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« Trailer for South African Historic Drama "Krotoa" | Main | Soundtracking: "Sister Act" »
Wednesday
May312017

Wonder Women: Geena Davis

We're cheering on Hollywood's super heroic women this week. Here's Lynn Lee!

Geena Davis at Sundance this past JanuaryIf they’d made a Wonder Woman movie back in the ’90s, Geena Davis would have been on the short list for the lead role.  Or if not, she should have been.  Statuesque beauty?  Check.  Commanding physical presence and natural athleticism?  Check and check.  A convincing don’t-fuck-with-me quality, tempered by a divine set of dimples that suggest she’s not taking herself too seriously? Check and mate.

Davis’s premature relegation to the sidelines of Hollywood is one of the great recent WTFs for movie lovers and actressexuals everywhere.  To be fair, maybe we should have seen it coming, given her string of box-office bombs, the fact that she passed up roles she probably shouldn’t have, and her reputation for not being the easiest to work with. Yet it’s pretty shocking, when you look at her filmography, to see how abruptly her movie career sputtered and stalled out round about the turn of the millennium.

She still does TV work, though, and continues to be an active force for improving women’s roles in the entertainment industry—including launching her very own Institute on Gender in Media a decade ago to help increase awareness of the issue...

But the fact that the issue is still real and omnipresent, a quarter-century after Thelma & Louise (as Davis herself has called out in recent interviews), underscores not just the wider problem of gender bias but the particular difficulties of being an actress with leading-lady star quality who never fit neatly in any of Hollywood’s standard leading-lady molds.

It’s always amused me that Davis became known in the ’80s for playing an assortment of ditzy, quirky, sunny-tempered girls (Beetlejuice, Earth Girls Are Easy, The Accidental Tourist).  That’s because the first movie I actually saw her in was A League of Their Own (1992), in which she served as the surprisingly (and, for Davis, somewhat atypically) quirk-free, stable, and serious center.  Nonetheless, she was the center (Tom Hanks’ presence notwithstanding), and the character I identified with and rooted for most strongly.  Her Dottie Hinson may have been the straight (wo)man, the Goliath for Lori Petty’s overshadowed little sister to topple, the riddle that Hanks’ crass but ultimately respectful coach never quite figured out, but she was graceful, poised, and always a boss.  That look in her eye when she catches a fast pitch and grips it with her bare hand remains, for me, the iconic Geena Davis don’t-fuck-with-me look.

We’d see that look again in Thelma & Louise (still her best movie), and with somewhat diminishing returns in her attempts to play a bona fide action heroine in the ’90s—in Renny Harlin’s legendary bomb of a pirate movie, Cutthroat Island (1995) and the preposterously silly, barely coherent (though despite that, rather entertaining) amnesiac-spy thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).  I can’t honestly say that those movies deserved to do better on their merits, but I can say that Davis was the best thing about them.  Whatever you think of Harlin’s directorial skills, he at least had the right idea in building an action movie around his then-wife.  Even as she threatens her captors as she’s getting dunked while tied to what looks like a water wheel, you know she means business, and these fuckers are going down.  You laugh at the absurdity that surrounds her, but you don’t laugh at her.  It’s a pity, then, that she never fully realized her potential as Geena Davis, action star; with more successful vehicles, who knows what she could have become?  It’s true she was already pushing 40 by The Long Kiss Goodnight, which isn’t usually an age at which actresses begin their career as action heroines.  But still…so much wasted potential. 

Which leaves the question: who among working actresses today is best qualified to inherit the mantle of Geena Davis – that elusive combo of movie star, character actress, and action heroine – and, more importantly, succeed where she faltered?  Jennifer Garner tried, but, alas, seems to be following Davis’ path to the margins of Hollywood.  Halle Berry’s never been able to make herself into a convincing action star.  Charlize Theron has, but (at least on screen) lacks that endearing goofball quality that Davis never really lost.  Jennifer Lawrence might have it, but despite doing some of her best work in the Hunger Games movies, seems ready to hang up her action-heroine hat.  Perhaps the reality today is that Hollywood still isn’t ready for a Geena Davis.  And that’s a shame.

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Reader Comments (23)

Geena Davis is 6 feet tall, has a high IQ, and is skilled at archery. Sounds Amazonian to me.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Davis shoulda got an Oscar nomination for A League of Their Own! Also, am I alone in thinking The Long Kiss Goodnight is one of the most fun action movies ever made? It's a non-stop thrill ride, and she kicks ass in it no matter how far-fetched it might be

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

I am not ashamed to admit I LOVED The Long Kiss Goodnight as a kid/teenager. I thought it was so much fun and Davis was such a badass.

I'm curious that she has a reputation of "being difficult to work with". I've never heard that before.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

On the "difficult to work with" - you know, I thought I read that somewhere, but in googling I can't find any evidence of it. So I'll retract. I think it might be more accurate to say that she really didn't (and doesn't) take BS from anyone, which for some might translate to "difficult." Doesn't mean she's ever been anything less than professional on set, and I've no reason to believe she was.

-Lynn

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Jennifer Lawrence does not have an ounce of the beauty, intelligence, class, or acting talent that Geena Davis possesses. No one can inherit the Geena Davis mantle, because Davis is a singular talent.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBeryl

Geena Davis always was and is sublime! But here are some contenders with all the goods who I will watch in any action movie:

Emily Blunt, Qi Shu, Scarlett Johannsen, Angelina Jolie (still the best), Kate Beckinsale, Keira Knightley, Lucy Liu - all funny, beautiful, athletic, believable, multi-talented. Even tiny little Anna Kendrick was freaking hilarious in Mr. Right.

Of the older crowd, Michelle Yeoh, Helen Mirren, Uma Thurman.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Geena Davis has always been my favourite actress of all time!

I've also never heard of her being difficult - quite the opposite is usually stated in interviews I've seen.

Glad she's an Oscar winner!

I wonder if she will merit a Jean Hersholt award in the future for all her work on gender representation?

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

Geena is a treasure. That little bit she did in Tootsie is indelible. I would love for her to get a juicy film role.

I wonder if Jessica Chastain could be an awesome action heroine. Hmmmm, could be.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Geena and Renny remind of Kim and Alec in the 90's,Power couples with too much of it.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Long kiss goodnight is ace!!!!

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Hollywood is uninterested in women. They are threatening to the power structure. Davis was too much of an adult and personality with a point of view to last.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

The Long Kiss Goodnight is actually a case of *increasing* returns. Say what you will about the film's "plot," Davis is in top-form and Samuel L. Jackson, who had not yet morphed into self-parody, is a hoot as well. A well-paired, gung-ho action film that is so delightfully circa '90s.

But yeah, Davis is awesome and deserves better than the short shrift Hollywood gave her. I'd say only Uma Thurman can capture the same bad-ass, tongue-in-cheek Amazonian quality.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I think if there's anyone with potential to be a Geena Davis, it's Margot Robbie. She's got movie star qualities, Suicide Squad showcased her action stardom potential, and she's looking to parlay her Suicide Squad success into challenging character work (I, Tonya, Mary Queen Of Scots, Terminal, etc..).

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatt St.Clair

Isn't Lawrence's upcoming film Red Sparrow a thriller so it might have some action?

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterChinoiserie

"the fact that she passed up roles she probably shouldn’t have"

I'm interested in hearing more about this. Any specifics?

Such a fan of Davis. Not sure she fully deserved her Oscar, but she always presents complicated, three-dimensional women and our cinema screens are definitely more boring without her.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Geena Davis gave one of my favorite performances of all time in Thelma & Louise. She's just phenomenal in it.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Here's some of the stuff she turned down

Disclosure
LA Confidential
Untamed Heart
The American President
The Accused
Basic Instinct
Batman and Robin

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

DJ - reportedly she turned down a role in THE GRIFTERS (not sure which one) and Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS after Michelle Pfeiffer also passed. Cannot quote you the reliability of those sources, though. ;)

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

In all fairness to Davis, almost everybody turned down Basic Instinct.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Pam: That's a great list! But most of them play it sooo straight and serious when they do action; they don't seem to be having as much *fun* - that Geena Davis twinkle. Except maybe Angelina Jolie, can't believe I forgot her. And maybe Scar Jo, whom I like, although for some reason she's never really done it for me as an action hero.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I see no missed opportunities with the projects she turned down. None of these vehicles are her sensibilities. The two movies she made with her then husband sealed her fate as a multiplex draw. But Long Kiss Goodnight is a cult action classic.

When we write about Hollywood we must do it from the presumed place they hate women. Makes it easier to swallow when the good ones leave too soon just before we'd see them extend in more provocative directions. Hollywood prefers a newer version of the old but not unique personas of yesteryear.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Geena Davis simply has disappeared from the big screen. So sad.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark

From 1988 - 1992, Davis did Accidental Tourist, Quick Change, Thelma & Louise, and A League of Their Own, so you can't really hold her accountable for turning down roles that were also produced during that time. If she turned down a plum role after that, then I'd throw her a side eye.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCinesnatch

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