I’m always astounded by some of the roles A-listers take on. No, I’m not scoffing at Tom Cruise’s decision to star in ‘The Mummy’ remake/reboot/sequel/whatever (I don’t know what to say about that, actually), it’s more along the lines of why talented actors take on insignificant roles like disembodied voices (Patrick Wilson as the President’s voice in ‘Batman v. Superman’; Gary Sinise as the Smithsonian narrator in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’) or that most egregious sin of all – the role of ‘The Wife’.
This isn’t a takedown of all characters who are wives of our protagonists – there is nothing wrong with that. What bothers me is when these wives have little to do but prop up the film’s dwindling run time. They appear in two or three scenes and are almost always shown talking on the phone, looking anxiously into distant windows, weeping in fear. That’s it. While they add gravitas to the protagonist’s situation (our hero has somebody to love and go back home to), it doesn’t require an Earth-shattering performance by a talented, well-known actor. But, the same talented, well-known actors keep taking on those roles, anyway.
Sitting through ‘Sully’, a film about the heroism of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who landed his plane in the Hudson River, thereby saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew on board the flight, I couldn’t get my head around why Laura Linney accepted the role of Lorraine Sullenberger. She puts in a believable performance in her few short scenes, all of which take place over the phone with her on screen husband. That’s pretty much it. She doesn’t do anything else; she doesn’t grow, doesn’t come alive. She is there, as mentioned earlier, to prop up Sully’s story. So, did Laura Linney have to play this character? Wouldn’t any other 40+ actor do?
Admittedly, in most of our lives we have that special someone who, to us at least, exists solely to support us. They’re the ones we know will worry about us, will be at the other end of the phone for us. Whoever they are (could just be your cat, who will curse you to the high heavens for turning up late without their dinner), in the story of our lives, they’d be Laura Linney in ‘Sully’. But, in our lives, they’re not considered A-list stars, worth an overblown percentage of the production budget, they’re the SO/BFF/pet/etc.
Throughout the runtime of ‘Doctor Strange’, I kept asking myself why Rachel McAdams took on the role of Christine Palmer. In the film, she is completely defined by her relationship with Strange, despite being a doctor in her own right. The writers kept bringing her back during the film, only to make sure that whatever actions she took were dictated by Strange. She’s a tool no different from a scalpel – so why take on such a thankless role? I’m guessing her Night Nurse abilities will come into focus in the sequels, but that code name is a step down from her current title. She’s no nurse.
The trouble is, this isn’t the first time McAdams has played such a role. She lasts only a few scenes in ‘Southpaw’, and spends the entirety of her curtailed screentime in ‘Midnight in Paris’ being a hysterical wife. She’s even unceremoniously offed after just one scene in ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ as motivation for the titular character to go after Moriarty. And those are the films I’ve actually seen of hers; not sure how many other ‘The Wife’ roles she’s taken on.
With regard to TV’s ‘Westworld’, it begs the question why Gina Torres was cast as Bernard Lowe’s (Jeffrey Wright) ex-wife Lauren. She’s a fan favourite (especially in the science fiction community) and too noticeable a name to be in the show for only two scenes in two episodes. One wonders if the creators might be hinting at general sci-fi badassery coming in the form of this rather insignificant character in future seasons. Or did Torres just take on ‘The Wife’ role to enjoy being part of a grand production?
I specify ‘The Wife’ because the ‘love interest’ is still someone with some sense of character (who can occasionally take on a life of their own), as is the ‘sidekick’ or ‘best buddy’ who, despite not doing much, is still honoured in some way or the other. ‘The Wife’ role, on the other hand, is such a meaningless waste of time, I’m always surprised when notable or A-list stars take them on.
Think back to films like ‘Cast Away’, ‘Concussion’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘American Sniper’ and ‘Foxcatcher’ (to name a few), all of them have recognisable female actors playing ‘The Wife’. Sienna Miller in the latter two, Viola Davis in ‘Prisoners’ (one of two ‘Wives’ in that film, but particularly miscast given her extraordinary talents), Gugu Mbatha-Raw in ‘Concussion’ and Helen Hunt in ‘Cast Away’. Pretty sure drama school didn’t set them up for this (and that’s just a tongue-in-cheek expression; they may not all have gone to drama school).
It’s one of the reasons why, spoiler alert for a two-year old film, Linda Cardellini’s inclusion as Laura Barton, secret wife of Hawkeye, didn’t sit well with me (or others) in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. It’s great to insert a loving wife for our hero so that he attains some modicum of normalcy (and apparently, some substance, because Joss Whedon couldn’t flesh out any of his superhero characters without injecting romance into their arcs), but it comes at the cost of not giving ‘The Wife’ any substance. Why would Laura get into this marriage, or stick around? She’s locked up in a faraway place, on her own to take care of two (and now three) kids, not knowing if her husband will ever come back from fighting aliens and the like. How does she maintain her sanity? What does she do all day; all year, in fact? It’s a quintessential two-dimensional character created from the dark ages of cinema. I, for one, ended up worrying about her more than the Avengers, because I couldn’t wrap my head around her life. Military spouses still have support systems (how effective they are is debatable), but Laura has nothing and no one. It doesn’t help that Cardellini is a seriously likeable actor who imbues her character with a lot of fun.
[Spoiler for ‘Arrow’ Season 5] In contrast, ‘Arrow’ turned the tables on the long-suffering spouse concept in the mid-season finale of the newest season, with Curtis’ husband Paul leaving their marriage when he finds out about Curtis’ Mr. Terrific vigilantism. It isn’t all that original, but still believable given the gravity of the situation, especially in Star City. [End Spoiler]
In a way, one can see what about these roles would appeal to these stars. There’s the opportunity to work with great directors, writers and actors – something which wouldn’t come along if there aren’t lead roles available for these women. There’s also passion for said project, something which may sail over the head of the average viewer, because we’re only as invested in the film as our pre-disposed interests will allow. One can also argue that, if nothing better has come along, you might just have to stick with what you get. And what you get could be ‘The Wife’.
It’s not often ‘The Husband’ has a similarly hollow ring to it. Off the top of my head, I recall ‘Love, Actually’ had a gender-swapped version of ‘The Wife’ character in Chiwetel Ejiofor. The entirety of his screen time was defined by him being married to the woman one of our protagonists happens to be in love with. Ejiofor is the friend of said protagonist but gets nary a mention in this context. Of course, there’s probably a number of rom-coms which have similar characters, but I haven’t watched them. Since my cinematic interests begin and end with science-fiction and superhero films, my view of the industry is narrowed to what the audience always misses out on in this context. And in blockbusters we often miss out on substantial roles for women.
While ‘The Wife’ plays an essential (though unrewarding) role in many films, I think Hollywood’s casting directors would do better to widen the casting net and give lesser known actors the chance to shine in these roles and give the powerhouse performers some proper, meaty roles to chew on.