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Wives in the balance

Contending perfs sharpen edges of standard roles


Oscar voters may reside in the blue states, but there's still a "Father Knows Best" mentality when it comes to "wifely" roles. This year, though, there are several performances -- Laura Linney, Imelda Staunton, Laura Dern and Tea Leoni -- that are being Oscar buzzed because these women manage to break out of the sidelined-wife stereotype.

Unconventional women's roles that were Oscar favorites in years past include adulterous wives Annette Bening in "American Beauty," Holly Hunter in "The Piano," Jessica Lange in "Blue Sky" and Jane Fonda in "Coming Home," portrayed with varying degrees of independence, guilt, and desperation.

Daring to go against the nurturing mother stereotype led to Meryl Streep's first Oscar for "Kramer vs. Kramer." Beloved TV icon Mary Tyler Moore earned her first Oscar nom for playing against type as a cold, waspy mother and wife in 1980's "Ordinary People."

More recent roles of women who can't cope with the confines of home include Julianne Moore in her two Oscar-nominated roles from 2002, that of a depressive housewife in "The Hours" who abandons her family and in "Far From Heaven" as the seemingly perfect '50s suburbanite who finds herself falling in love with her African-American gardener.

Positive role models of independent wives are harder to find, although perhaps the best example is Frances McDormand as no-nonsense, extremely pregnant cop in "Fargo."

In "Kinsey," Linney's Mac is an eager participant in her husband's controversial sex studies. Her open-mindedness is particularly astonishing considering the 1930s and '40s time period.

"She was completely unconventional," says helmer Bill Condon. "She was a real freethinker. She didn't care about things like looking pretty that other women were so concerned about. And she was quite brilliant. She did give up her studies to be a mother, but she was a real intellectual partner to Kinsey."

When her husband says he's been sleeping with a male assistant (Peter Sarsgaard), her sunny acceptance is momentarily shattered, but she quickly decides to sanction this unorthodox arrangement. When Sarsgaard propositions her, she happily accepts. "When she says, 'Oh, I think I might like that,' it gets the biggest laugh of the film," says Condon. "Laura got the same laugh on the set. She just has an innate sense of timing."

As the selfless 1950s working-class Englishwoman in the title, Vera Drake (Staunton) is the epitome of a good wife and mother, looking in on sick neighbors and merrily whistling through her drab chores. Unbeknownst to her tight-knit family, one of her many community services is performing abortions for women in trouble. When a girl nearly dies after a procedure, Drake is arrested and her family is shocked to find out about her illegal activities.

It's notable that Vera never defends herself publicly, although she does try to explain her actions to her angry son by simply saying, "They needed my help."

"The Hollywood version in which Vera defends herself with a big speech in court is too hideous to think about," writer-director Mike Leigh laughs. "That would be out of character. The film's about someone who is defeated and subdued by the system. It's about a good person being criminalized."

Was Vera Drake typical of that time?

"Goodness yes," says Leigh. "Women have been doing this for centuries, until they were able to do it legally. I remember what it was like with women having unwanted pregnancies and I remember women you knew had been in prison, but you didn't know why until later."

As borderline alcoholic, slovenly housekeeper Terry in "We Don't Live Here Anymore," Laura Dern is "the one you expect to see fall apart," says director John Curran of the indie drama about adultery and betrayal between two sets of married friends. "But surprisingly she's the one who has the most strength."

"I would have thought that more women would have connected with her character, but ultimately it's very polarizing," says Curran of Terry, who at one point forgets to change the sheets for her bedwetting son.

"Some find that character hard to watch. To see a woman losing her shit at home is hard for people to accept.

"It strikes a different chord when you see a man failing at domestic life. That's the essence of the Western hero, the guy who rides off into the sunset, and that's deemed heroic. You tell that story about a woman, and she's flawed or demented or there's something inherently wrong with her."

Tea Leoni allows herself to be both unattractive and unlikable in playing ultra neurotic Deborah Clasky in James L. Brooks' "Spanglish."

She's a downsized career-woman become stay-at-home mom in search of an identity. Married to a famous chef -- "as if that defines me," she says to her new maid -- she throws herself into her fitness routine and begins a flirtation with a smooth-talking realtor.

"I don't see her as bad guy," says Leoni. "Unfortunately, Deb happens to be someone who's drowning, which makes her dangerous. I don't think she is a malevolent character. She doesn't act out of ill will," even when buying her daughter clothes that are too small to get her to lose weight.

"By the end of the film, you see that this is a woman who is trying so hard. Nobody hates her more than she hates herself, and that's her greatest redemption," says Leoni.

Says Curran: "The TV show 'Desperate Housewives' is presented in comedic terms. You present (those same situations) honestly and it's sort of depressing. There are films that are escapism and films that are about what people are escaping from."

Adds Leigh, "I don't see what I do as women's issues. It's the kind of thing living life is about -- ordinary lives, the drama of life. I don't know why other people aren't directing these kind of films, or why women aren't directing films with this subject matter."

Condon's next project is a story about women, but he says he's having trouble finding financing.

"It doesn't make any sense to me," he says. "What's better than watching a story of women on film?"

Date in print: Mon., Jan. 3, 2005

(c) 2005 Reed Business Information (c) 2005 Variety, Inc.

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