Copyright 2001 Entertainment News

[ November 14th 2001 ]

While watching the DVD of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which came out yesterday, with my headphones on so as not to disrupt the household with sounds of gunfire and explosion, my wife interrupted to ask a question.

As I took off the headphones, we found ourselves watching the silent screen while we talked, drawn - not by the special effects or the action - but by the magnetism of Angelina Jolie. Obviously more than a pretty face - an Oscar already to her credit - Jolie is one of the few actresses today that can command the screen the way stars of the '40s like Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman once did.

It's no accident that I bring up those names. Remastered versions of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), starring Bergman and Cary Grant, and Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, (1941) starring Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, have been recently released on DVD.

Of course, Stanwyck and Bergman didn't need to draw guns or do high-wire stunts like Jolie did in Tomb Raider, though Stanwyck did use a well-turned ankle to trip up Fonda's character, a rather awkward bachelor of inherited wealth, Charles Pike (Hopsie), who spends his time studying snakes.

Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington, the daughter of card sharp Colonel Harrington (the great character actor Charles Coburn). The pair are traveling on an ocean liner when it stops to pick up Hopsie, who has been up the Amazon for a year.

At first, the pair sees only a mark; the colonel goes after him with cards, Jean with her feminine wiles. There is one scene early on that is one of the most delicious in the history of film. In it, Hopsie sits on the floor while Jean reclines on the couch, snuggled up against the bedazzled bachelor while she babbles about sweet nothings. The uninterrupted single-frame shot lasts for three minutes and 51 seconds, an eternity in film time, before Jean sends the by-now-intoxicated Hopsie on his way. It doesn't get sexier than that.

Jean actually begins to fall for the clumsy guy, but Hopsie, after falling himself, rejects her after finding out about her past. To get even, she creates a second persona, the Lady Eve Sidwich, a British cousin, and begins her seduction all over again.

The Lady Eve is a meditation on love and sex and identity - and is immensely funny. Much of that is owed to Stanwyck's brilliant performance. Stanwyck plays more than just Jean and Eve, an American and a Brit. She's a woman who's tough and vulnerable, down-to-earth and flighty, seductive and in love, and often you can see all of that roll by as Stanwyck flashes from one identity to another.

The actress, who died in 1990, often played roles in which she was tough but had a heart of gold. Despite some magnificent performances (Meet John Doe, Golden Boy, Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity) Stanwyck never won an Oscar until she was awarded an honorary one in 1982. But as The Lady Eve, she turned in a performance for the ages.

By the time she made Notorious for Hitchcock, Bergman had already won a best-actress Oscar for Gaslight in 1944. Like Eve, Bergman's role in Notorious required her to be more than one woman. She plays Alicia Huberman, a loyal American who is the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. The stigma has turned her to drinking and promiscuity, a loose woman, as it was termed.

Her circumstances and connections to her father's Nazi friends make her the perfect candidate for recruitment when an American spy agency wants to infiltrate a Nazi organization that has sprung up in South America after the war. But because she has fallen so far, the agency believes she will need a reason to risk her life. Cary Grant, playing American agent T.R. Devlin, is then essentially ordered to seduce her in order to make her agree to the assignment. As the picture was made in 1946, the filmmakers had to tiptoe around this without being explicit, but you get the picture.

Once Alicia is seduced - falling madly in love with Devlin - she is sent to Rio to insinuate herself into the household of the Nazis' ringleader, Sebastian (Claude Rains), who has been in love with her. Once she's there, she must appear to care about Sebastian, which includes sleeping with him (once again, off camera). Meanwhile, Devlin has distanced himself from her (a loose woman, he is reminded), which is like a dagger to her heart. (If this plot sounds familiar, Mission: Impossible 2 used more or less the same gambit.)

Bergman's Alicia must live a double life - not just as a spy, but emotionally as well. Bergman, of course, had experienced this dual existence before as Ilsa in Casablanca, where she was married to a resistance hero fighting the Nazis but loved a tough, seemingly amoral nightclub owner.

Both of these heroines are less than perfect, vulnerable, emotional, but willing to go for it. The Lady Eve and Notorious are great films, of course; despite being made for mass audiences, they still incorporated complex ideas into their stories. What they have in common is that both Jean and Alicia are real heroines you can root for - despite - and because of - their shortcomings.

Jolie's Lara Croft is based on a heroine from a video game, and the filmmakers did little to add any depth to Croft, emotional or otherwise. Instead it's gunfire, special effects and butt-kicking; that's the nature of Hollywood.

But one thing that Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon taught us is that you can have both depth and action. It's unfortunate that in Jolie's three films since she won the Oscar for best supporting actress in Girl, Interrupted, she has gone from being eye-candy Gone in 60 Seconds, to being silly and boring Original Sin and a caricature Tomb Raider.

Those may all be poor choices by Jolie, but looking around at the current fare being turned out by Tinseltown, she may not have had many choices. This begs the question: When will we see real film heroines again and not cartoons?

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