Last week, EW columnist Mark Harris tweeted a statistic disturbing to anyone who cares about gender equality on the big screen: “It’s now been 61 days since the last wide release of a major studio movie starring a woman.” Unfortunately, that number will only increase—to 84 days—until Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy bust through the lucite ceiling later this month with The Heat. Those testosterone-choked three months confirm a sad fact of life for actresses: It doesn’t get better.
So what to do when you’re a reasonably talented thespette of a certain age, or one about to enter the opportunity desert known as the big four-oh? Follow Google’s plan to world domination: Don’t be evil—at least until you’ve used your youth and seeming naiveté to earn your audience’s trust. Then ensure your reach and longevity (and sure, pad your pockets) by getting good at bad.
To paraphrase a women’s studies T-shirt slogan: Well-behaved women seldom make film history. Playing evil is more fun than playing good anyway, right? Why suffer through eyelash extensions for that sexy-baby look (ouch!) or do take after take of pratfalling in heels (double-ouch!) when you can steal the picture with a single lip curl? Why be America’s sweetest, nicest, most forgettable mom when you can inspire a meme with a masterful eye-roll and be immortalized on Tumblr? Why go through the tiresome charade of finding Ben Stiller a viable sex partner when you can own an awesome death scene? (Sorry, your character will probably end up dead.)
Principled heroes are a dime a dozen and all the same—Joseph Campbell even wrote that book about it—but an extraordinary villain lives on forever. After all, who remembers Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada or the owners of those silky-soft, coat-ready dalmatians? Where would American cinema be without Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, or Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard?
The Hollywood Reporter recently claimed that the fortysomething actress is making a comeback. The piece correctly identifies Meryl Streep in Prada as the progenitor of this phenomenon, but wrongly attributes the current rise of older actresses to name recognition and better plastic surgery. In fact, the over-40 (and late-30s) actresses currently on the upswing—Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston, Charlize Theron—have all earned critical notice and enjoyed box-office boons by tapping into their dark sides. Diaz resuscitated her floundering career by reinventing herself as a man-eating manipulatrix in the sleeper hit Bad Teacher, while Aniston became a compelling screen presence for the first time ever as a sexually predatory dentist in the blockbuster comedy Horrible Bosses.
But no actress has embraced iniquity with as much abandon and glee as Theron. After winning an Oscar playing a serial killer, the South African actress experienced the typical post-Oscar slump. Gradually, Theron ditched action heroism (Aeon Flux)—the fastest route to the A-list for male actors—to return to her Monster-ish path to glory in Young Adult, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Prometheus—all well-performing films in which she’s used her ethereal beauty to add an extra layer of tragedy or hidden depravity to her twisted characters. And a single performance as a mesmerizing bitch can attract years of studio work, as it has for Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom), Helen Mirren (The Queen), and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air).
You might balk at being the bad guy. After all, conventional wisdom dictates that going bad isn’t a good career move for a star, or maybe you’re just tired of women losing to men. But it isn’t as if the usual roles as Supporting Arm Candy are any “stronger” or more “feminist” than villainous ones. As an antagonist, things won’t go your way, and, yes, your character will possibly end up taking a bullet to the forehead (what a waste of Botox!). But at least you’ll embody a character who’s trying something creative and original—probably while displaying leadership skills!—instead of perpetually running two feet behind your co-star while “sweating” in your white tank top.
Now that the sympathetic-girlfriend roles are drying up—sorry, but you’ve probably noticed you’re no longer Maxim enough to play the love interest of decades-older action heroes and overweight comedy stars—you’re finally free from the likability trap. So leave that nonsense to the Miley Cyruses of the world and delight us by just being a bitch—the most interesting, most beautiful, most memorable bitch you can be. Audiences are more sophisticated than you think, and they love morally compromised jerks. In fact, have you checked out cable TV lately? Or paid attention to the new spate of princess movies with an Oscar-winning villainess and flavor-of-the-month ingénue as the princess-heroine? Isn’t any club with Theron, Julia Roberts (Mirror Mirror), Angelina Jolie (the upcoming Maleficent), and Cate Blanchett (confirmed to play the wicked stepmother in the 2014 live-action Cinderella film) the one you want to join? There’s an empathetic space opening up for older women in the movies. Take advantage of it.
So just play it cool, or even better, ice-cold. Trying to be likable at all costs isn’t unlike trying to stay young—it looks increasingly desperate, and people get tired of it pretty quickly. Just ask Heather Graham or Hilary Swank what that’s like. (Go ahead, I’m sure they can fit you into their schedules.) Take a page out of the always career-savvy Amy Adams’s handbook and give a brutal, dead-eyed handy once in awhile, preferably while pushing the recipient of said handy further into insanity. When your industry gives you lemons, make lemonade. Then pour it in someone’s eyes.