Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Courteney Cox’s performance in Scream.
In Scream (1996), cinephile Randy (Jamie Kennedy) lays out the rules for surviving a horror movie. You can’t drink or do drugs. And never under any circumstances, should you say “I’ll be right back.” But the number one most important rule? Never have sex. These rules are integral to one of the most well-known tropes in the horror genre, the Final Girl, a phrase first coined by Carol J. Clover for her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
Throughout the Scream franchise, the Final Girl is Sidney Prescott, portrayed by Neve Campbell. The quiet resilience Campbell gave Sidney has made her one of the most beloved heroines of horror cinema. She kicks ass and takes names as she fights back against the myriad of murderers that don the Ghostface mask. Whether she’s armed with a handgun or a TV set, we love watching Sidney take matters into her own hands to stop the nightmares that plague her life.
Here’s the intriguing thing about Sidney, though, that sets her apart from other famous Final Girls: in the original Scream, she breaks Randy’s rules by having sex with her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). This allows Sidney to subvert the trope, untethering the strength of her character from the idea that Final Girls must be virginal to survive. This choice by writer Kevin Williamson gave agency back to Sidney, and we see that tenacity in each subsequent sequel.
The Other Final Girl of Scream: Gale Weathers
But there’s one female character in Scream just as strong as Sidney who doesn’t break Randy’s rules: Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers. On-screen, we never see Gale drink, do drugs, have sex, or say “I’ll be right back.” Sure, we can surmise that Gale isn’t a virgin — after all, she is a decade older than the film’s cast of high school characters. Still, we never see her do any of these things in the actual film. If we’re following Randy’s rules to a T, that’s all that matters, right?
However, Gale isn’t initially positioned as the hero of the franchise, which makes it difficult to immediately view her as a Final Girl. The descriptor that is frequently used to describe Gale by the other characters, the creative team, and even Cox herself, is “bitchy.” Director Wes Craven originally described the character to Cox as a “bitch on wheels.” In the film, Gale’s cameraman Kenny (W. Earl Brown) describes her as a “bitch goddess.” In interviews during the press tour for the original film, Cox discussed how excited she was to finally play a “bitchy” character. But when I look at Gale Weathers, I don’t see a character that is “bitchy.” I see a determined, career-oriented person who will do whatever it takes to emerge on top of an industry, and a world, stacked against empowered women.
Gale Weathers is a tabloid journalist fashioned after the personalities that emerged from lowbrow television news programs of the mid-’90s like Hard Copy and Inside Edition. This was an era when the line between news and entertainment had begun to blur, so it’s no wonder that a reporter is positioned as a foil to the main protagonists in Scream as a media circus erupts in the town of Woodsboro. Gale is meant to embody everything wrong with modern media: brazenly opportunistic reporters who are more concerned with raising their own status and making loads of money through shock value than an altruistic pursuit of the truth. However, this is a one-dimensional read on Gale, and at odds with the way Cox portrays her.
Courteney Cox Brings Empathy to a Scream Antagonist
In the first movie, Gale believes that Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) had been falsely accused by Sidney of the murder of her mother, Maureen, a year earlier. Sidney, however, believes that Gale trumped up false truths about her life simply to sell more copies of her upcoming book. And as Sidney is the audience surrogate, this is how we’re supposed to view Gale as well, regardless of the fact that all of Gale’s actions, from her reporting to her book, have been in pursuit of clearing an innocent man’s name.
Because Gale is initially presented as a quasi-antagonist, in the hands of another actor she could have easily become a cardboard cut-out of compassionless journalism. Throughout the first movie, we watch Gale get excited as the juicy story of the Woodsboro Murders begins to emerge. Looking into her eyes, you expect to see cartoon money signs flashing as the body count rises, but Cox never lets Gale relish in the misery of what she’s reporting. By resisting playing Gale as shamelessly unremorseful, Cox was able to find the heart in her heartless character.
We see this empathy in Cox’s Gale after she watches Sidney sneak out of the Woodsboro Police Department following her first brush with Ghostface. Rather than jumping into a line of antagonistic questions, Cox’s Gale shows genuine concern for Sidney, immediately asking her, “Are you alright?” Of course, Gale wants to get the hot scoop, but this moment speaks to the underlying empathy that Cox threads into her character. Just because she wants to write a story about Sidney does not mean Gale isn’t sympathetic for what she just lived through.
More Than a Thinly Written Tabloid Journalist
Even after Sidney snidely asks how Gale’s book is progressing, Cox doesn’t match her combativeness. Gale’s line “I’ll send you a copy!” causes Sidney to punch her in the face, but Cox doesn’t deliver it with the snark you’d expect from an unscrupulous character. She retains an open earnestness in her expressions that makes the audience question if Gale is as cold as she’s made out to be. Cox plays Gale in such a way that while she may see an opportunity to tell a hell of a good story, it’s clear she’s in it for more than just the fame and glory.
That being said, Cox’s Gale has to fight to get this point across to the other characters in the series. “Is this just another brilliant Gale Weathers performance?” Dewey (David Arquette) quips at her after the murders begin in Scream 2. With exasperation she screams at him, “There’s no cameras here! I just want to find this fucker!” She catches her breath and hesitates, almost like she’s silently considering whether anyone will ever believe this to be true of her. She then quietly pleads with Dewey that this is who she really is.
In Cox’s earnest declaration, it cements in the audience that Gale isn’t a composite of the crass tabloid journalists from the ’90s. Cox’s Gale is a multidimensional character that can’t be neatly defined by the preconceptions that both the audience and the characters have projected onto her. Gale may be presented as a “bitch,” but through Cox’s performance, she distances herself from that misogynistic stereotype.
How Courteney Cox Got the Role of Gale Weathers
Surprisingly, though, Cox almost wasn’t Gale Weathers. The production knew they wanted to have a recognizable face in the role, so they originally offered the part to comedian Janeane Garofalo before considering actress and model Brooke Shields. Cox lobbied hard for the role because she wanted to break out of the mold Hollywood had made of her after her work on Family Ties and Friends. As Cox told The Hollywood Reporter, “[Scream’s producer] Cary Woods was in my manager’s office and she pitched me for the part of Gale. Cary thought it would be a nice surprise to have me play such a calculated character…but I had to convince Wes. So, I wrote him a letter and assured him that being ‘a bitch’ wouldn’t be a stretch at all.”
Courteney Cox was perfectly attuned to the “bitchy” confidence Gale Weathers required, though it’s the heart she gave her character that has made Gale a fan favorite throughout the Scream franchise. Does she want to sell more books? Sure, what journalist — tabloid or otherwise — doesn’t want their work to be seen and heard? But Cox doesn’t play that as Gale’s overarching motivation. If she had merely played Gale as cruel and cold, it’d have been difficult for us to come to love the character as she evolved into one of the series’ central heroes.
Through the compassion she baked into her performance, Cox was able to show audiences that Gale was driven by something more than her bottom line. She earnestly wants to uncover the underlying truths that she ardently believes in so she can help put the real killers in the world behind bars. And if she makes a couple of bucks off of it in the process. Frankly, more power to her.
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