Star vehicles are Hollywood's lifeblood—movies in which the personality of a celebrity performer is more compelling than the subject matter.
The audience's satisfaction derives from its identification with the lead character's emotional life rather than the dramatization of any larger issues involved.
Two of this summer's hits are driven by their female stars in this manner.
The Others is a modestly budgeted horror film that depends upon our complete absorption in the personality of a well-established celebrity, Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge ), for its final plot twists to appear plausible. Legally Blonde is a female-empowerment fairy tale disguised as a romantic comedy, and the forceful originality of Reese Witherspoon's (Election ) interpretation is the key to its success.
The Others , released by Miramax and written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes) , is a carefully calculated cross between the traditional haunted-house film and the recent blockbuster The Sixth Sense. Grace (Kidman) has moved into a fog-enshrouded Victorian mansion on the English Channel island of Jersey near the end of World War II. She awaits the long-delayed return of her soldier husband from the front. Her preteen children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), are afflicted with a condition that makes them fatally vulnerable to light.
So Grace frantically rushes around, closing the massive wooden doors and heavy curtains to keep everything dark.
Three servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes and Elaine Cassidy) mysteriously appear, claiming to have experienced the best years of their lives on the premises. Grace immediately hires them, but this spooky trio has its own agenda.
The house is a character in its own right, with strange noises and movements, a hidden cemetery and a scary photo album of the previous inhabitants. Anne and Nicholas believe the place is haunted by a little boy and his father, a concert pianist. But it's not clear who's a ghost and who's real-life flesh and blood.
The dramatic tension springs from Grace's efforts to keep the household together while she figures out what's going on. Sad to say, the filmmaker insists on making continuous, subtle (and not-so-subtle) jabs at the Catholic faith as he maps out Grace's psyche and plunges the audience deeper into the supernatural fireworks. In the end, the story's resolution is also a repudiation of the protagonist's Catholicism.
Grace is presented as a conservative Catholic who forces her religious beliefs down her children's throats. When they rebel against it, we're encouraged to take their side. Anne and Nicholas seem to study only the Bible or tales of early Christian martyrs.
Special emphasis is placed on preparation for First Communion, which they've come to loathe. The endless recitation of prayers is used as punishment, and they're terrorized with visions of naughty children going to hell.
“Whenever you feel afraid,” Grace proclaims in a fit of hysteria, “squeeze the rosary and say an Our Father.”
Of course, none of this does any good. The Catholic faith is shown to be powerless when confronted with ghosts and other manifestations of the spirit world's dark side. This is a significant departure from horror classics such as The Exorcist or even The Sixth Sense , where the faith is shown to be equal or superior to other forces. “There isn't always an answer,” the housekeeper says as a way of summing up the filmmaker's message.
The film doesn't even poke fun at the faith intelligently: The mother is more like a fundamentalist Protestant than a Catholic when it comes to a Bible, and the movie hits Catholics for rejecting belief in ghosts—a charge of superstition might ring truer for some.
Legally Blonde is a much lighter film, and one without any meaningful religious references. About 20 years ago, college-age feminists used to wonder whether they could “have it all.”
By this expression they meant: Is it possible to have a successful career and a satisfying family or love life as well?
The movie, adapted from Amanda Brown's novel by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, poses these questions in the context of today and suggests that, yes, a woman can have it all—but only through hard work and interior personal growth.
Elle Woods (Witherspoon) is a stereotypical Southern California blonde sorority girl for whom looking good is everything and she'll shop till she drops to get there. She's expecting her hunky boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) to pop the question so she can settle down after graduation like the rest of her sorority sisters.
But her Prince Charming is on his way to Harvard Law School and plans a career in politics. “If I'm going to be a senator, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn,” he announces at the dinner where he dumps her.
Elle refuses to let her heart be broken. She's determined to get Warner back even if it means going to Harvard, and with a 4.0 grade point average she's able to wangle admission.
First-time director Robert Luketic pokes gentle, cartoonish fun at both spoiled Beverly Hills rich kids and earnest, politically correct Harvard Law students. When Elle shows up in Cambridge in a trim-fitting outfit of pink pearlized leather, her plaid-shirted classmates are appalled.
Witherspoon carries the film because her “dumb blonde” character is never stupid. She's just motivated at the beginning by other issues. We root for her to overcome her situation and blossom into a woman of substance and intellect. The message is to never judge people by their background or appearances.
Legally Blonde doesn't completely live up to its promise, because the filmmakers themselves share many of their characters’ ambitions and materialistic obsessions. Its effectiveness is also weakened by occasional and gratuitous use of raunchy language (and crude sexual references), probably inserted just to get a PG-13 rating, which the studio considers to be commercially desirable.
Two different genres, two female stars on the rise. The Others uses cheap shots at the faith to cover weaknesses in its story that even Kidman's personality can't transcend. Legally Blonde is transformed by Witherspoon's brilliantly observed performance from a summer youth movie into a clever, comic examination of two contrasting subcultures.
John Prizer, the Register's arts & culture correspondent, is based in Los Angeles.