There’s a phrase that the sportscaster Tony Kornheiser likes to use describing woman of a certain age who retain every bit of their sexual allure - the Susan Sarandons, Helen Mirrens and Tina Turners of this world.
“Still getting it done,” he says in admiration.
Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest "The Cat" Miller
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 17 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Marisa Tomei is years past the blush of youth, more than a decade removed from her winsome, wise-cracking Oscar-winning turn in “My Cousin Vinny.” She turned 44 last month. But the lady is “still getting it done.” Not many actresses of her age and stature would dare bare their all on screen. She dares. Playboy magazine took notice, not with a pictorial, but with admiring words, echoed by Nerve.com: “Hotter Now than Ever.”
Tomei hears this and giggles. The “sex symbol” thing has come late to her, largely thanks to films with daring nude scenes - 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which had her playing a bored wife cheating on her drug-addict businessman husband, and “The Wrestler.” She took the role of the stripper Cassidy in that film - the performance, as a woman her director Darren Aronofsky describes as “trying to keep her real life separate from the fantasy world she earns her living in,” is earning Tomei more Oscar buzz.
But she didn’t exactly leap at the chance to bare all. Again. She took a week to ponder Aronofsky’s offer. She’s hesitant, choosing her words carefully, in describing that decision.
“There wasn’t enough time to think about it, to prepare,” she protests. “Not the way I like to prepare, anyway, physically and emotionally ... I was concerned with, uh, it being ... OK, I had just done ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,’ after which I never intended to EVER be NUDE again!”
Tomei cackles. “After that I felt, ‘I’m free! I’ve done that now. Never again!’”
But Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream”), a filmmaker she and many others describe as “visionary,” is also persuasive.
“Just give me preparation time,” she recalls telling him. “OK, I mean time in the gym, right?”
“The Wrestler” is a film about an aging grappler coping with the end of his working life and an aging stripper dealing with her final days of pole-dancing. It’s a real take-stock-of-your-life-and-body moment for any actor.
“I think I look fine,” she says. “If that’s what it takes to do these great movies with great directors, I’m there. Eventually.”
Tomei has earned the right to crow a little, thanks to 16 years of whispers that no, she didn’t really win the Oscar for “My Cousin Vinny.” It was a fluke. Or there was a mistake. The past two years have reminded us what Tomei’s years in small roles in the Hollywood wilderness have let us forget. Tomei is a fine actress, one who does the homework - even when it’s pole work.
“It’s incredibly challenging, doing pole work. It’s a great workout, really hard,” she says. She had to get into the dancers mindset, too. “A lot of exotic dancers are high, or are really drunk, when they perform. There’s a kind of ‘checked out’ thing going on, they tell me. But they also tell me how empowering it is. They feel very ‘seen,’ very beautiful and VERY in control. It might be the only place that they’re in control in their whole lives. Those two minutes when they’re dancing is when attention is on them and men are at their feet, men who are going to PAY them. I think it can also be a meditation, of sorts. They go to a different place, at least in their heads.”
Her part in “The Wrestler” was actually two roles - Cassidy, the dancer that the frat boys shoo away as “too old” for a lap dance, and Pam, the single mom trying to “compartmentalize her life” and keep those two worlds apart, Tomei says.
“Her mantra - ‘I’m a mom, I’m a mom; I have another life, a REAL life’ - is just her striving to try to separate the two halves,” Tomei says. “She’s just a little more self-aware than the wrestler, The Ram (Mickey Rourke). Through him, she sees herself.”
Aronofsky grasped that connection between pro wrestlers and pro strippers: “They both go onstage and create fantasy for their audience. They both have fake names. They both use their body as art. And as time goes by and they grow older, it gets harder and harder for them to make money.” Tomei’s performance, he says, was “like a drunk on a tightrope, letting her character teeter between the real and the fantasy.”
So the phone is ringing again for Tomei, even if she swears she’s done her last nude scene “EVER.” She wants a chance to play leads again, in a comedy, a period piece, a musical, even. Her role model?
“Helen Mirren,” she says, an actress who went through her 40s and 50s and came out defiant, accomplished and sexy on “the other side.”
But wait. Mirren’s sexy-at-60 rep? Doesn’t that come from her willingness to play up that desirability? She was doing nude scenes as recently as “Calendar Girls,” when she was 58.
“You know,” Tomei cackles, “I hadn’t thought of that. Oh, well.”