[15 June 2009]
On Friday, Sandra Bullock rematerialized in “The Proposal,” after spending about two years off the movie grid (and a few more than that MIA from the romantic-comedy arena). The film, from “27 Dresses” director Anne Fletcher, stars Bullock as a pushy Canadian publishing exec who coerces her assistant (Ryan Reynolds) into marriage, so she can stay in the United States.
In the noble traditions of hormones, and Hollywood, they’ll fall in love.
A few things are wrong with this picture. One, no one believes in pushy Canadians. Two, Reynolds is not only prettier than Bullock, he was last seen as a lethal mutant in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which should disqualify him from further romantic consideration. Third, Bullock is supposed to be America’s Sweetheart, not Canada’s.
She still may be. At 44, Bullock has seen many of her contemporaries — actresses who came to prominence in the ‘90s — fall off the face of the Earth. There are exceptions: Michelle Pfeiffer, 51, opens in the Colette-inspired sex-and-romance drama “Cheri” June 26; she looks and acts fantastic. But no one is shocked by “The Proposal,” because Sandra Bullock has always spelled durability.
Bullock’s attack on the moviegoing consciousness has always been two-pronged, her devastating cuteness matched with a girlish athleticism, her self-deprecating sense of humor playing counterpoint to a sassy tartness. Her dynamic has been about playing the girl next door — and playing the federal agent next door. Few stars of rom-coms have also played futuristic cops (“Demolition Man”), or FBI agents posing as a Miss America contestant (“Miss Congeniality”), or author Harper Lee (“Infamous,” in which Bullock was arguably as good as Catherine Keener in “Capote”).
In “Speed,” “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” “Miss Congeniality” and “Murder by Numbers,” Bullock plays the capable, sometimes gun-toting woman with an edge; in “Hope Floats,” “Two Weeks Notice” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” she’s more of a cupcake. (There is also a third division of Bullockiana, the less easily categorizable movies like “28 Days,” “Infamous,” “Crash” and “Premonition,” which are always described as out of character.) Throughout her career, a combination of earthiness and allure has made her seem singularly genuine in a movie world of big lips, full bosoms and empty heads.
Part of Bullock’s charm also has to do with potential. Although she sports Everywoman looks, there is a moment in “Miss Congeniality” when the rather humorless, all-business Gracie Hart gets some makeup, a blowout and a slinky dress, and the results are virtually leered at by the camera — until she breaks a heel, and Classic Bullock resurfaces. It’s not that she’s not hot. She just doesn’t play hot (although she has a much-discussed nude scene in “The Proposal”). But this is why audiences feel they know her. Or are her. And why they recognize the unspoken assertion of her purely American persona that anything can be achieved with perseverance, goodness and perhaps a soupcon of divine intervention, a la Frank Capra.
The role that best exploited all of Bullock’s assets was the 1995 Jon Turteltaub comedy “While You Were Sleeping.” It’s a movie constructed out of unadulterated schmaltz, but it has irresistible Capra-esque elements of kismet and opportunity. As Lucy Moderatz, a lonely fare collector on Chicago’s elevated transit line, Bullock fantasizes about a commuter (Peter Gallagher), and one day witnesses him being mugged and pushed onto the tracks. She saves him and then is mistaken by his family for his fiancee.
Lucy is not a femme fatale; on the contrary, she could have achieved Gallagher-hood only by mistake. But we — I mean she — gets to have it both ways, and then, by choice, to be wise: She falls for his less-flashy but more substantial brother (played by another singularly American screen treasure, Bill Pullman). The moral — embodied in the story, and by Bullock — is that goodness will, eventually, reap its own reward.
We love that kind of stuff. We also love performers who can make us feel good about ourselves — or at least not inadequate. There will come a time when Angelina Jolie hits the Hollywood equivalent of the golden years, and it’s hard to imagine audiences rooting for her, not the way we’ll root for Bullock. Which, of course, is really rooting for ourselves.
FOR MANY HOLLYWOOD ACTRESSES, IT’S AN AGE-OLD STORY
The treatment of elderly women in Hollywood — meaning women older than 30 — has always been shocking. Brutal. There should be a telethon. At the same time, Sandra Bullock is starring in a romantic comedy at age 44. An anomaly? Or shift in the tectonic plates?
When Bullock hit the big time, in the mid-‘90s, the most successful “Babe” in the movies was a farm animal; the top grossers were cartoons (“Toy Story”) or superheroes (“Batman Forever”). But among the women who ran hot in the Clinton years, Rene Russo (“Lethal Weapon II,” “The Thomas Crown Affair”) is 55 and has virtually disappeared. Likewise, Sharon Stone (51), Helen Hunt (45), Elisabeth Shue (45) and Catherine Zeta Jones (39).
Jamie Lee Curtis (50) is doing digestive yogurt ads. Samantha Mathis (39), who was the star of one of Bullock’s first big movies, “The Thing Called Love,” has mostly done TV of late; likewise Jeanne Tripplehorn (46), of HBO’s “Big Love” and “Grey Gardens.”
Gwyneth Paltrow is only 36 and will be doing “Iron Man II,” but her time seems more gainfully occupied in modeling and taking to the Spanish road with Mario Batali. Nicole Kidman (42 on Saturday) can still make event movies, but after “Australia,” there may be fewer.
Some women of a certain age, of course, have a double-edged handicap: Neither Halle Berry (42) nor Angela Bassett (50) has been burning down the movie house of late; Hollywood seems to think it can get by the whole minority issue by giving any non-race-specific roles to Eva Mendes.
Some of these disappearances are by choice, of course, but when one looks at the landscape, there still aren’t a lot of opportunities for women over a certain age. As Ellen Burstyn said a few years ago, actresses play younger until they can’t anymore. Then, they can play older. Maybe Megan Fox can think about this, as she provides the eye candy for “Transformers II.”
LEND HER AN ERA
In some respects, Sandra Bullock harks back to the major female movie stars of a bygone era — Carole Lombard comes to mind, as does Katharine Hepburn (neither of whom toted many guns, but who seemed like they might). Bullock doesn’t share the patrician glamour of a Hepburn, which can prove so bittersweet when a character meets romantic disappointment (as Bullock’s did in “The Lake House”). Lombard could be daffy, and Bullock avoids daffiness. On the other side, Hepburn and Lombard never earned any comparisons with the great Ralph Kramden, while Bullock drove a bus throughout most of “Speed.”