The All-Sex Hex: Why Olivia Wilde Deserves More Credit

Now that Olivia Wilde has put rumors of a turbulent post-divorce love life to bed by revealing a "no sex hex" on her new home, it's confront the all-sex hex that has plagued valuations of her acting.

Cowboys & Aliens

Director: Jon Favreau
Studio: Universal Pictures
Cast: Olivia Wilde, Daniel Craig, and Harrison Ford
UK Release Date: 2011-08-17
US Release Date: 2011-07-29

Now that Olivia Wilde has put rumors of a turbulent post-divorce love life to bed by revealing to Jimmy Kimmel (July 27th) that there’s a “no sex hex” on her new home—supposedly left there by a certain trio of notoriously chaste brothers—it’s time to draw attention back to her acting. That is, as far as there ever was any attention; Wilde seems to have fallen prey to an all-sex hex, meaning that reviewers cannot seem to get past her physical appearance.

Wilde is quickly establishing herself as the breakthrough star of 2011 on the big screen. While many already know her from television series such as House (Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley) and The O.C. (Alex “Marissa’s girlfriend” Kelly), from last year’s holiday blockbuster Tron: Legacy, or simply from topping Maxim’s Hot 100 list, attention to her acting prowess has been limited in favor of discussions of her characters’ bisexuality or the actress’ supposedly turbulent love life. This summer, critics will have another shot at making things right: she’ll be all over a theatre near you, in Jon Favreau’s much-anticipated Cowboys and Aliens and the Ryan Reynolds/Jason Bateman-fronted body switch flick The Change Up, and butter-carving Butter and In Time are also scheduled for release this year.

As a quick roundup of Cowboys and Aliens- reviews demonstrates, critics continue to be blinded by Wilde’s good looks. The Boston Globe calls her “the film industry’s babe du jour”, Salon mentions “an implausibly leggy and gorgeous mystery girl,” MSN Movies joins in the mysterious fun by calling her a “foxy woman of mystery,” USA Today’s review echoes that sentiment by referring to Wilde as “a mystery woman who follows Craig around” but also calls her “one-dimensional” and Entertainment Weekly has her as a “local petticoated dreamgirl”). The Orlando Sentinel’s review is particularly vexing, as it gives parenthetical assessments of all supporting actors, but suffices with “(Olivia Wilde, all cheekbones)” for the twenty-seven year old actress.

And that would be absolutely fine—Wilde is undeniably beautiful—as long as those remarks were followed by assessments of her acting. So rather than a “no-sex hex”, it seems that the “all-sex hex” that is the real worry when it comes to Wilde, and it impedes accurate reviews. She is regarded through a lens of beauty, a lens that seems to preclude any comments on her acting. The only two RottenTomatoes Top Critics (as of July 28th) that come close to a substantive comment are Rolling Stone, which write that she lends “an air of mystery” to her character and The Arizona Republic, with a a very concise “Wilde is good.”

And that’s exactly the point: Wilde is good. In fact, I daresay that she has always been good. InThe O.C. her facial expressions deflected Mischa Barton’s painful attempts at ones, and in House she manages to portray Thirteen as at once profoundly confused and extremely determined, a mix that has led the character to be somewhat unpopular among viewers. Quorra in Tron:Legacy was a nuanced and delicate personality, even though she wasn’t a person in the technical sense of the word and physically agile and imposing. Wilde helped write the role into a more dimensional character, as she also did with the character of Ella Swanson for Cowboys and Aliens. She prefaces each role with a significant amount of research. In fact, ravishing books seems to be a more apt description of her life than ravishing men.

To be fair, Wilde is a name that lends itself for all kinds of imaginative wordplays—as does Fox, by the way, an actress of significantly lesser talent who claims to have been doomed by the same good-looking-young-actress curse—but that’s not the reason why she chose it. She was inspired by Oscar Wilde, who she admires as “a revolutionary, a comedian and a profound thinker” as she told Observer in 2007 (Sara Vilkomerson, “Wilde At Heart.” April 16, 2007). And those who are surprised by this intelligent decision She quite the revolutionary herself too. Her off-screen credentials include commitments to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—which I only happened to find out about when I recently became a member myself, which says something of her humility in these affairs—and most significantly to Artists for Peace and Justice, a non-profit organization that has establising schools in Haiti as its main current goal. On her website she encourages others to take action as well, be it by becoming a vegan or vegetarian or by supporting one of the non-profit organizations she supports. All-in-all, she comes across as an intelligent and activist young woman, and could not be further removed from the all-looks-no-brain girl that reviewers make her out to be. Because even though they don’t blatantly say so, their silence on her performances conveys a blatant disregard of the possibility that there might be something beyond her looks.

One can only hope that she’ll soon be offered a role that will allow her to convey the range of skill and depth that she has to a larger audience. The role might already be there, and it’s not what one might suspect: the web is abuzz with rumors that she’ll take on the role of porn star Linda Lovelace in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace. If she does sign on, it will allow her to unapologetically embrace her feminine sexuality and beauty while exploring a complex and intelligent character.

Ironically, this leading role as a porn star could be just what’s needed to convince the masses that she’s more than a pretty face and to beat what I've called the all-sex hex. The fact that actresses are by now taken seriously in roles without being made-over as unfeminine, dumb, or ugly (all very subjective words)—a la Charlize Theron in Monster is already a huge step forward in Hollywood; here’s to sincerely hoping that Wilde will be the next one to profit from it.

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