Hollywood: Bring Back the Tragic Divas

05/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Your deadbeat mom calls from somewhere on the road. She's a country music legend who's seen better days, and lately she's been wandering offstage drunk to throw up in the alley. She drives between gigs with her fly down, peeing in jugs like a trucker. But she never sleeps alone because there's always some young man in the crowd who wants a piece of her ravaged charisma. It's Crazy Heart, based on the life of Joni Mitchell.

This thought experiment calls to mind a familiar double standard. In Hollywood, messed-up old men are sexy; messed-up old women are not. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart; Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler: these stubborn, violent dinosaurs win our highest accolades. Their failing, suffering bodies make us flinch; their manners and their morals make us cringe.

As women, we're not supposed to like doomed dames. We're supposed to be done with masochism and despair. But women need tragedy too. Jane Fonda recently pointed to Kathryn Bigelow's triumph with The Hurt Locker in her Huffington Post blog about women film-makers. As Bigelow's sweep for The Hurt Locker at the British Academy of Film and Television Art Awards (the BAFTAs) makes clear, tragedies dominate awards seasons. If women film-makers can't make tragedies about themselves, they'll end up making them about men. It's time to move beyond role models: it's time for a toxic tragic comeback.

"Women's struggle for equity is a constant struggle," said Bigelow backstage, then praised the writer who "risked his life to capture the chaos and tragedy of war." Bigelow took risks too. She started out in lesbian-feminist sci-fi, then moved to violent women's thrillers. But it was only her films about men we ever heard of: Point Break and Strange Days. No wonder she finally made a war movie.

Critical clout isn't the only reason we should want a female Hurt Locker, Crazy Heart, The Wrestler. Stories of bottoming out and facing the truth can move us like no others. Remember Clint Eastwood shooting as though his index finger were a gun, or Mickey Rourke's wounded eyes peering from behind the bleach-blonde mane? I do. Those besieged, obstinate sufferers reminded me of why I still loved serious drama.

Maybe for every Ophelia dying at a prince's pleasure there's a mad Dionysian female who inspires by going over the line -- way over the line. Maybe this isn't just about death, but about endurance and transformation. Maybe that's why the poet Anne Carson called her versions of Euripides Grief Lessons.

If tragedy comes back, older actresses can enthrall like they used to as the morphine-soaked Mary Tyrone of Long Day's Journey into Night or the infuriatingly sexy steel magnolia Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Just three months ago, Cate Blanchett tore down the house in Liv Ullmann's revival of Streetcar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With her attraction to older women's parts, Blanchett recalls Elizabeth Taylor, who dumped Ophelia fast for some stunning and shrewish vixens in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

From Clytemnestra to Lady Macbeth, older women with crazy hearts are the lifeblood of tragedy. Gay men have always known it, and loved them for it. "Do you mind if I smoke?" Oscar Wilde asked his idol, Sarah Bernhardt. "I don't care if you burn," was her reply. Bernhardt on the stage, swooned Arthur Symons, "tears the words with her teeth, and spits them out of her mouth like a wild beast ravening its prey." That's the kind of dangerous allure we need more of.

When we run into things we don't like in tragic stories, we can re-write them as we go along. Feminist playwrights like Cherrie Moraga, who gave us Medea as a soldier and midwife, or Sarah Ruhl, who imagined Eurydice's voyage to the underworld in light of the loss of her own father, have already shown us how. Sophocles promised that suffering can "teach men to be wise." But why should men get all the wisdom, the full-throttle experience, and the late-breaking sexual magnetism of tragedy?

When Annette Bening played Medea at UCLA Live last fall, she was asked how any real mother could bring herself to kill children onstage. Bening's first answer was impudent: "Are you kidding?' Any mother can relate to that." But then she backed off: "Maybe that's a horrible thing to say."

Today's tragic films trip up on the question of motherhood. Their directors seem afraid to pull women into the orbit of tragedy, and so they use their children as an out. In Crazy Heart, when Bad Blake is revealed as Bad Babysitter, his girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is sent home to watch through a pane of glass while he continues down the road of experience.

These days we have male divas. We're mesmerized by their tragic abjection, and we forget who they borrowed it from. But here's the good news about Jeff Bridges puking into a toilet: if Hollywood can eroticize this, it can eroticize anything -- even the body of a woman over sixty.

Keri Walsh is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles.