MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Rebecca Miller and the Trials of Woman

Every time the latest romantic comedy opens, I am befuddled when it’s successful.  Films like The Proposal or He’s Just Not That Into You make tons of money and when I ask why, I’m inevitably told it’s because women flock to these films.

When I inquire as to why women would flock to such inane films, I’m told that it’s because there aren’t a lot of films that cater to females and so they take whatever they can get. The Twilight series will repeatedly get a pass from some critics and many viewers because “it’s made for girls, who cares?”  And the sad thing is that they’re right; these films are made for girls and it’s depressing that this is what Hollywood thinks about young women.

Whenever this happens, I always point to the films ofRebecca Miller; nobody is making better films about women than her.  Miller doesn’t talk down to her audience, she simply presents nuanced women in a realistic manner, warts and all.  I was first turned on to her work after seeing her second film, Personal Velocity, which has three different women in three very different stories, all of which are about how women can be held down or held captive and how they can break free of that.  But the film wasn’t told in a didactic way, it didn’t sermonize or say, “this is an issue!”  The film merely presented three completely real women of different ages (played by Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, andFairuza Balk) and the major crises of their lives.

I enjoyed that film so much that I went back to watch her first film, Angela, which is about two young girls and how blind devotion to religion can result in tragedy.  It was a very ambitious film and a deeply unsettling one. It’s clear from watching that film that Miller, even when working with budget constraints and no major actors, was able to create a full and complete motion picture and able to coax wonderful performances form her cast.

Her third film was The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Miller’s real-life husband) and Camilla Belle as a father and daughter living on a secluded isle off the coast of the US, the last remnants of a once-popular commune.  With a star like Day-Lewis, one would expect it to be a film about him, but it’s really the story of the burgeoning sexuality of his daughter and the way in which she misapplies her affections because of the way she was raised.  It’s a very naked and knowing look at the growing female sex drive in a teenager that feels more accurate than the metaphorical longing and yearning that is present in the Twilight series or most films about teen girls.  Many filmmakers are just not brave enough to explore – or risk exploiting – teen sexuality in an honest way.  But Miller has never shied away from it, as it’s a theme that is present in most of her work.

That work includes her latest almost-masterpiece The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which has my early pick for Best Actress, Robin Wright. The film is Miller’s most ambitious yet, as it is about no less than the entirety of the female experience. We are presented with a story of a woman’s life, something that we don’t often see in movies. Miller grounds the film in a present-day story about mid-40s Pippa Lee (Wright) living with her much older husband (Alan Arkin) in a retirement community in Connecticut.  But we flash back to a younger Pippa (Blake Lively) and see that she wasn’t always so docile; she was once a wild and free young woman.

We see all of the people that had an impact on Pippa’s life, from her speed-addicted mother (Maria Bello) to her aunt’s lesbian lover (Julianne Moore) to her husband’s ex-wife (Monica Belluci) to her best friend (Winona Ryder). The most fascinating thing about the list I’ve just created is that each of the people that has a big impact on Pippa’s life is a woman, except of course for her husband and later, her next-door neighbor (Keanu Reeves). I think it says a lot about being in a good enough adult place of understanding about your own gender before searching for someone of the opposite one.

But the film is first and foremost a story about a particular character and that is the titular woman, fascinating in each of her various incarnations. It’s integral for the character to have a certain allure about her that is almost indefinable and both Wright and Lively bring that to the character with their soft-spoken manner. We absolutely believe that Blake Lively grows up to be Robin Wright, which means that Miller worked hard with each actress to ensure the continuity of the character above all else.

The story of Pippa’s life unfolds in chapters, mostly in flashback.  There’s the chapter about her childhood, the one about her rebellion, the one about meeting her husband, etc.  The main story shows us how Pippa has never really stopped changing, that just because somebody reaches adulthood, that doesn’t mean they are finished growing as a person. So many films get to the happy ending of the female lead meeting the man of her dreams, having kids and settling down in the suburbs.  The main thrust of this film is about what happens after that; also, the man of Pippa’s dreams is thirty years older than her.

The wonderful thing is how Robin Wright is able to balance the many facets of the adult Pippa.  She is both mother/nurturer and independent spirit, wanting desperately to break free of her beautiful yet shackled life.  She’s got everything she wants, but she wants something different; she’s got security, but her subconscious is telling her (through sleepwalking episodes) that she needs to be more freewheeling.  The ultimate lesson of the film being: not only does nobody really know Pippa, but she doesn’t really know herself.  But in Miller’s view, this is not a depressing realization; it’s actually a beautiful thing that she has so much more to learn about herself.  There are catalysts for her realizations, but it’s really about the fire within not the forces without.

As I said earlier, I think Robin Wright gives such a magnetic and powerful performance in this film. She is acting opposite some pretty heavy hitters, but she owns the screen the entire time, our focus entirely on her.  I remember William Goldman once writing about how Wright could have been the most famous actress in the world, but she didn’t want it. Watching this film, I kept thinking about that Goldman line and how it never seemed more true. Wright decided that acting wouldn’t be her primary focus while she raised a family and moved away from Hollywood and nobody can fault her for that; but, watching her in this film, I couldn’t help but think of what we missed out on.

Wright is given ample support in the film by Lively, Arkin, Ryder, Bello and the always underrated Keanu Reeves, but we always want to return to Wright.  The way she reacts to her children, when her daughter meets them for dinner and slights her mother, the look in Wright’s eyes and the lilt in her voice, it’s so emotionally true and accurate.  It’s that look of a disappointed mother who’s been hurt by her kid; the audience sees that it hurts more than she is letting on.  When she has a conversation with Ryder’s character about how to better please her husband, the way in which Pippa believably and gleefully explodes a little bit with a burst of graphic profanity is made believable and true because of the groundwork that Wright has been laying to help make that moment – and every other moment – work.  I know she won’t get nominated for an Oscar because the Academy would never do something so smart, but she should be.

I’ve been a little vague on the details of the film, I know, but it’s because this is a film you really don’t want to be ruined for you. You might see what’s going to happen at every turn in The Proposal, but this is a film that has some tricks up its sleeve.  It’s anything but conventional. I urge everyone, both men and women, to see this film. I would especially love it if young women would ignore the abstinence-promoting vampire film and instead see this film about the reality of the female experience, but I understand that that won’t happen. But if you do see this film, you’ll understand what a powerful filmmaker Rebecca Miller is and you’ll be as anxious to see her next picture as I am.

Note: If you love The Frenzy on the Wall and can’t get enough of me, then check out my new blog! I talk about movies, sports, politics and all that jazz, so take a look!

– Noah Forrest
November 23, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon