09.14.10

The Backlash Against Blondes

The hottest young actresses aren’t blond or conventionally pretty—they’re surly and wisecracking. Nicole LaPorte on the geeky ladies who are taking the industry by storm.

“I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am,” misunderstood teen Olive Penderghast—played by star-on-the-rise Emma Stone—says in the new high-school comedy, Easy A, this generation’s answer to Clueless.

But unlike that film, which celebrated the strange brilliance of a certain kind of bimbo-ness, as embodied by the amazing Alicia Silverstone, Easy A, which is due out Friday, unapologetically champions its heroine’s nerdy know-it-all-ness. Not to mention her—very funny—wiseass-ness. In the movie, Olive becomes something of a celebrated outcast, but still very much an outcast, when she promotes the false rumor that she’s sleeping with pretty much the entire school.

“I remember having to battle certain executives and how insulting they were about certain actresses,” says casting director Allison Jones. “All they cared about was their looks. They didn’t care about their acting talent. They were people who couldn’t judge by anything other than how big (the actress’) breasts were.”

It used to be that girls like Olive, and the actresses who played them (Stone is certainly very pretty, but is far more real than ethereal) were relegated to the sidelines. They were the BFFs, the sisters, the cousins visiting from out of town—not pretty enough, by conventional standards, to play the lead, and too edgy for the soft-contours of a teen movie. (Films in the John Hughes oeuvre excepted.)

But lately, it seems a revolution has been afoot, and the smart, surly girls have stormed the high school prom and stolen the crown from the blond, queen bee babes.

Last month, one of the hottest Hollywood roles to come around in a long time—the lead in the American adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy—was awarded not to the gorgeous glamour pusses who were up for it (Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman), but Rooney Mara, a gangly pixie with a dark, edgy vibe, who until now had been routinely turned down by studios for major roles. And this summer’s alterna-hoodie-fest, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, revolved around a blue-haired, wise-to-the-world rebel played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Meanwhile, Kristen Stewart, the progenitor of the genre, starred in three films this year: Twilight: Eclipse, The Runaways, and Welcome to the Riley’s.

On TV, actresses like Aubrey Plaza, the assistant on Parks and Recreation, who gives off a vibe of numbed astonishment at the idiocy around her, and True Blood’s Lizzy Caplan, who played the cynical cater-waiter on Starz’s sadly short-lived Party Down, are chewing up the scenery and inspiring cult followings. (Just Google the words “Lizzy Caplan” and “girl crush.”)

Offbeat girl roles are, of course, nothing new. Everyone from Christina Ricci to Zooey Deschanel has mastered the art of being simmeringly annoyed with the world over the course of 90 minutes, while eviscerating anyone within range with withering zingers. In the 1990s, Janeane Garofalo was a poster child for the Reality Bites generation.

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What’s changed is that “the smart, cerebral character has gone from the sidekick to the lead,” Easy A director Will Gluck said in a telephone interview. “The lead woman actress isn’t necessarily playing the sexpot anymore.” (Gluck’s next film, Friends With Benefits, is also led by Stone and another spunky non-blonde, Mila Kunis.)

If anything, the new trend is a throwback to the 1930s and 40s, when actresses like Carole Lombard—to whom Stone is already being compared—and Katherine Hepburn wore their intelligence and wit on their sleeves. But those stars were unquestionably beauty queens, a standard that is not being applied in the same way to today’s young actresses, whose looks, if anything, are downplayed. In Scott Pilgrim, Winstead was “made to look funky,” says Allison Jones, who cast the film. “You wouldn’t normally think of her as at a loss in the looks department. She’s gorgeous. But they played down her looks.”

Jones has had a lot to do with Hollywood’s embrace of sassy, oddball ladies. She cast most of Judd Apatow’s films, as well as his TV shows, dating back to the prototypical celebration of the weird, Freaks and Geeks, which was created by Paul Feig. Back in 1999, these kids were still outsider-outsiders, as opposed to beloved outsiders, and Jones recalls the grueling fights with NBC, the network that briefly aired Freaks and Geeks.

“They didn’t get it,” she said, of casting actresses like Linda Cardellini, who could never be confused for Pamela Anderson. “I remember us battling certain executives and how insulting they were about certain actresses. All they cared about was their looks, they didn’t care about their acting talent. They were people who couldn’t judge by anything other than how big [the actress’] breasts were.”

Ten years later, Jones finds her biggest problem isn’t casting funky types, but finding them, now that there’s such a demand. One of her recent discoveries was Plaza.

“The minute I met Aubrey, she was so interesting and funny,” Jones says. “She was hired right away by people who appreciated that. Her first job was Parks and Rec, then Judd hired her for Funny People, then she was cast in Scott Pilgrim.”

Jones describes the appeal of Plaza, an anti-starlet who delivers her lines in a bored-out-of-my-mind monotone, as “highly unusual and weird and yet very smart.”

Explaining why these traits are resonating, Scott Pilgrim producer Marc Platt says there’s been an evolution in how we view our heroines. “If you look at Legally Blonde,” which Platt produced in 2001, “Elle Woods is a strong woman, but she was underestimated initially. Her story started from a point of, we assume she’s one thing, but she becomes something different.

“And I think the culture has arrived, in a good way, at a point where our heroines are not to be underestimated from the get-go. We live in a world where—and I see this in my kids, who are so completely gender blind and ethnicity blind and sexual-orientation blind—there’s more room for characters who can be surly, or confident, or in a bad mood, if you will, or not sentimental…. They’re not always the most sympathetic of heroines, but they’re heroines nonetheless.”

This was true of Juno, which catapulted Ellen Page to the mainstream, and was a showcase for how much rich material there is to be mined when a lead role is given over to a thinking girl. And it has been a phenomenon on TV for years now, in edgy comedy series like The Office and 30 Rock, which feature understated smart girls, like Tina Fey and Jenna Fischer.

But while more of these parts are being written, there’s still room to grow. “We have yet to get the female version of Jonah Hill up there doing it, so we’re still behind in that way,” notes Jones.

Casting director Joseph Middleton describes the sought-after actress today as someone like Lily Collins ( The Blind Side), whom he just cast in the Taylor Lautner action movie Abduction. “She’s that girl that every girl that looks at her feels she can be friends with. She’s not unattainable.

“There’s a spunk” to these young women, he says. “There’s a complexity there. It’s not so much about collar bones anymore.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.