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dirac

Beautiful stars and plain heroines

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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.

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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.

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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.

(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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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...)

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(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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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....

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

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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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does the world really need another "Pride and Prejudice" movie?

My thoughts exactly when I saw a preview for it in the theater. I'll stick to the Garson/Olivier version, thank you very much.

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Paul writes:

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....

Very true. You’d want her approval. Even as Darcy condescends to her, he wants her approval.

I agree, Old Fashioned. I guess because P&P is a reliable, familiar choice. The Garson/Olivier version is not perfect but it’s awfully good. (And Olivier is perfect. So often these days Darcy is played like a sort of Heathcliff, and he’s not.) I don’t get the whole Keira Knightley fuss, myself. She’s a skinny kid who looks like a taller Winona Ryder with a Jennifer Garnerish jaw, and when she smiles broadly she displays long white fangs that are terrifying even by contemporary bigtoothed starlet standards. Not much of an actress, either, even for her age. Maybe she’ll improve as she matures.

GWTWwrites:

Has anyone seen the TV adaptation of "Emma" wher Kate Beckinsale played Emma and Samantha Morton played Harriet?

I didn’t see it, GWTW, but you're right about the role swap. I think that’s the looks issue cropping up again. Beckinsale would have been better known, and she’s more conventional leading lady looks.

Speaking of leading lady looks, that may be what I was trying to get at, Paul. I didn't mean that Emma is unattractive in comparision to Harriet, but that in the film adaptations it's always clear that Emma is the Leading Lady and the actress cast as Harriet, even when she's pretty as Brittany Murphy is, can't outshine the star lookswise. And that's not quite right, IMO.

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With regard to "Clueless", I think Alicia Silverstone outshines Brittany Murphy because Alicia Silverstone has true star charisma and not because Silverstone is better looking in any way than Murphy. I think it's a shame that Silverstone hasn't managed to get better roles the last few years - she lights up the screen.

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GWTW, I was actually referring back to Helene's observation earlier in the thread that Murphy is dressed and made up in order to seem less appealing. It is too bad about Silverstone.

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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.
:thumbsup: Paul, the actress playing Jane Bennet (in the Ehle/Firth P&P) is actually very close to the aesthetic ideal of the era. If you look at portraits or schetches of the reknown beauties of the Regency era you'll see the uncanny resemblance of features. Most modern viewers though consider her a bad choice and not beautiful enough to play Jane.

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I think Jane Austen never describes very specifically her characters' features because she wants the reader to use his imagination. That being said, I agree with those who write that Emma is obviously a pretty girl who is quite confident of her own looks -- her mentorship of Harriet I think always had a touch of snootiness and contempt. Therefore I think it's proper to make Harriet pretty but not glamorous. Notice that Emma is exceedingly jealous of Jane Fairfax, the girl who is actually a rival of Emma in terms of looks and accomplishments.

Count me as one person who didnt like the Greer/Olivier movie. Besides "updating" the time to Victorian England, I thought that Olivier and the supporting characters were just about perfect, but there's something about Greer Garson that bugs me. She always seems a bit self-conscious and affected. Elizabeth Bennett is someone I think of as completely spontaneous and blunt to a fault -- if she doesnt like someone she doesnt hide it. Greer Garson's Elizabeth is too polite and arch for my taste.

I think a more egregious example of beautiful star/plain character is Olivier as Heathcliff. In this case, Emily Bronte was quite specific in her description of Heathcliff -- he's of mixed race, and not very handsome. Cathy's attraction to Heathcliff is not really based on looks, but on a Level Z kind of connection. Olivier is Hollywood handsome.

Joan Fontaine is also way too pretty to play Jane Eyre. Again, in this case, Charlotte Bronte is very explicit that Jane was nothing to look at, but Fontaine had that kind of doe-eyed beauty. But Orson Welles was perfect for the part.

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Joan Fontaine is also way too pretty to play Jane Eyre. Again, in this case, Charlotte Bronte is very explicit that Jane was nothing to look at, but Fontaine had that kind of doe-eyed beauty. But Orson Welles was perfect for the part.

Fontaine is too pretty, true, but the Hollywood of that era would never have cast a genuinely plain actress as Jane.

Count me as one person who didnt like the Greer/Olivier movie. Besides "updating" the time to Victorian England, I thought that Olivier and the supporting characters were just about perfect, but there's something about Greer Garson that bugs me. She always seems a bit self-conscious and affected.

That something bugs a lot of other people too. The funny thing about Garson is, just as she’s getting on your nerves, she’ll turn around and be absolutely perfect.

I didn’t mind the date change in the Garson/Olivier P&P. I wouldn’t like it if all Austen-based movies did the same, but I had no problem with it. I did feel that the tone of the humor wasn’t quite right – too broad, not dry enough, too much Dickens, too little Austen.

Thanks for reviving this thread, canbelto.

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Now that you've got me started :) I'll add a few more examples of this phenomenon:

Scarlett O'Hara. Now, I worship at the shrine of Vivien Leigh and I think she didn't just act Scarlett, she EMBODIED Scarlett. There are so many things I love about that performance, from Vivien's almost manic, brittle way of talking, to the fact that she singlehandedly, against all the advice from director Victor Fleming and costar Clark Gable, made Scarlett a complex character, worthy of our respect and affection. But that being said, the very first line of Margaret Mitchell's novel is "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful." It's clear that Scarlett is very pretty, and quite the flirt. But Vivien Leigh happened to be literally among the short list of most beautiful women, EVER. Of course I got the GWTW dvd boxset which had some truly horrifying screen tests from the likes of Lana Turner and Katharine Hepburn, so I should thank my lucky stars that Vivien was ultimately cast :wink:

An opposite phenomenon happened with Sense and Sensibility. Elinor and Marianne are supposed to be close in age, but next to the luminous Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson looked like a plain soccer mom. Thompson CAN look very beautiful, but in this movie the huge age difference between the two sisters really would have horrified Jane Austen, I should think.

A movie that I think got things exactly right was "The Age of Innocence." Daniel Day Lewis was just about right as Newland -- mildly handsome but not really dashing. Michelle Pfeiffer was glamorous and appealing but had the kind of aged, world-weary look that reminded viewers that Ellen was running away from an abusive marriage. And Winona Ryder was perfect as May: young and innocent looking, but with enough steeliness to be scary. That scene when she tells Newland she's pregnant -- crying and gloating at the same time -- always gives me the chills.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a movie that got things totally WRONG was The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald is pretty explicit about Gatsby -- he's sort of phony looking, with an eager smile and "beautiful shirts", but in the end he's just a thirty-something "roughneck." In other words, not Robert Redford. And Mia Farrow bugged me to no end as Daisy, especially her pipsqueak rather whiny voice. Hello! Daisy's voice is supposed to be so alluring even Nick is totally transfixed by it. It's the most important part of Daisy. Did the producers and director even read the book?

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Perhaps, but wasn't Kathleen Turner just a kid when they made Gatsby? :wink:

Hepburn as Scarlett? :):wink:

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Mia Farrow bugged me to no end as Daisy, especially her pipsqueak rather whiny voice. Hello! Daisy's voice is supposed to be so alluring even Nick is totally transfixed by it. It's the most important part of Daisy. Did the producers and director even read the book?

Assuming that your last question is rhetorical, I don't think voices are very important to film directors. Huge blow-up noises and horrendously sentimental soundtracks to tell you what to feel are. Otherwise, neither Brad Pitt, Winona Rider, or Keanu Reeves, all of whom swallow their words, would never have been cast in the movies. (Uh, and Winona Ryder cast in The Age of Innocence as a Wharton heroine who is described as a "sylvan Diana?")

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