Using the subculture of U.S. beauty pageants as a base, Beautiful addresses a multitude of apparently “female” issues. It brings up self-image problems, objectification, sexualization of young girls, pregnancy, sexual abuse, and (almost) lesbianism. Looking at that list, you might think that Sally Field’s directorial debut is really amazing, daring to tackle almost every big concern for gender and sexual politics. But it’s not amazing and not daring. In fact, it’s damn safe. Beautiful never gets past being skin deep.
Written by Jon (Ringmaster) Bernstein, Beautiful announces its supposed focus in its title, as it sets out to understand and maybe even challenge conventional notions of beauty. Field who knows something about being judged by her appearance observes, “‘Beautiful’ is what is pretty, what society tells us is physically attractive, but, it’s also a word you use when something is glowing, when something is alive and just right. You say . . . BEAUTIFUL.” Well, if that’s the case, then a different title is in order, because her film is not ‘“just right,” but just wrong.
Protagonist Mona Hibbard starts the movie as a tenacious and entrepreneurial 12-year-old (played by Colleen Rennison), growing up in a broken home and desperate to find her way out. Her mother Nedra (Linda Lark) is a disaffected alcoholic and her stepfather (Brent Briscoe), also drunk, only pays her attention late at night when he pretends to stumble into her bedroom while looking for the bathroom. Because her homelife is so desolate, it makes sense that little Mona is drawn to the “glamorous” world of “Little Miss” beauty pageants. Here she finds the attention she craves, even if she has to pay $135 entry to get it. The movie illustrates Mona’s motivation, juxtaposing a shot of a bright and shiny pageant with another of her depressing brown house exterior, complete with old tires and trash in the yard. Since Nedra never supports or attends any of her daughter’s activities, the film is able to ignore the reality that most pageant child and adolescent pageant participants are groomed and trained by mothers who are living vicariously through their children. Rather than expose this aspect of pageants much discussed around the JonBenet Ramsey case Field makes Mona an emblem of “female-powered” energy, who takes control of her ill fate and focuses all that energy on herself.
Still focused on herself but now older, Mona (now Minnie Driver) discovers attention gained from having sex with multiple partners, and predictably becomes pregnant. Because pageant rules forbid “mothers and legal guardians” from entering contests, the baby she carries threatens to destroy her pageant career. Although Mona and other contestants cite the money and scholarships pageants make available to “white trash” girls, such comments come during their performances on stage, as answers to official questions about their futures. Mona doesn’t actually talk about her future, or what she hopes to achieve, other than escape from her past. All she seems to want is the crown, the attention, the ego-thrust. For all her determination, Mona is perpetually needy, and because she doesn’t actually win so many pageants and tends to annoy her fellow contestants, her most constant source of attention is her childhood friend, costume designer and roommate, Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams). It’s Ruby who comes up with an alternative to abortion, so that Mona can stay on track to her ultimate goal, the Miss American Miss Pageant: Ruby will pose as the child’s mother. So, when the film cuts to six years later, when Vanessa has grown into Pepsi’s little darling Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the women are raising her “together” (the father is never mentioned). This arrangement, along with the fact that Ruby never demonstrates any interest in men, might indicate that the film is grappling with yet another difficult issue: two women parents raising a child. But no. That’s it, Ruby is the pseudo-mom, Mona is the child-woman, and Vanessa is the precocious, soccer-playing tomboy, eschewing all things girly.
And while we’re on the subject of things girly, Mona’s pregnancy is very conveniently disappeared from the plot. For a movie that defines itself as a “bold, female-powered film,” this omission might bring pause. To maintain her pageant eligibility, Mona had to hide her “condition” for several months. Why, in such a “female-powered film,” are such a profound event and circumstances never addressed? Perhaps, like Mona, the movie is just too intensely focused pageants to deal with such life details. Indeed, it’s not long after Eisenberg is introduced as Vanessa that Mona qualifies for the Miss American Miss pageant and Ruby is incarcerated. That’s right, I said incarcerated. It seems that in keeping with Ruby’s role as Mother Extraordinaire, she works in a home for the elderly and unfortunately, one of her patients dies from a drug overdose, leaving Ruby as the prime suspect. What is going on in this film? The shots of cute little superfemme Ruby in jail, surrounded by butch cons and guards, might again raise questions about her sexuality, or at least stretch the film’s range of possibilities for women’s gender and sexual identities. But no. Beautiful never gets past a superficial jokiness about these images. And besides, the situation is just a means to get Mona to the Pageant with Vanessa in tow as her aide. With no Ruby along to mediate their uneasy relationship and maintain their lie… hmmm, I wonder what will happen?
The Miss American Miss Pageant gives Field and company another chance to tackle some weighty issues. And some scenes do suggest that someone had an idea or two about such issues. For instance, one contestant discusses her platform for “encouraging youth to just say no to sex,” then posing for the camera by licking a big lollipop. And later, the contestants prepare themselves for battle in the backstage dressing room, where we see a quick succession of tight shots showing girls lacing boots, tightening belts, and shifting bras. With each shot literally filled with a body part cleavage, back, waist the sequence underlines the idea that women are being forced into frames that don’t exactly fit, a “beauty mold.”
The film’s most poignant scene follows this theme. At the end of the contest, three women are left Mona, Miss Texas (Bridgette L. Wilson), and Miss Tennessee (Kathleen Robertson). One by one, each must answer a question put to her by emcee Gary Collins, while the other two wait in a soundproof glass booth, so they are visible on stage but mute and deaf. Mona and Miss Tennessee wait nervously while Miss Texas takes her turn, standing together and struggling to smile. You can hear them breathing at this moment, and suddenly you’re made aware that as contestants, they are always in metaphorical glass boxes, performing and smiling, never able to relax or “be themselves.” When Mona’s turn comes, and Collins asks her, “What quality to you like most about yourself and why?”, her silence says it all.
Beautiful falls short of its promise by failing to get below the surface of any of the issues it introduces. Putting these ideas on screen is a good start but… “a bold female-powered” comedy? I think not. For all that it might have wanted to be, Beautiful is, in the end, a runner up.