Here’s something that, on it’s own, isn’t particularly newsworthy: Melissa Leo might star in a hypothetical movie that hasn’t been greenlit yet. Yawn. I know. But in a larger context, this wishful thinking suddenly becomes not entirely dull. The film-to-be in question is The Toll, from playwright/director Neil LaBute.
Leo would play a New Jersey tollbooth operator who stumbles upon a potential terrorist attack against the entire East coast, and, as tollbooth operators are known to do, takes down the entire terrorist cell single-handedly. LaBute describes the film as “a character piece, to take a middle-aged woman and put her in a crisis you would normally find Bruce Willis. It’s finding someone who has none of the supposed attributes of an action hero and yet asked to do all of the things that those people are asked to do.”
And that’s something essentially non-existent in the current film market.
Middle-aged (and older) women are slowly starting to trickle into the action genre – as we’ve stated so many times in the past, older male actors have no problem barging their way into places they don’t belong, and similarly-aged women are beginning to follow suit. Helen Mirren spent a good portion of Red and Red 2 wielding a machine gun the size of a horse, while Meryl Streep may potentially do the same in the all-female Expendables spinoff The Expendabelles. Yet in Mirren’s case (and presumably in Streep’s as well, given what we’ve seen from the first two Expendables), any older woman firing an assault rifle does so with tongue firmly in cheek. One watches both for the action’s sake, and for inherent humor of seeing a 68 year-old woman doing things a 68 year-old woman normally does not do (see also: Betty White).
At least they’re getting work. Hitting middle age as a Hollywood actress is not a happy time, and roughly four seconds spent on Google will net you a bounty of aging actresses all voicing the exact same grievance.
Here’s Melanie Griffith: “It is what I never thought would happen when I was in my 20s and 30s, hearing actresses bitching about not getting any work when they turned 50. Now I understand it, it is just different” (The Telegraph).
Meryl Streep: “Once women passed childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level” (Vogue).
Kim Cattrall: “I don’t have a relationship with Hollywood now. You can’t if you’re over 40. It’s a place where you go to make a lot of money and get out” (The Guardian).
Susan Sarandon: “You’re so punished in this business. When people say, ‘Do you think you’ve lost work because of your politics?’ I say, ‘No, You lose work because you get old and fat!’ That’s when they write you off in Hollywood” (Huffington Post).
The list goes on and on, until that Google-found bounty of actress quotes is too much for a single browser to handle; causing Firefox to buckle under the strain and then promptly explode. So the very idea that Melissa Leo might end up in a film that bucks all the established trends – an actress over 40 getting a lead role in an action film without a hint of irony – stirs up some warm and fuzzy feelings inside.
Even for a younger actress, however, things aren’t exactly peaches and rainbows – and those looking for a lead action role have essentially two options. First is the “Female Empowerment Through Ass-Kicking” movie. Enough, The Brave One, Eye for an Eye - these are essentially Lifetime movies with not-awful production values. Woman is made to feel powerless by one or many dudes; woman enters cocoon and emerges with vigilante justice; woman administers said justice by murdering everyone who is bad. It’s even a stretch to consider these “action movies,” yet at very least they have someone of the female persuasion repeatedly discharging a firearm into someone’s face.
But these films are less common nowadays; far more prevalent is the second option – the “Female Wearing Tight Pants Kicking People in Slow-Motion” movie. Films of this genre breed like rabbits, with Underworld, Resident Evil, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Bloodrayne, Sucker Punch, Ultraviolet, and Aeon Flux all competing to clog the arteries of your local multiplex. Precisely three elements are required here: a vaguely science fiction or fantasy-like setting, a young female actress wearing uncomfortably tight pants (or in the case of Tomb Raider, underwear ingeniously disguised as pants), and copious amounts of slow-motion. The result is an unfortunate contradiction- a female actress in a lead role that’s based almost entirely on sex appeal instead of acting ability.
If The Toll ends up getting the green light, that’s terrific. Leo would be entering uncharted territory for female actresses – and just as importantly, the idea of a “what if Bruce Willis was a female tollbooth operator” character piece sounds inherently fascinating. And if The Toll ends up nothing more than a pipe dream, that’s okay too. Melissa Leo can always buy a pair of tight pants and start practicing her roundhouse kicks.