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Beautiful stars and plain heroines


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#1 dirac

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Posted 22 August 2005 - 01:24 PM

Courtesy of ArtsJournal, a piece by Michelle Griffin in The Age, commenting on the looks discrepancy between the often less than stunning heroines in novels by Jane Austen and others and their usually stunning counterparts in film adaptations.

The power of plain

Much of what she says is on target, although I would note for the record that movie stars, especially female ones, tend to be cast for beauty in general, and so the roster of leading ladies from which your heroine will be chosen is going to be pretty limited in this respect. (This is how you get Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf instead of a middle aged English actress who could actually have played the part, instead of showing us a well performed stunt. In the near future, La Kidman will also be presenting us with....Diane Arbus. Apologies to Ed Waffle if he should read this.) And beautiful people have an edge on the rest of us in the star business because we enjoy looking at them.


Griffin doesn’t mention a phenomenon I’ve noted in adaptations of “Emma.” It’s quite clear from Austen’s descriptions of Emma and her protegee Harriet that the latter is actually prettier than the former. But in “Clueless” and the Gwyneth Paltrow “Emma,” plain girls were cast as Harriet, making Emma’s obsession with her inexplicable.

It’s true that Austen, Alcott, and Charlotte Bronte were themselves no oil paintings, and all of them tended to cast a cold eye on the sort of fetching charmers likely to play their creations. Would they have been writers themselves if they’d had the looks and money that would have netted them a prosperous husband at an early age? Maybe not.

#2 Helene

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Posted 22 August 2005 - 04:00 PM

I'm glad Griffin mentions Amanda Root's Anne in Persuasion. While she's not unattractive, Root is plain for an actress (or can be made to look plain), and she portrayed the demoralized Anne beautifully in the film.

I thought it was very upsetting when the gorgeous Emma Watson was cast as Hermione in the Harry Potter films. There will be little surprise in the film version of Book 4 when she shows up at the formal dance all dolled up; she's supposed to be unrecognizable to her peers in that scene.

I think that Brittany Murphy who played Tai (Hariet equivalent) in Clueless is quite beautiful in real life, even more so than Alicia Silverstone, but the clothes she was costumed in and the silly hair did her in. None of the other actresses, though, beat Stacey Dash for glamour.

#3 chauffeur

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Posted 22 August 2005 - 05:56 PM

Would they have been writers themselves if they?d had the looks and money that would have netted them a prosperous husband at an early age?  Maybe not.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

(can't find the smilie with the snooty-looking, still-living-in-the-19th-century expression, so just mentally insert one here) Many contemporaries' descriptions of Austen regarded her as compellingly attractive, though, yes, she embraced the old maid wardrobe at a young age, and most literary historians feel she had at least one, if not two, marriage proposals which she is believed to have turned down because of her commitment to her writing. She knew that in that day and age, she would have never been able to run a family and household AND remain a writer. :yucky:

#4 Paul Parish

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Posted 22 August 2005 - 09:01 PM

Dirac, with respect, I have to disagree with you about Emma -- the first thing we hear about her is that she's "handsome, clever, and rich." For a woman, she's almost as independent as a man, and she doesn't behave like a pretty girl because she doesn't have to -- while Harriett most emphatically must. But she's not ACTUALLY any prettier than Emma -- thought Jane Fairfax is perhaps better looking than either.

And if you find "handsome" is less attractive than "pretty," well, some folks do.

On the other hand, though, you may be RIGHT, there's no way of determining it. One has to scope these things out from Austen's wonderfully subtle free indirect style of presenting things -- but Mr Knightley wouldn't have hung around waiting for Emma to grow up if he hadn't thought she was fabulous from the beginning.
Actually, I think of Virginia Woolf as being a great beauty, much better looking than Nicole Kidman, who's merely pretty, most of the time (though she did look bizarre with that nose-extension) -- and she was regarded so in her day.

#5 chrisk217

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 12:55 AM

I agree with Paul about Emma. I can't go through the books right now to find the quotes but my general impression was that Emma posesses a more aristocratic kind of beauty than Harriet who is pretty in a more common way. What Emma sees in Harriet may be that initially she has the malleability of character that gives Emma a chance to meddle and arrange another person's life.

As for Elisabeth Bennet the quoted line says more about Miss Bingley's snobbish nature and dislike for Elisabeth than about Elisabeth herself. Some lines after the quote we read:

"I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how
amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty"

which essentially proves that she was, objectively, not plain. Though her beauty is of secondary importance compared to her wit, in numerous passages (with Mr. Collins etc) she is portrayed as reasonably pretty - she is plain only in comparison to Jane.

I don't disagree with the essense of the article. But I think Jennifer Ehle did a great job conveying the wit, intelligence and playfulness of Elisabeth Bennet.

#6 Estelle

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 01:59 AM

Many contemporaries' descriptions of Austen regarded her as compellingly attractive, though, yes, she embraced the old maid wardrobe at a young age, and most literary historians feel she had at least one, if not two, marriage proposals which she is believed to have turned down because of her commitment to her writing.  She knew that in that day and age, she would have never been able to run a family and household AND remain a writer.  :yucky:

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


And if I remember correctly, Charlotte was proposed twice in her early 20s, by the brother of her friend Ellen Nussey and by a clergyman, and had refused both (well, I have no idea if they would be counted in the "prosperous" category); also her early death might have been related to her pregnancy (exchaustion due to excessive morning sickness- though it might have been tuberculosis or some other disease, there's no way to be sure now...)

#7 dido

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 03:06 AM

(I totally agree with the actual premise of the article by the way!)

One other thing to consider is that I have the idea that there is a very strict standard of "beauty" in all of those novels. You have to be: tall, with a lot of very firm flesh on your bones, eyes of a certain shape and size, absolutely harmonious features, perfect skin, etc. etc.

One can be attractive, or handsome or pretty in Austen or Bronte's day without being technically beautiful, and I get the feeling that the "perfect beauty" was a matter of convention that didn't matter so much in the "real life" of a given novel, but it was a fact that had to be faced. My favorite example of this is Laura Farely (hmm, that's totally not how her last name is spelled...) and Marianne Halcomb in The Woman in White. Laura is the "beautiful" one, and Marianne is described very unsympathetically, but she's by far the more interesting and attractive figure, even with her mannish face and mustache!

#8 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 04:03 AM

I remember a television production of Jane Eyre some years ago that had George C. Scott as Rochester and in my mind the much too pretty Susannah York as Jane.

#9 chauffeur

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 05:23 AM

Great topic, dirac! anything to get my mind off the 21st century is greatly appreciated! :yucky:

#10 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 05:31 AM

They also did a Jane Eyre in the mid 1990s and cast Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane; it seemed that their way of making her "plain" was to give her a somewhat bizarre looking prosthetic nose.

#11 dirac

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 10:25 AM

I remember that nose, too, Mme. Hermine. It was a weird one.


Thanks very much to all of you for putting in your two cents. I ought to have noted for the record that to describe a woman as less than beautiful is not to suggest that she would never receive a proposal or has to sit in a corner with a bag over her head. We are speaking in relative terms. It's a good idea to make a distinction between a character such as Jane Eyre, who is genuinely plain and has this unhappy fact rubbed in at every turn – and Elizabeth Bennet, who is pretty enough but no stunner – at least, not pretty enough to compensate for lack of background and money.

Helene writes:

While she's not unattractive, Root is plain for an actress (or can be made to look plain), and she portrayed the demoralized Anne beautifully in the film.



I thought that perhaps Root was a little too plain for Anne. As Paul notes, Austen must sometimes be parsed closely in such matters, but as I recall Anne is described as “faded” – she was once very appealing, but worn down by time, disappointment, and relative drudgery. Root is a good actress but she could never have been very warm or attractive and it was hard to imagine Wentworth giving her a second look (hard for me, anyway).

For a woman, she's almost as independent as a man, and she doesn't behave like a pretty girl because she doesn't have to.



I dunno, Paul – in relation to Frank Churchill, Emma behaves very much “like a pretty girl,” I think – sure of her attractions and eager to put them to use. If you mean by "doesn't have to" that she's not flirting with Frank in order to extract a proposal, I agree. Again, these things are relative and I don’t mean to imply that Emma is ugly. I do think that Harriet is probably prettier – again, a girl of her station would have to be striking in order to rouse Emma’s imagination as she does, and in the film versions under discussion she’s either demonstrably plainer or made to look so, which is misleading.


I think Jennifer Ehle did a great job conveying the wit, intelligence and playfulness of Elisabeth Bennet.



I liked Ehle too, chris217. Although, as an aside, I did think it odd the way she seemed to be forever stifling a smile or laughter -- it was as if she or her director felt it necessary to telegraph to the audience that "this is comedy."

#12 GWTW

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 12:13 PM

Charlotte Gainsbourg is not "plain" by any definition of the word, but she also does not have the 'Hollywood' look - she's unlikely to win an Oscar on the basis of a prosthetic nose or an adjustment in dress size. In fact, after looking at the long list of actresses that have played Jane Eyre according to IMDB: Jane Eyre
she seems to be one of the more Bronte-an on the list. For instance, although I'd be interested in seeing Samantha Morton's Jane Eyre as I think Morton is a terrific chameleon of an actress, isn't Jane supposed to be quite dark complexioned?

Edited to add: Eureka, at long last, I have succeeded to add a URL. Now I can die happy.

#13 Paul Parish

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Posted 24 August 2005 - 10:49 PM

Well, Dirac, you've certainly got me in a full nelson re Frank Churchill's and Emma -- though you're still SO wrong about Emma's beauty. She's just nowhere NEAR ugly. She's not the young Vanessa Redgrave, but..... hmmm, analogues are SO hard to find. The features prized in her day included that Greek nose, bee-stung lips, rounded shoulders, and so on --well, except for the bee-stung lips, which are still very much in favor, the rest of those things are quite out, except that maybe Almodovar could use the nose. An equivalent in REASONABLY contemporary terms might be young Princess Margaret -- or Alicia Silverstone.... and for Harriett, gosh, she's even harder. I LOVED the girl they cast in Clueless, but then, I loved everything about Clueless. I wish I'd written Clueless.

The key to Lizzy Bennett is her FINE EYES, and the play of intelligence, merriness, and scorn they're capable of. You'd want her to smile with you and you would NOT want her to frown at you....

#14 perky

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 04:49 AM

The new movie version of Pride and Prejudice to be released soon has Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett. Any thoughts?

#15 GWTW

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 06:06 AM

I have never sat through an entire movie with Keira Knightly so can't say anything about her really, but more importantly IMO is - does the world really need another "Pride and Prejudice" movie?

Following up on my post above where I mentioned Samantha Morton: Has anyone seen the Tv adaptation of "Emma" wher Kate Beckinsale played Emma and Samantha Morton played Harriet? I hadn't heard of this version before, but my gut feeling is that these actresses should have swopped roles.


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