ABSENCE OF OPPORTUNITY
How Hollywood Failed Paula Patton
The stunning and talented actress stars as David Spade’s love interest in the Adam Sandler “comedy” ‘The Do-Over’ and as a half-Orc in ‘Warcraft.’ She deserves far, far better.
Long past the point of no return in the new women-hating Adam Sandler Netflix comedy The Do-Over, Paula Patton delivers a line we might easily read as a hidden cry for help.
“It’s déjà vu,” she squeaks in what is the hands-down most thankless role of her career to date, instantly conjuring the ghost of her 2006 Tony Scott flick Déjà Vu, in which Denzel Washington travels back in time to save her from the evil clutches of a terrorist.
If only such miracles were possible in the face of a tyranny as potent as a New Adam Sandler Comedy.
Back when she was a Hollywood ingénue, the movies seemed promising for an actress like Patton—smart, beautiful, game for all sorts of genres, and possessing of a genuine lightness of spirit. That effervescence still shines, even off screen, whether she’s on the junket trail promoting certifiable duds, dealing resolutely with a high-profile Hollywood divorce, or smiling through cinematic dreck.
Patton landed her first acting gigs at 28, getting a relatively late start for good reason: She’d gone to USC film school to start a career behind the camera, not in front of it. Her first film roles came in supporting turns in the 2005 Will Smith hit Hitch and ensemble coke party dramedy London, but within just a year she would made her film debut proper opposite Washington in Déjà Vu, months after playing her first leading lady role in the Outkast period musical Idlewild.
Fast-forward through a decade that’s seen little traction gained on the big screen for women—let alone women of color. This month, in addition to donning emerald skin and cumbersome fangs in the critically panned video game epic Warcraft, the actress finds herself in the unenviable position of being ogled, sexually objectified, physically attacked, and generally abused in a host of ugly ways as David Spade’s love interest in an Adam Sandler action-comedy.
It takes nearly 50 minutes for Patton to even show up in The Do-Over, the latest in Sandler’s four-picture Netflix film deal after The Ridiculous Six—a comedy so laden with offensive Native American caricatures that actors walked off the set in protest. When she does, finding herself in the sights of Sandler and Spade’s amateur con men in the middle of a terminally convoluted plot that only gets exponentially dumber, the pair stalk her from afar, drooling over her physique before intentionally running her over with a Winnebago.
That’s the Adam Sandler version of a meet cute in a movie in which two middle-aged men are emboldened to act out their horny douchebag fantasies for two hours because their shitty lives, and the women in them, owe them that much. Every single female character is oversexed, shrewish, or secretly scheming against them. And Patton, the nice lady whose dead husband’s identity Spade’s dorky bank manager has unwittingly taken over, finds herself more than anyone else subjected to one degrading line after another.
The Do-Over is an MRA wet dream in which Sandler and Spade justify grossly misogynist posturing with cheap twists and plot turns, firing a flare gun at women in bikinis for laughing at their junk (after flashing their breasts), and worse. For all the sketchy sexism that spews out of Sandler’s mouth, it’s Spade whose “hero” moment comes, essentially, as he pummels a woman in the stomach and screams, “I’m so tired of women lying to me and fucking me over!”
It’s hard to imagine any actress easily shaking off the grime of sharing a scene in which Sandler and Spade, walking 10 paces behind her into a biker bar, trade lines like “I bet she needs a nice dick to cry on” or “She’s grieving, which makes her vulnerable, which means you have a shot.” Later, Sandler takes Spade aside and imparts some blowhard douchebro advice unto his mild-mannered friend. “Look her in the eyes, grab the back of her neck, say nothing,” Sandler advises, “and then fuck her in the mouth a few times.”
And even later, when he does just that before bedding Patton’s character, you don’t find yourself rooting for true love so much as mourning Patton’s descent into such dark, destructive depths. Being trapped in this toxic morass is a fate no actress deserves, let alone one who was eyed for a Best Supporting Actress nomination not terribly long ago for her turn as a life-changing schoolteacher in Lee Daniels’ Precious.
If only there was a way to give Patton a do-over.
In a 2007 New York Times profile, Patton discussed the filmmaking interests she’d pursued before going after her childhood dream of acting. “I always wanted to be an actress—I was in all the school plays at my high school in Los Angeles—but I was shy, and acting did not seem like a solid profession,” she said. “So, I decided to become a filmmaker instead. When I graduated from high school, I was chosen to be part of this PBS documentary program called ‘The Ride.’ It was four young aspiring directors, and we traveled around the country filming portraits of young Americans.”
Patton produced a series called Medical Diaries for two years before it was cancelled, and after a year started taking acting lessons. She landed Déjà Vu, her biggest break, in a rare stroke of colorblind casting—the role wasn’t written for a POC star. But at 30 by the time the film opened, race wasn’t as big of an issue in her casting as her age, she revealed.
“Hollywood knows that you can’t do all these white films anymore,” she said optimistically, giving Hollywood a bit too much credit a full decade before #OscarsSoWhite. “Diversity is more interesting. Frankly, people initially seemed to be more worried about my age than the color of my skin. In this business, there are just too many boundaries and boxes. You have to not listen—that’s the only way to achieve what others view as impossible.”
That kind of optimistic determinism carried Patton through a steady stream of studio films, like Swing Vote opposite Kevin Costner, Mirrors with Keifer Sutherland. But a movie like Just Wright, with Queen Latifah and Common, underserved her talents and relegated her to the pretty, gold-digging role of a wannabe NBA wife. And even after the Oscar-winning Precious thrust Patton into the awards season race alongside Academy Award-nominated costars Gabourey Sidibe and Oscar winner Mo’Nique thanks to her moving turn as the sympathetic Ms. Rain, not even the anointing of the Academy’s highest honors translated into mainstream studio career cache for the ladies of Precious.
It was her most profitable movie to date, Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol, which allowed Patton to stretch new muscles—and leave clichés behind. Kicking ass as IMF agent Jane Carter, Patton sizzled and fought her way through world class action alongside Tom Cruise, but neither she nor Maggie Q were recruited back for the next installment. But films like Precious, an African-American led Oscar drama and one in which Patton didn’t have to play a spy type or someone’s love interest, are few and far between.
Without more opportunities like Precious in the entertainment industry, actors have to take what they can. Patton had come off another modest run of films (2 Guns, which reunited her with Denzel; Baggage Claim; About Last Night) when she separated from husband Robin Thicke in 2014 amid tabloid rumors of his cheating, estrangement, that eyebrow-raising VMA butt-grab, and general trouble in their 22-year relationship. The teenage sweethearts called it quits on a nine-year marriage in October of that year. A month later Patton signed on to star in Warcraft.
It’s a role that director Duncan Jones had high praise for and one that allows Patton to stand out among her cast mates, both human and CGI. But even in the anticipated $160 million-budgeted Warcraft, Patton plays a combination of both warrioress and romantic object as Garona, a green-skinned half-human, half-Orc who also runs around Azeroth in half as much costuming as her male counterparts. And try as she does to convey emotion and inner conflict to a flimsily written character, Patton’s saddled with an inconceivably unwieldy set of Orc fangs that make it impossible to speak clearly, let alone emote unhampered—all the more fodder for critics wielding sharp pens.
More problematically, Patton’s Garona carries on the long and regressive tradition of exoticized actresses of color who must be painted blue or green (in this case, with the help of CG) in order to carry a lead position in an international blockbuster (see: Zoe Saldana’s almost identically-named Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy) and/or woo the lily-white male star (Travis Fimmel). The movie ends on an expectant note, as if there will be many more Warcraft movies for Patton’s Garona to pop up in—although dismal tracking pegs the Legendary/Universal release at a discouraging $25 million opening weekend.
A study published in February by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism made official what’s been painfully clear for decades: Hollywood is failing at diversity. “This is no mere diversity problem. This is an inclusion crisis,” USC professor Stacy L. Smith declared. “Over half of the content we examined features no Asian or Asian-American characters, and over 20 percent featured no African-American characters. It is clear that the ecosystem of entertainment is exclusionary.”
The study found that women represent only 28.7 percent of all speaking roles in the movies. But within all screen roles in film, TV, and streaming content, black female performers were one of the smallest racial or ethnic groups represented onscreen, garnering about 4.1 percent of characters. And once age became a factor, it got even more dire: “Underrepresented females are largely invisible from 40 years of age forward in film, television, and digital series.”
Ever the optimist—at least, outwardly in press interviews—Patton told a journalist recently that Hollywood’s diversity crisis is improving. “It has got better, I think, from when I was in high school,” she told the Irish Times while discussing her Warcraft role. “We have a long way to go and it can be very frustrating. I want to believe that people often don’t know any better and their minds just have to be opened.
“Will Ferrell did this stand-up where he’s president Bush and he says: ‘People say I hate black people,’” she continued. “‘That’s not true. I never ever think of them. They never cross my mind, so how could I hate them?’ That’s the issue. Let it cross your mind. Things are changing. It’s happening.”
In another interview she gently urged studio execs to think outside the box when casting. “What would be exciting would be to expand their minds and imagine that people you wouldn’t normally think could be in roles—whether it be about different genders or different races and cultures,” she told Metro UK. “You just want the world to open up their mind a bit, or people who have a lot of money to make movies to open up their mind a bit.”
Patton’s summer of sacrificing herself to the movie gods is just a blunt, bitter reminder that after Mad Max, Spotlight, Leo, and the Bear dominated the Academy Awards in February, Hollywood stayed just as #SoWhite as before. It’s easy to forget that much-deserved uproar was about opportunity and inclusion as much as it was about the entertainment industry’s embracing of diversity in film.
So remember that when we subject actresses like Patton to such contemptible dreck as The Do-Over, reduced to fodder for Adam Sandler’s gross misogyny, or don’t give her more to do than covering herself in makeup and a loincloth, we’re not just failing Paula Patton—we’re failing ourselves.