Hollywood and the New Female Grotesque

Actresses are being lauded for pushing their supposed undesirability to the extreme, and it’s redefining how we see women.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,206 words)

The Favourite does not take its women at face value. Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist tragicomedy has Olivia Colman starring as Queen Anne, a crumbling presence plagued by illness and an infantile disposition, neither of which stop her from playing magical beds with her two favorites, right hand woman Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and scheming servant Abigail (Emma Stone). This is not the stuff of the male gaze, though a male is gazing: it is over the top, tilting-into-farce, Grand Guignol panto. In one scene, Colman’s doleful Anne, secluded in her bedroom, morosely sticks a fork into a banquet-sized blue cake, shoves it into her mouth, vomits into a vase (everyone vomits into vases in this film) and then, wet bits of blue staining her mouth, acid-sweet bile in ours, takes another mouthful of that same cake. It’s gloriously grotesque.

The other two actresses are burlesque in a different way. Weisz is dragged so determinedly across the screen by a well-meaning horse that her beauty is deformed into a fulvous pulp. As for Stone, those cartoon-sized eyes are almost beside the point, which is her mouth contorting into various exclamations. They are united by the fact that their muddy, beaten, twisted faces always return to an alluring resting state (scars notwithstanding). Since Hollywood continues to celebrate beautiful women for transforming into ugly women — see Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, Patricia Arquette in Escape at Dannemora, Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots — these actresses can seduce us with their momentary lack of vanity while leaving us secure in the knowledge that they remain appealing.

But this year three actresses are cementing another tradition. Colman, Toni Collette in Hereditary, and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are rewarded not for mutating, but for being, and not just for being, but expanding the “ugly” space in which they dwell to encroach on the sprawling establishment. This is something of a dual subversion: Not only do these women fail to meet Hollywood’s standards, they are lauded for pushing their undesirability to the extreme. It is the new female grotesque, and it supplants our idea of what a woman should be with what she is.

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Five years ago, Colman was passed over by America. In 2013, Fox announced the network was developing a remake of Broadchurch, the British series in which Colman and David Tennant play detectives investigating a child murder in a small coastal town. While Tennant reprised his role in the U.S. version, Colman wasn’t even asked. She was instead replaced by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, six years older but also blonder and with a face that wouldn’t be out of place behind a Fox News desk. Colman reportedly said in response, “if Hollywood calls, I’m going, but I can also see why they haven’t called. I eat a bit too much, my teeth aren’t perfect, I’ve got eye bags. I look like a normal 39-year-old woman — but in England no one minds that.”

It says something about Colman that despite this blatant rejection, she leaned further into normalcy. The now-44-year-old actress put on another 35 pounds to play the imperious, mercurial Queen Anne. “I much prefer these sorts of roles because there is no pressure to be something you are not, and I am obviously not glamorous,” she told the Independent. “For Anne, I wasn’t meant to look nice or be nice, and it was liberating and brilliant.” That her approach is now being praised by the same system that initially punished her for it, suggests that England is no longer the only place where normal can not only be acceptable, but preferable.

Straining to think of farcical performances equivalent to Colman’s in The Favourite, I could only come up with this: “You’re terrible, Muriel.” In the Australian film that made her famous, 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, Toni Collette played the homely titular anti-heroine in garish red lipstick, leopard print, and a side ponytail. In one scene, four of her friends, all of whom look like various Barbie collectibles, break up with her because she is “fat” and unstylish. “You bring us down, Muriel,” one of them says as Collette’s mouth slowly deforms into a grimace and she performs the nonpareil ugly cry: loud bawling, mouth open, teeth out, tongue out, lipstick smearing. “I’m not nothing,” she wails.

Her ascent was confirmation. The role won Collette a couple of awards and eventually landed her where she is today, in Hereditary, that same elastic face rewarded for its encapsulation of abject grief. In one scene, her son, sensing she is angry with him, asks that she release herself from her inner burden. And she does; after she yells wildly, we watch her searing hatred and anger slip into sadness, her face dragged down to hell.  As Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety, “She plays Annie as a woman who begins to wear her buried rage and guilt on the outside. It pours out of her, as if she were “possessed,” and indeed she is — but by what, or whom?” This spectacle of disfigurement helps to reframe the way in which women are allowed to express emotion, the preservation of allure  — “I don’t want to cry, my mascara will run” — shouted down into oblivion.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? yields a more quietly ugly performance. Melissa McCarthy plays serial forger Lee Israel as a dyspeptic alcoholic with a shapeless haircut, no makeup, and a perpetual frown — even her smile looks like a scowl. Though the Gilmore Girls alum is known for her jovial on-screen presence, her performance as Lee is a throwback to the role that made her famous, the oversexed, mannish Megan in Bridesmaids. There, she chewed the scenery. Here she just spreads out in it. “She cares about her intellect more than her appearance and doesn’t care about the things that we assign to women as what they’re supposed to be interested in,” director Marielle Heller has said of the character. In McCarthy’s hands, Lee is not particularly likable, but she is understandable. One wonders what she would have been in original star Julianne Moore’s — would the apartment riddled with cat shit have rung false?

Despite her toxicity, McCarthy’s Lee is not drawn asexual. She has a sweet flirtation with a woman who runs a bookstore (Dolly Wells), though her surprise at her interest and the fact that it never progresses past one date does paint her love life as unsuccessful. Still, we’ve come a long way since 1991, when Kathy Bates won the Oscar for best actress by playing a virginal psychopath in Misery. The pre-stan “number one fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), her character, Annie Wilkes, is a milk-fed matron who turns on a dime, refuses to swear, and wears her hair in a clip paired with pinafores. Her ability to juggle G-rated phrases like “dirty birdy” with X-rated torture makes her one of the top villains of all time, though there remains a superficiality to her ferocity. When Misery moved to Broadway three years ago, Julia Roberts was considered for the lead, but, according to Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, the author nixed the idea, describing Annie as simply “a brawny woman who can sling a guy around, not a pixie.” Still, Bates, who had been acting for decades, competed with Roberts and Pretty Woman for the best actress Oscar in 1991 — and won. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” she said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”

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The same year Bates won for Misery, Whoopi Goldberg did for Ghost, heralding work by actresses of color which would in some ways be even more revolutionary. The only black woman nominated for best supporting actress that year, Goldberg took home the trophy for playing Oda Mae Brown, a snake-oil psychic who can actually commune with the dead. Though Goldberg was an established actress by that time and had already been nominated for an Oscar for The Color Purple, this was as rare a role for black women in general as it was for her. Instead of being straight drama or straight comedy, as Goldberg was used to, Oda Mae seamlessly threaded the absurd through the serious. Arriving 40 minutes in, she yanks Ghost out from under its beautiful white leads (“Wanna kiss my butt?”) with her voluminous hair, scene-stealing outfits, foul mouth, and resting wry face.

The quintessential Oda Mae moment comes when she is asked by ghost Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) to withdraw $4 million of blood money from the bank. She arrives in her Sunday best looking like a fuchsia peacock, complete with jaunty pillbox hat and matching clutch (white gloves included). Buoyed by the prospect of becoming a millionairess, she motors out of the bank high on adrenalin only to be told by Sam that she has to pass on the money. He points out a church stand — “I know you don’t think I’m giving this $4 million to a bunch’a nuns!” — and she hands the money over in bad grace before walking off in a huff. Sam watches her go with a beatific expression on his face. “I think you’re wonderful Oda Mae,” he calls. At that she turns around, in the middle of a busy road, her legs almost in gridiron hut stance, and spits in his general direction. Then she harumphs away, holding her purse like a dejected football player cradling his loss.

There are two kinds of performances by black actresses that tend to be lauded by the Academy. Since Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind, the preference has been for less Dorothy Dandridge-looking women in morally superior “Mammy” roles, such as Octavia Spencer’s turns in The Help and The Shape of Water. When black women are considered traditionally beautiful, they tend to be recognized by the Academy for being tortured, ravaged — Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Naomie Harris in Moonlight. It’s okay to be less appealing, as long as you’re a symbol of virtue or remain appealing out of costume. God help you if you’re a black woman who is deemed unattractive off screen and you have no redeeming qualities on screen either.

Mo’Nique became the rare exception in 2010 after playing the repellent abusive mother of the titular Precious. Having constructed her career on raunchy stand-up that had an enormous following in the black community (though, as the Netflix debacle suggests, that stature matters less to its white executives), Mo’Nique dropped her trademark hair and makeup to sweat through a camisole and snarl at Gabourey Sidibe. Despite her character’s almost unbelievable vileness, there was a palatability to the “poor black violent single mother” trope for a white audience (and Academy) more familiar with racial stereotypes than reality. But it didn’t come in a presentable package. Mo’Nique was too much — too loud, too assertive, too entitled. In the end her win was overshadowed by the frivolous controversy that ensued when she refused to campaign — “You want me to campaign for an award — and I say this with all the humility in the world — but you want me to campaign for an award that I didn’t ask for?” — which is why, seven years after her win, it made sense that she didn’t feel she owed much to Hollywood. “I think a big highlight for me was when they called me for the first time for the NAACP Image Awards,” she told Variety. “Because as a little girl, I didn’t see people like me receiving the Oscar.”

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In her seminal 1994 book The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, Modernity, Mary Russo outlined the kind of women our culture embraces. “The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with ‘high’ or official culture,” she wrote. “The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture . . . and with social transformation.” But the transformation to the new female grotesque — that of the unacceptable woman pushing her unacceptability to its limits — is gaining traction. The conversation around gendered exploitation in Hollywood has helped to expand the definition of women’s roles. Lena Dunham, meanwhile, spent much of her ascent exposing her own body on screen to liberate those of regular women (as performance artist Carolee Schneeman once told me, “She’s the ideal of normal”). Women of color are also being recognized for their part in dismantling the white ideal. And the number of women behind the scenes has swelled. Toni Collette co-executive produced Hereditary, Marielle Heller directed Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which was co-written by Nicole Holofcener), and Deborah Davis co-executive produced and co-wrote The Favourite. Perhaps Davis is even responsible for The Favourite’s final scene in which Queen Anne, beset by stroke, barely able to walk, still manages to physically dominate Abigail, her hand on the younger, comelier woman’s head, possibly tearing Abigail’s hair out as she strokes the monarch’s leg. In Lady Sarah’s words: “Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.