Bette On Film: Where Are the Big Screen Comediennes? (Thanks Jill)

Girls on Film: Where Are the Big Screen Comediennes?
by Monika Bartyzel Aug 2nd 2010 // 9:45PM
Filed under: Comedy, Columns, Girls on Film

Bette Midler made waves over the weekend whilst promoting her most recent film, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. While chatting about the new release, she offered her two cents on the state of women in film, explaining that there’s a distinct lack of female comedians on the big screen, though there are plenty on TV. She said: “There are a lot of funny women out there, but they’re not in the movies because there are not that many funny women in movies any more — they’re mostly carrying coffee for the Iron Man.”

I’m not so sure that she meant to say that Gwyneth Paltrow (or Scarlett Johansson) was a wasted comedienne, but rather that funny women aren’t really getting the prime gigs on the big screen. However, she did note: “But on TV there are a lot of funny women, tons and tons of funny women — and all you have to do is turn on the television. So that’s still fabulous.” She went on to gush over the talents of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Debra Messing, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, and Judy Gold.

It’s an interesting thought. Is there’s a wall up, like the now-destroyed partition in Berlin, keeping most of the women on the boob tube (pun intended) and away from the big screen?

When I think of television’s funny women, my brain is instantly inundated with a number of choices, many of whom are the lead faces of their small-screen work. As Midler noted, Tina Fey, naturally, comes in at the top of the list between her acting gigs and creative work behind the scenes. But there’s also the increasingly popular sensation that is Jane Lynch, plus the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, Kristin Chenoweth, Sarah Silverman, and many more.

These women command the small screen. Their faces launch and hold public interest. (I think we can all agree that Glee wouldn’t be nearly as gleeful without Jane Lynch.) And even dramatic actresses are getting in on the laugh game with specialty TV — Weeds rests on the image of Mary-Louise Parker, Toni Collette leads the United States of Tara, and Laura Linney is moving to the small screen to star in The Big C.

It’s as if television is the playground for the women who want comedy.

When it comes time to think of the big-screen funny women, my brains heads to the past, brewing up visions of Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, and my ever-favorite Madeline Kahn. There’s also Midler herself, and Whoopi, the latter of whom was the comedic relief in many films back in the ’90s. But it’s harder to pick out modern comedic women who don’t only flirt with comedy or the big screen (with one foot firmly stuck in the TV), but those who jump out and command it.

Unreality Mag’s “20 Best Comedies of the Last 10 Years” details the lack perfectly. There is exactly one woman shown for her comedic chops, and that’s Catherine O’Hara for her stint in Best in Show. The only other women who are visible on the list are Winona Ryder for The Ten (surely on the list for getting it on with a puppet), and Aviva (purely for thrusting her arse at one McLovin). If you want modern laughs with leading women, you have to go to the romcom world, and I know that I’m not the only one who doesn’t find that to be an adequate option.

Most of the recent, leading names in female film comedies are halfers — spending lots of time on both sides of the comedy/drama fence. Elizabeth Banks, Renee Zellweger, Katherine Heigl, Catherine Keener, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, Amy Adams… They’re actresses who can do funny, rather than comedic actresses. None of these women are the Eugene Levy of their sex, though I’d imagine Banks could make a great go of it if she gave up drama.

Speaking of Levy, Catherine O’Hara is definitely my lone champion of big-screen laughs. She’s sublime in Christopher Guest’s movies and has some phenomenal comedic timing and talent. Unfortunately, she only gets the rare chance to let it shine. There’s Leslie Mann, who spends much of her time in the comedic world, but she always seems to grab filler roles. The only all-out comedy girl in the mainstream world that springs to mind is Anna Faris, and she’s more in the realms of Goldie Hawn comedy than Madeline Kahn.

*As FleaFighter rightly pointed out in the comments, Kristin Wiig has made definite advancements in this department.

So what is it about the small screen that makes it perfect for comedy? It’s not a case of audiences wanting laughs from the comfort of their armchairs, because many comedic films are super popular. And it’s not a case of audiences not liking funny women, because the same people who watch the television shows go out to the movies.

The talent is there. Just take any of the above names and imagine their best comedic roles, where their talents were truly allowed to shine. O’Hara is downright essential to the Guest mockumentaries. Banks is blissful when she’s playing Avery Jessup. Everywhere you turn, love for Lynch abounds.

If it’s not the audience, and it’s not the talent, the only thing left are the writers/creators/studios that offer us our entertainment. What’s strange is that this is not a glass ceiling women need to break through, or if it is, it’s a newly created one. We’re a movie-loving public raised on some exceptional funny women, we just need worthy roles and projects for them to shine in, and not just the mom or girlfriend to Hollywood’s stable of male talent.

I imagine if the studios started developing more solid comedies that didn’t rely on stereotypical tropes and romantic situations, and then cast comediennes, audiences would flock to the screens.

What do you think?

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