ON LENA AND MELISSA
This past week two outside-the-Hollywood-box actresses made entertainment news headlines as critics and audiences debated their worth as women, artists and sexual creatures. Melissa McCarthy’s appearance was viciously and unfairly attacked in Rex Reed’s so-called “review” of her latest film, Identity Theft, and Lena Dunham stirred wild controversy as she dared to explore female fantasy, longing and loneliness in her latest episode of Girls. A forgettable film and an unconventional episode would not have made the news aside from the fact that both McCarthy and Dunham are physically overweight.
In McCarthy’s case, she has public opinion on her side. Anyone who knows her work understands that Reed’s comments are strictly about him- a sad illustration of his own self-loathing and hatred of other people. He doesn’t adhere to the standards of true film criticism. For him, it’s not about the film; it’s about tearing down a woman whom he believes doesn’t deserve to be where she is because of her appearance. McCarthy is not alone; Sarah Jessica Parker was also on the receiving end of his venom and probably many others but I never read Reed’s reviews because he’s simply an inferior critic and isn’t worth the time. The fact that McCarthy is one of the best and most critically acclaimed comediennes working right now doesn’t seem to occur to him. Her talent means nothing because it comes in a form he doesn’t like. Thankfully, audiences will have the last word here and McCarthy will continue to be a top box-office draw because she is simply too good for one unhappy little man to sabotage.
Now on to Lena… another groundbreaking artist whom I adore. This young woman grew up in an artistic and unconventional family and been writing scripts and creating avant-garde videos well beyond her years for quite some time. Her average, not-in-great-shape body has been a canvas and vehicle for much of that expression and in that self-exploration she is FEARLESS. Yes, she is writing with a 20-something year old voice that can be indulgent at times but she is also writing with insight and wisdom that is ageless at times.
Dunham started out making short films, experimental videos and one feature before she blew up HBO by creating, writing, directing and producing Girls. So it was a great treat for me to watch this week’s controversial episode where she crafts what is essentially an exquisite short film co-starring Patrick Wilson.
Why has one episode of this highly acclaimed and popular show stirred up so much controversy? Because Dunham dares to cast her physically average self opposite the classically handsome Wilson in an episode that explores sexual fantasy and a longing for happiness. Many people have said that they can’t buy into the premise; a man like Wilson could never be attracted to a woman like Dunham. Or that it wasn’t a realistic story anyway. Or that maybe they could buy it if the episode had starred any of the other female actresses on the show besides Dunham. But, no, in this world… even in a FANTASY world… Patrick Wilson could never, ever, ever want to have sex with Lena Dunham. And, once again, I think this response says far more about the viewer than it does about an actress who dares to be naked on screen, with a handsome co-star, weighing more than 110 pounds.
We’ll accept a show that partners the nerdiest, oldest, or crassest of men with the youngest, hottest and most unattainable of women but why is it not okay for a simply normal woman to partner with a handsome man? Why is that so mind-blowingly unacceptable? In biological terms, we are definitely attracted to the strongest, most attractive and physically fit specimen we can find- the better to reproduce and survive with. But biology doesn’t have to dictate all aspects of life and indeed it doesn’t.
I find it pretty illuminating that we are so threatened by a regular woman creating a thoughtful piece of art that draws on her own fantasies, desires, challenges and pain. It’s too real. We can’t handle it. And it is a work of art. Dunham didn’t direct this episode and I think that was wise. It is beautifully lit and shot. The music is gorgeous. The pace is sublime. Patrick Wilson is phenomenal, as usual, and right at home in this brave new world. Dunham is believable, vulnerable and walking a tightrope of risky, brave and dangerous acting. She may not possess Wilson’s acting range but she holds her own and absolutely deserves to share the screen – and the story – with him. Watching it, I was reminded of the French and Italian cinema that I so passionately love. I was reminded of Sofia Coppola’s explorations of quiet, inner worlds. I was reminded of my own past, my own pain and my own desires. I was deeply moved.
When we start condemning an artist’s imagination and vision as unrealistic or unworthy simply because it’s uncomfortable- I fear we have become nothing more than pedestrian censors of our own humanity. Thank God there are artists like McCarthy and Dunham… and Hattie McDaniel and Chris Burke and Barbra Streisand and Danny Devito and Kristin Chenoweth and Chris Farley and Tina Fey and Denzel Washington and Hilary Swank… who can pave the way for the rest of us.