February 6, 2013

"Mighty Morphing Sandra Bullock" by Natalie Lyalin

I am thinking about Sandra Bullock and her film roles.

She played Diane Farrow in Love Potion No. 9 (1992). This is the first time I noticed her, playing opposite Donovan Tate. The next time she comes to mind is in Speed (1994), playing Annie Porter opposite of Keanu Reeves, in all his dudeness. Next is the fairytale-like role of Lucie in While You Were Sleeping (1995), where Sandra shares the screen with Bill Pullman, Peter Gallagher and Gallagher’s eyebrows. Her list of roles is long, but I am sticking to only the ones I’ve personally seen. Fast forward a few years and here she is starring in Miss Congeniality (2000), this time with Benjamin Bratt and Michael Kane -- one, her love interest, the other a tool for transforming the “unattractive” Bullock into the stunner we see on the film poster.

And here the weird pattern of Bullock’s roles emerge – she begins as some less-than woman, usually a workaholic, definitely single, always in need of some makeover (physical, spiritual, emotional, or all three). Several of her more well-known roles involve outward transformation, the “ugly duckling” scenario. She starts the movie as a “hideous” version of her later-beautiful self (for the record, I think her “befores” are adorable).

This is the case for her character in Love Potion and Miss Congeniality. Both are dramatic transformations, that begin with Bullock’s characters looking particularly and comically hideous (Love Potion) and slovenly / unkempt (Congeniality). Bullock’s characters morph in other ways as well. In Hope Floats, Practical Magic, Forces of Nature and 28 Days, she plays women who begin the film at the pinnacle of success, are knocked down, and then spend the rest of the film climbing back to the top, whatever that means. These transformations are not unique to Bullock, indeed they are universal themes frequently found in literature and film, but she seems particularly drawn to stories of female transformation of the less-than to the better than ever.

Figure 1: Sandra Bullock, Love Potion No. 9, Before and After

Figure 2 Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality, Before and After

So, she’s into the morphing, the changing, the evolutioning character and plot line. And so, The Proposal (2009) falls neatly into this pattern. This time, Bullock is Margaret Tate. The movie presents her as a ball busting book editor and overall vile human.  And I guess she is those things at the start of the film, though if the character were written for a man, Margaret would be called successful and driven. Margaret’s main victim is her talented and caring assistant, Andrew Paxton, played by Ryan Reynolds. The plot goes that Margaret is a Canadian with an expired visa, who needs a quickie marriage in order to stay in the US and lock down a lucrative and famous author for the publishing house where she works. Margaret picks Andrew as her husband of convenience, and the film transports us to Sitka, Alaska, where Margaret and Andrew go to meet his family and announce their engagement.

The Proposal creates humor by switching the traditional male and female roles for their main characters, and thus slightly nudging gender boundaries to somewhat successful results.

  • Let’s look at Margaret’s “male behavior” in the opening scenes:
  • Ruthlessly fires a co-worker.
  • Does not respond to brownnosing or praise-giving - “If I want your praise I’ll ask for it,” she says.
  • Does not seem to have a life outside of her job. This is shown as weird in her case, but acceptable for Andrew (more on that below).
  • Awkward attempts at intimacy – we see her stiffly pat Andrew when going in for a hug.
  • Margaret proposes to Andrew because she wants to save her job, not because she loves him.
  • Similarly, Andrew takes on the traditional female role of helper and   smoother-over.
  • He is family oriented. In the opening scenes we see him presented with this dilemma – he can either go home for his grandmother’s birthday or lose his job. He seems genuinely distressed about both options. He has feelings!
  • He is nice to people – from the barista to his co-workers, he is portrayed as a very well-liked character.
  • He is subservient to Margaret from the start. He gets her coffee and obviously frets about getting the order right, delivering it on time, and pleasing her at any personal cost.
  • He also has no life outside of his job, but this is blamed on Margaret and her evilness. Andrew’s ambition is seen as noble, as he strives to become a book editor (compare this with Margaret’s ambition, which is portrayed as self-serving and indulgent). 
Though he only agrees to marry Margaret in exchange for a promotion (a promotion she’s been denying him) this deal is portrayed as somehow less ruthless than Margaret’s suggesting the arrangement in the first place. Again, Andrew’s ambition is understood because he’s finally standing up to Margaret. It’s almost as if we are supposed to feel relived to see Andrew stand up for himself. Watch.

So here we are with these two pleasing to the eye people, and they are traveling to Alaska. We find out that Andrew’s family is loaded. Extremely so. They live in a house that looks like a frontier castle. Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson play Andrew’s parents, Grace and Joe, and the golden unicorn herself, Betty White, completes the family as Grandmother Annie.
Figure 3, Golden UnicornThe other standout role is Ramon, played by Oscar Nunez, a renaissance man of a character (stripper, shop owner, clergy person). He is delightful! More of him in this film would be great.

Figure 4, Nunez, mid-strip.

The male/female characteristics switch is the thread that continues throughout the film. In one scene Margaret and Andrew improvise their engagement story for a roomful of his family and friends. The story is a lie, so they both take turns filling in details that are slightly embarrassing for the other person. Margaret ribs Andrew for being overly sensitive and emotional. From the decoupaged ring box that she claims Andrew made by hand, to his having to choke back sobs as he proposes, it’s clear that the humor here comes from Andrew’s overflowing emotions. Which, you know, is not that funny. Predictably, this story makes the elder Paxon male uncomfortable.

Figure 5, Craig T. Nelson, motherfuckerzzz

The jokes continue as Grandma Annie treats the audience with some tepidly lewd humor.  I take issue with this– it seems like the only way old people are allowed to be funny in movies is if they are being sexual or crass or both. Why is this? I admit that Betty White does not seem to mind this.She is known for her jokes of a sexual nature.  And Grandma Annie’s sex antics do a good job of providing levity to Margaret’s sexless soberness. Take the “Babymaker” blanket that Annie foists onto Andrew and Margaret on their first night together at the family home. As the name implies, the blanket is said to have magical procreating powers. Margaret does not want it anywhere near her, obviously (fitting in nicely with her supposedly subversive femininity). Another good Grandma Annie scene takes place in Sitka’s sole strip club, where Ramon seduces the audience with his Mango-inspired dance moves. Grandma Annie is very much into this dance, while Margaret is horrified.

The movie meanders along and the things we expect from a romantic comedy happen. Margaret and Andrew realize, duh, that they actually do love each other. She calls off the fake wedding and engagement only to have Andrew chase her and propose marriage so that he can date her. You know, so she can stay in the country and they can be together. And Margaret morphs from the ice-queen at the start of the film to the more emotive and feminine person we see at the end. She’s practically glowing the glow of a woman who has lost her job but gained a boyfriend/fiancée.

Do I sound too harsh there? I don’t mean to. My friend Katie places The Proposal in the “thumb sucker” film category. She likened it to canned soup - something comforting and simple you don’t think about unless very hungry. This is not a bad movie, not at all. It’s pleasant with nice looking people and moments of ridiculous and genuine humor. I highly recommend this scene with White and Bullock, chanting in the woods, singing about sweat and balls and walls.

And this image:

Figure 6, Awkward Nude sandwich, Bullock & Reynolds

Natalie Lyalin is the author of the forthcoming Blood Makes Me Faint, But I Go For It (Ugly Duckling Presse 2014), Pink & Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books 2009), and a chapbook, Try A Little Time Travel (Ugly Duckling Presse 2010). She is a part of the Agnes FoxPress editing collective and the cofounder and coeditor of Natural History Press. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches at The University of the Arts.

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