack says, pinching the cheek of a precious tot. "I just want to grab them and squeeze them until there's not a breath left in their tiny little bodies."

It's hard to imagine, say, Cameron Diaz getting away with expressing such a sentiment. But Cusack, playing an evil gold-digger in Addams Family Values, does, while giving voice to a thought many viewers may have had, but which can only be stated in the register of comedy.

But that's what Cusack (seen this summer in Runaway Bride) and other comedic actresses such as Janeane Garofalo (who appeared in a trio of recent releases) and Lisa Kudrow do for a living. They pump lifeblood into the most anemic of features, often articulating or acting out the unsettling ideas that lie at the core of all superior comedy. It's a unique talent and craft, requiring a musician's sense of rhythm, a dancer's appreciation of body language, and a semiotics professor's grasp of subtext. And they occupy perhaps the most underappreciated niche in filmdom.

Comedy performers are frequently overlooked by the Academy Awards and other gauges of industry respect. But comedic actresses in particular are given fewer chances than comic actors to bask in the spotlight. They don't graduate to leading roles as frequently as their male counterparts do. (A slew of comic actors—Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, even Steve Guttenberg, for God's sake—have parlayed funny supporting turns into careers as leading men.) Even for a profession not noted for job security, the rate of attrition among comedic film actresses is startling. Among those who are either toiling in television or missing in action almost entirely are such varied and once-hot talents as Colleen Camp (Police Academy), Julie Hagerty (Lost in America), Glenne Headly (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Catherine O'Hara (Beetlejuice), Annie Potts (both Ghostbusters), Elizabeth Perkins (Big), and Daphne Zuniga (The Sure Thing). Teri Garr, , whose presence has enhanced films as diverse as Young Frankenstein, Oh, God!, and After Hours, now plays the mother of Kudrow's Garr-inspired character Phoebe on Friends.

Our relationship with movie stars of either sex is, in American film, about wish fulfillment. Performers like Cusack, Garofalo, and Kudrow, are all about the moment when you realize you can never measure up to those wishes, and need a quick shot of reality operating under the cover of humor. And while female players known for their dramatic work are rewarded for the occasional comedic performance—think of Jessica Lange (who won an Oscar for Tootsie) and Frances McDormand (similarly honored for Fargo)—there is still a weird stigma attached to actresses who rely on laughs as their primary means of income. This is partially because of a peculiarly American belief that real acting involves high drama. But upon closer examination, comedy's lesser prestige is only one factor that keeps the likes of Garofalo, Cusack, and Kudrow from attaining the level of recognition and career success they deserve.

Garofalo, 35, is cinema's one-woman bullshit meter, adding caustic reality to films where none exists (as in her first feature, the Gen X fluff fest Reality Bites). She has a performance artist's sense of the absurd and an innate understanding of the relationship of film to audience. When her character, The Bowler, deadpans during the triumphant finale of the action-comedy Mystery Men, "I would like to dedicate my victory to supporters of local music and those who seek out independent films," the line between viewer and performer vanishes. We laugh with her over what we might have just been discussing in the lobby. Of course, Bob Hope regularly broke the laws of the stage nearly a half-century ago. But Hope's midfilm asides to the viewer were simple, anything-for-a-laugh shtick that addressed nothing more than his own celebrity; in both films and interviews, Garofalo rails against the entire idea of celebrity. Even in less meta-textual moments, she manages to be both in character and in your face.

Kudrow, meanwhile, is in the business of tweaking and subverting the space-case archetype she perfected on Friends. In the film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, the 36-year-old actress takes Phoebe's classic ditz to hilariously hollow extremes and nearly succeeds in making something out of a film that is a pleasant nothing. In The Opposite of Sex, Kudrow gives lie to all our expectations. Although teenage star Christina Ricci cracks wise and postmodern for the entire film, it's Kudrow, playing a high-strung spinster-in-training, who gives Sex its bite. We learn of the frustrated woman beneath the humorously prim mask as she abruptly screams to another deluded character, "You think you're being nice, but it's really self-destructive. It's like you have a death wish. I do too, but I direct mine toward other people." Kudrow's comedy, as it turns out, is the only real drama in the film.

Kudrow's distracted gaze betrays the misfiring of some vital link between the synapses; what comes out is hilariously out of sync. Cusack—in the silent-film tradition of Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin—is all about those synapses firing at an incredible, completely self-aware velocity. Every raised brow, double- and triple-take, and millisecond-long frown-to-smile-to-grimace implies a well-considered, secret story. She barely needs words to communicate. No other actor in American film is so utterly alive in the cinematic moment.

All of this makes Cusack a perfect carrier of a comedy's darker strains. In 1986's Working Girl, she is both aspiring yuppie Melanie Griffith's flaky best pal and a constant reminder of the white-trashy roots the Griffith character wishes to escape. With her multicolored eye shadow, insanely over-coifed '80s 'do, and gum-smacking vocal delivery, Cusack could easily have rendered a cheap grotesque: instead, she brings understated dignity to the character, imbuing this light Reagan-era comedy with working-class soul.

In & Out (1997) follows a gay schoolteacher (Kevin Kline) from closeted denial to self-outed triumph. Cusack is his fiancée, starving herself to be attractive, denying her sexuality in the name of domestic bliss, and basically doing everything she can to keep herself in a state of suspended delusion. After freaking out when Kline comes out at the altar, Cusack wanders the dark small-town streets in her now meaningless wedding gown. She ends up a local bar, having a drink and some nuts ("I'm gorging myself!" she cackles); a grumpy Tom Selleck (playing a gay TV reporter and the catalyst for Kline's self-acceptance) shows up and tells her what a hard day he's had. Suddenly, the film reveals its real drama. Without a word, Cusack pulls herself visibly out of her private abyss and realizes she's listening to the whining of a rich, handsome man who may have had sex with her fiancé. Her stupefied "Excuse me?" simultaneously upbraids Selleck and sums up the lousiness of life, allowing us—at the safe remove of comedy—to remember what it feels like to get the short end of the stick.

Yet it is precisely the qualities that make these women uniquely remarkable performers that impedes their progression to leading-person status and the covers of glossy magazines. It isn't late-breaking news that beauty (currently defined as very thin, Anglo, and probably surgically enhanced) and youth (say, mid-30s and under) are essential to the success of the majority of actresses. What is of recent vintage is the nature of the filmmaking machine in which these prejudices operate.

Modern Hollywood is based on the concept of interchangeability. Since the assimilation of all major (and most "independent") studios by a clutch of huge corporations during, or soon after, the late '80s, filmmaking has become an endeavor based on the assemblage of component parts. To a degree, this has always been true in Hollywood. But the old-time moguls believed that the way to capture an audience was to offer it as wide an array of "types" as possible. Today's studio exec thinks just the opposite—and implements his or her thinking via direct input on film projects.

In the modern art of the deal, Hollywood-style, it's essential that no one part become a liability by being irreplaceable. The preferred player—especially for leading roles—is now a sort of human blank slate who can easily be replaced with someone else.

Cusack, Garofalo, and Kudrow cannot be replaced with anyone. If Gwyneth Paltrow is busy or too expensive, there's always Gretchen Mol or some other willowy WASP starlet to fill her shoes. But there isn't an endless queue of Cusacks in the waiting room at the Creative Artists Agency. This translates into an odd sort of power that guarantees these actresses employment (within certain age boundaries) but, in the context of assembly-line Hollywood, will continue to relegate them to supporting roles, or, as the years go on, force them off the big screen and into series television, direct-to-video flicks, or really bad horror movies, the usual purgatories for female performers past their "prime."

Things aren't looking that bad for our heroines—yet—but they are not looking terribly good either. After semi-successful shots at romantic-comedy leads in The Truth About Cats and Dogs and The Matchmaker, Garofalo has settled into her current parade of supporting turns—to the point of overexposure, with 200 Cigarettes, The Handyman,Can't Stop Dancing, Dogma, Steal This Movie, The Independent, Mystery Men, The Minus Man, and Dog Park either released this year or upcoming. Not only does Garofalo make too many, often lousy films in which she's the sole redeeming feature; she's in danger of being downsized into a caricature of herself, the Eve Arden of postmodern cranky girls. And it remains a mystery as to why the Coen brothers, Albert Brooks, Alexander Payne, or any other comedic writer/director of note isn't writing fabulous starring vehicles for her.

Interestingly, Garofalo has most recently expanded her own range by turning away from comedy in favor of more dramatic vehicles such as Copland, the upcoming Steal This Movie, and Hampton Fancher's serial-killer film, The Minus Man. Regardless of the quality of the individual movies, such attempts to stretch beyond her familiar screen persona can only help her in the long run.

Kudrow, on board for another season on Friends, isn't losing sleep over her mortgage, but she is also in danger of becoming typecast as she repeatedly pushes the ditz button in films such as Albert Brooks' Mother (in which she is, admittedly, pretty damn funny). More discouraging is the possibility that, as in this year's Analyze This, she will continue to be cast as just another supportive wife.

Kudrow is also co-starring with Meg Ryan and Diane Keaton in the Keaton-directed Hanging Up, slated for release in December. Although Keaton, who inevitably toils in the shadow of her mentor Woody Allen, has shown herself capable of making interesting films, it must be noted that Hanging Up is co-written by Nora Ephron, creator of such programmed pap as You've Got Mail.

Cusack, both at the top of her game and, at 37, in a precarious career position, seemed to have a genuine shot at an Oscar for In & Out, both for her superior turn in that film and in recognition of more than a decade of consistently extraordinary work. The award and the attention it could bring might have lifted her career out of its supporting-comedic-actress pigeonhole. But Oscar passed Cusack by in favor of L.A. Confidential's Kim Basinger, taking the steam out of her ascendance to some as-yet-untitled sort of stardom.

Of course, Cusack keeps getting work. Besides Runaway Bride, she turned in a solid supporting turn as Tim Robbins' wife in the suspense thriller Arlington Road, done a voice-over for the upcoming Toy Story 2, and joined the ensemble in the forthcoming, Robbins-directed The Cradle Will Rock. In March, Daily Variety reported that she'd signed to star in a weekly television sitcom.

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