About midway through I, Tonya, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding confronts a skating judge in a parking garage after a competition. Banging on his window — he opens it just a crack — Harding demands to know why the judges keep giving her middling scores despite her consistently immaculate execution. The man sighs and admits what Harding already knows: They’re not just assessing her skill as a figure skater. They’re looking for a “wholesome” poster girl — not a working-class broad who skates to ZZ Top and sews her own garish costumes while her chain-smoking mother squints from the side of the rink, but a symbol of virtue and grace who will smile and twirl in her miniskirted costumes. They don’t just want talent; they want an ingenue.
Based on the results of this year’s Village Voice Film Poll, it appears our judges have different criteria. The poll favors films that reject this role into which young women in Hollywood are consistently pushed. Ranking high among our voters: Robbie’s sardonic portrayal of a woman who conquers her sport despite ceaseless domestic abuse; Saoirse Ronan’s spirited high school senior in Lady Bird (number one, Best Lead Performance); Vicky Krieps’s wit-matching muse in Phantom Thread (number seven); Cynthia Nixon’s underappreciated turn as the headstrong Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (number three); Sally Hawkins, in The Shape of Water, as the kind of fairy-tale princess who begins each day with a vigorous bout of self-love (number six). And let’s not forget Call Me by Your Name (number four, Best Film), a love story between two men that flips the script, casting Timothée Chalamet (number two, Best Lead Performance) in the traditionally female role of the young lover ushered into adulthood through an affair with an older man. It’s basically a gay Rochelle, Rochelle.
A number of films that proved popular with critics in the Voice’s annual poll consciously interrogate the figure of the ingenue, a term that has long been used to describe both a young, beautiful, bright-eyed starlet who’s relatively new on the scene, and the kind of character for which such a woman might predictably be cast. (In its original French, it means “showing innocent or childlike simplicity and candidness.”) In her 2016 book Natalie Wood, Rebecca Sullivan describes the ingenue as a “stock character that remains the most reliable stepping stone to cinematic stardom for young actresses.” The idea of innocence has faded from our contemporary understanding of an ingenue; now, she’s often the latest sexpot on the scene, or, as I referred to Emily Ratajkowski in my review of the Entourage movie, the “hottest new pair of tits in town.” America may never entirely shake its Puritan values, but it’s loosened enough to make way for a kind of Halloween-hot version of the chipper innocents of movies past — the Sexy Virgin, if you will. The ingenue, Sullivan writes, “combines a fragile innocence with sexual desirability.”
Mainstream Hollywood movies have always conditioned audiences to see a young woman paired with an older man as not only normal but natural — as if such a woman could hardly flourish without the guiding hand of a patriarchal lover. But some of 2017’s best movies confounded this deep-rooted design; they weren’t about doe-eyed innocents, or good girls gone bad, or bad girls gone to the dogs, but rather complicated women who often outwit their male counterparts. (In Get Out, which our critics deemed the third-best film of the year, Jordan Peele takes this even further, casting the perky Allison Williams as the pretty white girl who brings her black boyfriend home to meet the parents — and then revealing that her ingenue act was just a ruse to lure him into a horrific trap.) In Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig (number two, Best Director, and number one, Best Screenplay), seventeen-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is not defined by her relationships with men or boys; part of the reason the film, which placed second on this year’s list, feels like such a revelation is that Gerwig never glamorizes her teenage subject, or projects onto her a kind of maturity that makes it easier to objectify her.
Gerwig’s is certainly not the first movie centered on a quirky female high school student (one quirk: When she runs for school president, Lady Bird plasters the walls with posters of her head attached to the body of a bird). But unlike, say, Easy A, the 2010 comedy starring Emma Stone as an implausibly unpopular teen who lies about losing her virginity, Lady Bird’s eccentricity isn’t a mask for her conventional “hotness.” That trick has been so familiar for so long that it was sent up in the brilliant 2001 parody Not Another Teen Movie, wherein simply removing the glasses and ponytail from the awkward loner girl transforms her into Rachael Leigh Cook.
When she’s not wearing her loose-fitting Catholic school uniform — the skirt goes below her knees — Ronan’s Lady Bird is outfitted in jeans and T-shirts. If she’s lounging around the house, it’s wrinkled pajama bottoms. Her stringy hair, dyed pink, is never expertly coiffed. For special occasions, she picks out full-skirted, vintage dresses at the thrift store. She’s certainly not indifferent to the opposite sex, and Gerwig shows us the moment when Lady Bird loses her virginity (when it’s over she indignantly points out to her partner that for her first time, she was on top). But the film isn’t leering or prurient about her sexuality. It’s neither trying to explain teenage girls to an implicit male audience, nor reveal the secret sexy things they do alone at night; the masturbation scene is so sly I’m willing to bet a lot of dudes missed it entirely. Lady Bird is the rare portrait of a teenage girl that actually feels like it was made from the perspective of a teenage girl.
The relationship that most clearly defines Lady Bird is not between her and any man or boy, but with her mother. The film that took the top spot in this year’s poll depicts what might appear a more conventional pairing: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread centers on Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer in 1950s London (played by the renowned actor Daniel Day-Lewis), and the woman who becomes his latest in a line of lover-muses — played by the unknown Luxembourgian actor Vicky Krieps. (Both earned top ten positions in the poll’s gender-nonspecific lead performance category.) They meet at a café in the country, where Alma (Krieps) waits on Reynolds, charms him, and later slips him a note: “For the hungry boy. My name is Alma.”
The contours of the story at first seem clear, even familiar. The film opens with Reynolds instructing his sister and manager, Cyril (Lesley Manville), to dismiss his current lover from the house that serves as both his home and atelier. When Reynolds brings Alma back to his country home and starts taking her measurements — and when, later, she sits at breakfast in the seat belonging to that first paramour — you figure it’s only a matter of time until the great artist tramples over this poor, sweet girl who’s so full of admiration for her man. Call it the ingenue effect.
The fact that Alma gives as good as she gets is just one way that Anderson’s film confounds expectations. (For more, read Bilge Ebiri’s review.) Phantom Thread is about a woman who refuses to be a blank slate. The film finds a companion piece in another that ranked lower on this year’s list, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which literalizes the time-honored process, both onscreen and off, of brilliant men burning through women to stimulate their creative impulses. Mother! opens with the close-up image of a woman’s face engulfed in flames; then, the camera travels through a shambling, fire-charred home that appears to regenerate as we watch, the blackened walls giving way to a freshly painted, Restoration Hardware–chic farmhouse. Then we land on a woman rising from slumber: Jennifer Lawrence, her character unnamed and identified in the end credits as “Mother.”
Aronofsky has insisted mother! is a parable about climate change, but I have a hard time imagining even he really believes that. Mother! feels more like a two-hour contemplation of a familiar figure in the history of film: the beautiful young woman who exists largely to suffer for the actions of her man. Lawrence’s Mother lives with a celebrated poet played by Javier Bardem and credited only as “Him.” (Like Day-Lewis and Krieps, theirs is an age difference of more than two decades.) He’s at work on his next masterpiece; she’s fixing up the house, which was destroyed in a fire before they met. He calls her “my goddess,” even as he allows, to her growing confusion and annoyance, an increasingly boisterous group of strangers into their inner sanctum. By the third act, with Lawrence’s character now pregnant, the idyllic home she has been laboring over gets overrun by hordes of fanatics — fans of his work — who destroy the house and refuse to leave.
In an interview with Marc Maron, Aronofsky spoke (dare I say bragged?) about casting Lawrence in a part that is so unlike her real self; in mother! she is meek, self-effacing, and guileless — a textbook ingenue. For most of the film, the role feels so far below her abilities that I wondered why, when given the chance to work with the most in-demand female actor of the moment, Aronofsky gave her such a milquetoast character. But on second thought, that choice seems entirely appropriate. Unlike Phantom Thread, mother! is a parable, and unlike Lady Bird, it’s unconcerned with the practicalities of women’s appearances — perhaps its least believable aspect is that Lawrence’s character would be able to do her own hair in the perfectly tousled updos and artfully disheveled braids she wears throughout, with never so much as a bobby pin or hint of elastic band peeking out. Women on film who are driven mad inside their own homes always seem to have time to make themselves ravishing, of course; Lawrence’s impossibly stylish tresses hint at mother!’s implicit critique of this role.
Both Phantom Thread and mother! unfold from the perspectives of the female protagonists, but mother! even more so: For most of the movie, we’re literally following Lawrence’s character from room to room as she paints and spackles, tends to unwanted houseguests, cleans up their messes, and, finally, attempts to make her way to safe ground when her home becomes a literal battle zone just as she’s about to have her baby. She is our emotional register: The camera is constantly checking in on her reactions, and her mounting agitation becomes ours. The funniest moments (and mother! is very funny) occur when the people around her — including, and especially, the man she loves — react to her being upset as if she’s the one with the problem. Meanwhile, she dutifully sweeps up the cascading mess created by her husband’s admirers. In the end, though, nothing is enough: They want the poet’s son. When he’s born at last, they jubilantly carry him above their heads until his neck breaks. Then they eat him.
Lawrence’s largely passive performance feels symbolic. (In this movie, what doesn’t?) Unlike Krieps’s Alma, Lawrence’s Mother is entirely reactive — crucially, she doesn’t drive the action in the film; instead, she’s ruined by it. Her work is entirely domestic, and, unlike the poet, she never leaves the house. And in the end, she burns just like the woman whose face filled the screen at the start, destroyed by the artist’s need to create, replaced with another woman who ends the film as Lawrence began it: rising from bed, with her hair in that same tousled braid, calling out for her beloved: “Baby?”
In the end, Lawrence, the model ingenue of the moment, becomes simply one more woman tossed onto the flames. By the end of Phantom Thread, however, Alma has not been trampled. Instead, Reynolds realizes he has met his match — if he needs the same kind of cycle of destruction and regeneration that compels Bardem’s character to create, then Alma will oblige, participate, even, by poisoning him with wild mushrooms and nursing him back to his former strength. While Alma cooks, Anderson cuts close-up shots of her slicing mushrooms with shots of Reynolds sketching designs in a notebook, as if to parallel both acts of creation. Alma’s actions speak volumes: I can make something, too. “I want you flat on your back,” she declares, after feeding him the tainted omelet. When he realizes what she’s done, he grins. “Kiss me, my girl,” he replies, “before I’m sick.”
Lady Bird offers an even more forceful reproach to the tired casting patterns so many young female actors fall prey to, for some obvious reasons. Its protagonist is a teenager, and its writer-director was herself not long ago considered an ingenue. By definition, the ingenue is a girl with little experience of life; usually the man she’s paired with furnishes this experience — her relationship with him is the experience. Lady Bird forges an alternate path for women in mainstream cinema, reflecting the somewhat self-evident and yet somehow radical notion that girls have their own experiences of the world that are worthy of cinematic exploration. It’s almost too perfect that the film stars Ronan, an actor who by dint of talent, smart choices, and good timing has managed to skirt the ingenue trap in her young but fruitful career.
In a 2015 interview, Russell Crowe mused that the woman who complains about the dearth of solid roles in Hollywood “is the woman who at forty, forty-five, forty-eight, still wants to play the ingenue, and can’t understand why she’s not being cast as the twenty-one-year-old.” It doesn’t occur to Crowe that perhaps the problem isn’t the pathetic adult woman desperate to relive her youth onscreen, but the persistent age disparity between men and women in movies. While thirty-two women under the age of thirty have won a Best Actress Oscar — more than a third of all winners — only one man has won Best Actor before his thirtieth birthday (Adrien Brody was twenty-nine when he won for The Pianist; he may be joined by the twenty-two-year-old Chalamet, should he win this year’s award). Which makes you wonder: What are we really awarding here?
Contrast Ronan’s career with Margot Robbie’s. As you know, the Australian actor rose to prominence in the States after her star turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013. Robbie has said in interviews that when she began acting as a teenager, she had vowed never to do nudity. The script called for a full-frontal nude scene, but after Scorsese cast her, Robbie’s representatives honored their client’s wishes. When they told the director, he completely understood, and called for rewrites. Now, five years later, Mr. Skin has no Robbie clips to peddle, and The Wolf of Wall Street’s leading lady has been nominated for an Oscar!
Of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, according to Robbie, her team sat her down and said, “If there is ever a time in your career to do nudity, this is it.” She briefly thought, “Maybe it’s just not meant to be.” But in the end, she agreed to the nude scenes, was cast as the sexy Brooklyn bombshell who marries Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wall Street scammer, and now has an Oscar nomination for a movie in which she remains fully clothed. In a piece on this year’s nominations, the New York Times’ Cara Buckley wrote that Robbie has “officially graduated from ingenue status.”
And so the cycle continues, on and on, probably for as long as the world’s supply of pretty girls who want their shot at a successful film career lasts. Who knows — maybe in a post–Lady Bird world, instead of being portrayed by a glamorous twenty-seven-year-old starlet, Tonya Harding would’ve been played by a girl closer to the young skater’s age, someone a little more ordinary. And maybe the film’s costume designers wouldn’t have felt the need to reimagine the full-coverage underwear of Harding’s skating outfits as sexy thongs. Those choices reflect not on Harding’s story but on an industry that has turned a profit exploiting the bodies of young women for so long that it doesn’t seem to know how to stop.
Perhaps we’re at a turning point. What connects Lady Bird and Phantom Thread, the top two winners in this year’s film poll, is the filmmaker’s impulse to take his or her female characters seriously, to invest each with an inner life that may contradict what she looks like on the outside — and to offer the wild suggestion that perhaps the former is more important, and more thrilling to watch, than the latter.