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Jane Black

Today’s Great Actresses of Yesteryear

I love old movies. I’m talking black-and-white old, glamorous close-ups old. There are a lot of things about old movies that I miss, like good storytelling, unselfconscious emotion instead of irony, great actresses. Especially great actresses. My favorites? The usual suspects: Hepburn, Davis, Stanwyck, Bergman. Sometimes I play a little game of who comes closest to filling those shoes today.

Take Barbara Stanwyck. If Ms. Stanwyck were a young working actress today, she’d be taking the roles typically offered to…

Maria Bello. Why? Well, Stanwyck’s stock in trade was being sexily tough, yet tender. For proof of same, please see The Lady Eve, Ball Of Fire, or Meet John Doe, where she plays savvy women who aren’t quite on the up and up. And then there were movies where Stanwyck kept the SA but dispensed with the TLC–The Furies, Clash By Night, Double Indemnity. In Bello’s best roles — A History Of Violence, The Cooler, and Auto Focus — she demonstrates the same fearless ability to play the sex card while totally convincing you of her character’s grit and intelligence. I just hope that carries over into the next Mummy movie, where Bello replaces Rachel Weisz as Evelyn O’Connell.

How about Katherine Hepburn? Her brand? Um, being Katherine Hepburn. Based on awards and nominations, you’d think Meryl Streep is the second coming of Hepburn. Nope. Streep’s stock in trade has been disappearing, chameleon-like, into roles, a franchise picked up lately by talented Kelly Macdonald (No Country For Old Men). Hepburn is always her forceful, unique self. See Kate play a spinster (The African Queen, The Rainmaker)! See Kate play a queen (Mary Of Scotland, The Lion In Winter)! See Kate go bonkers in high drama (Suddenly Last Summer)! See Kate as a silly ass in a screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby)! See Kate!

It’s hard to believe there was a time when this woman was labeled “box office poison.” Being eminently watchable is a gift bestowed on precious few, folks like John Wayne or Bette Davis or Jimmy Cagney, other actors who got away with being themselves (or who we viewers thought they were) in movie after movie. There will never be another like Hepburn, but the contemporary actor who comes the closest is Jodie Foster. Patrician bearing: check. Distinctive voice: check. Dramatic cheekbones: check. But most of all, these women act, and let us see them acting, not in some pretentious thespian way, but in a way that suggests work and studious dedication to craft. That lets them (and yes, Streep too) occasionally be showy without trying our patience. Think about it. The last time Foster gave a naturalistic performance was what, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More? When she was 12.

For your consideration:

Nicole Kidman as the thespian heir of Joan Crawford. For both, ingredients that should add up to sex appeal got mixed with heaping spoonfuls of helter-skelter. Their brand: Initially, hot sexiness, followed by being crazy scary.

Scarlett Johansson as the Elizabeth Taylor of today, for her ability to inhabit roles as women whom men must have (Match Point, meet A Place In The Sun), for a dazzling sexuality that has led to her being fetishized much as the young Taylor was, and for also having fairly modest acting ability which she uses to good effect.

Next up: George Clooney as today’s Burt Lancaster.


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