I wasnt keen on The Bourne Supremacy, but I was impressed by the performance of Joan Allen who manages with a few minutes of screen time to solve a problem that has been vexing Hollywood and the rest of us for some time now.
In a feminist era, women have power and they exercise it in the world. Hollywood has hustled to catch up by giving us portrayals of powerful women on the screen. We have had some good performances (Sigourney Weaver in Alien, for instance and Holly Hunter in anything) but more often we have bad ones. Women on cop shows are especially bad at assuming the symbolism of power.
Terry Hatcher is a particular case in point. Its not just that Terry is a bad actress (though she probably is that). Its that power has traditionally been a male idiom. Most women have not grown up with the opportunity to watch older women with power. Generally speaking, they have been obliged to learn the symbolism of power from men.
Heres where the problem comes in. When you are observing from a cultural distance, and you do not know the code, you are inclined only to see the most obvious markers of power. And who is most likely to show these off? Men who are not altogether persuaded of their right to power, men, that is, who are inclined to swagger and bluster. Terry imitated the wrong men, the pretender men.
The problem is a necessary one, call it the problem of cultural proximity. The farther we are from a social type, the more crudely we imitate it. Here, the problem of cultural proximity means that women end up imitating men who are in effect imitating other men. It is not very surprising that they are unconvincing. They are at two removes from the real performance, doing a bad imitation of a bad imitation, as it were. (To be fair, some may be doing a good imitation of a bad imitation, but the original “signal is still corrupted.)
Naturally, feminism has enjoyed some success inventing a new language of power, one that is peculiarly female, and not borrowed from men at all. In the late 80s I saw this happening at the New York office of Saatchi and Saatchi. The most powerful woman in the room, also the most powerful person in the room, sat extremely low in her chair. In fact, she virtually lounged. “Weird, I thought, “is this a power signature? And sure enough, the moment she left the room, the newly most powerful woman in the room slid down to assume the power position. I dont think this ‘took as a cultural innovation, and a good thing too. But there is stuff happening here and I dont mean to suggest otherwise.
Back to Joan Allen in The Bourne Supremacy. Her character is an executive of some standing in the CIA (or maybe its the FBI). She has power and she is called upon to exercise it. Nothing in this performance is forced or imitative. We “get that she holds power as a simple, defining attribute of her personality. There is no trace of effort or show, and no compromise of her femaleness. We see that she has power the way we notice the color of her eyes. It is just something she has, someone she is.
We know that one of the early handbooks of power symbolism was Castigliones The Book of the Courtier and we know that one of the chief pieces of advice here was the notion of sprezzatura, the art of concealing art. Here in the Renaissance beginnings of male power symbolism was a note of caution. Adopt the language of power, but then render subtle and discrete. Many men, especially pretender men, have evidently not read their Castiglione. (Too busy beating up kids at school, possibly?) They believe they can show power only by overstating it. For a moment in the history of feminism, the sprezzatura rule was ignored by women as well.
Thank goodness for Joan Allen. Great actresses dont just import from life, with performances like this one, they export as well. This does our culture sometimes invent itself, on the screen.
Castiglione, Baldassarre. 1967. The book of the courtier from the Italian, done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, anno 1561, with an introd. by Walter Raleigh. Tudor Translations, 23. New York: AMS Press.