Hail To The “Genre Queen” Who’s No Alien To Drama And Comedy
Before Sigourney Weaver was so abruptly attacked by her ghoulishly possessed appartment, and there was no Dana only Zuul, she was famously menaced in spacefaring “Ten Little Indians” style by a grotesque nightmare xenomorph. And although the actress remains best known for films in which she’s essentially a victim – Ghostbusters(1984) and Alien (1979) – that’s not how we think of her, not at all. Her uniquely resiliant “don’t mess with me” attitutude steamrollers any kind of possible damsel-in-distress takeaway. When it comes down to it, Sigourney Weaver doesn’t need anyone’s help – and that’s just the way we like her.
With her take-charge, heroic turn in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), the action-centric sequel to the 1979 horror hit that put her on the star map, Weaver’s Lt. Ellen Ripley character crossed over into the stuff of contemporary legend. Assertive yet feminine, vulnerable yet dangerous, Ripley regularly tops lists of “Greatest Female Action Heroes” more often than Citizen Kane tops “Greatest Movies Ever Made” lists. She is the standard by which most any cinema warrior with a pair of X chromosones must live up to – and doesn’t appear to be giving up that status anytime soon. (Speaking of Citizen Kane, here’s an aside… Her real name? Susan Alexanda Weaver – not a far cry from the name of the puzzling second wife of Charles Foster Kane, Susan Alexander. Thankfully, Sigourney Weaver possesses far more talent for performance than that character.)
But even as Lt. Ripley has firmly ensconced Weaver as a “genre queen” – kind of a matriarchial figure nowadays called upon to lend geek credibility to efforts such as Paul, Cabin in the Woods, Chappie, and even Avatar and certain Alien sequels – the comic-con field isn’t the only place she’s thrived. Indeed, the loud geek fandom of the internet can easily and often nullify perception of her noteworthy other work, including Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, and her passion project Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Her big break was a small part as Woody Allen’s date in the filmmaker’s seminal 1977 comedy, Annie Hall.
With more Avatars, more Ghostbusters, and more Aliens in her proposed future, Sigourney Weaver shows no sign of easing off. In honor of this being her birth month (October), several ZekeFilm contributors have taken the opportinity to check out a film featuring Sigourney Weaver that we’d never seen before, affording us the opportunity to pay tribute to the actress, and cross another movie off of our personal cinematic “lists of shame”! We begin with Krystal Lyon, catching up with a bona fide creepy classic:
(1979, Twentieth Century Fox, Dir. Ridley Scott)
by Krystal Lyon
I usually steer clear of movies involving aliens and anything in the horror genre. To date Signs and Jaws are the scariest movies I’ve watched. But when I heard Sigourney Weaver was our girl for the month of October, I anxiously volunteered to give the classic sci-fi film, Alien a watch. I was ready, I saw Prometheus in 2012 so I knew the back-story. And it’s October, the month when you try to be brave and watch something that will make you jump! So, with a roommate willing to watch it with me, and M&M’s handy, we turned out the lights and started the film.
This is the kind of horror/sci-fi movie I can watch. It’s all about suspense, the unseen. It reminded me of Hitchcock in that way. It’s not the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest that’s chilling; it’s the constant claustrophobia by being trapped in a spaceship with a brutal, man-killing alien that quickens your heart rate. The tension that builds while Dallas searches the duct system of the ship is remarkable. Scott achieves this not by showing the alien and gruesome details but by showing a dot on a motion sensor heading his direction. And then there is poor Harry Dean Stanton sent to look for the cat. Why is he alone? Why didn’t they go with him? Why is it taking so long? And that’s the magic. Scott is patient with his reveals and takes his time. He knows that you are only afraid of the monster under the bed until you look under the bed. What is unknown is feared.
And then we have the birthday girl Weaver in her first starring role. She comes across smart, competent and daring as Ellen Ripley. Ripley starts out as a quiet character, the rule-follower that isn’t listened to. As the story evolves you see that she is a leader, and brave and she thinks on her feet. Weaver pulls this off with total style! She is the lone survivor in the film. (A cat survives as well.) A female lead in a sci-fi/action/horror franchise, and it works! The narrative continued with Weaver in Aliens, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, and I read that she has been cast as Ellen Ripley in the untitled Neill Blomkamp Alien project. And with her roles in Galaxy Quest, Avatar, Wall-E and even Cabin In The Woods you have to wonder if her career was made by this amazing performance.
I don’t have time to talk about the beautiful cinematography, or the creation of the alien itself, or how advanced the set was for 1979. Alien is top notch, and it’s a great watch for October. It will make you scream and jump and laugh a little too! This is my Film Admission, I liked Alien and I might just give some other scary/suspenseful movies a try.
(1999, DreamWorks Pictures, dir. Dean Parisot)
by Justin Mory
Well, how did I ever miss this one? Somehow, this joyous send-up/celebration of everything geeky, fannish, sci-fi—and especially Star Trek—passed me by in the late ’90s (which, for the life of me, I can’t recall how or why this could have failed to interest me back then), so I’d like to here express my gratitude to my compatriots at ZekeFilm for giving me the perfect excuse to watch it: Thanks, guys!
For the uninitiated (and I’m guessing our numbers here are few), Galaxy Quest relates the unintentionally intergalactic adventures of a group of washed-up TV stars, reduced to appearing at fan conventions and mall openings, whose long-since canceled, early ’80s space opera adventure series (of the same name) is mistaken by a dying race of advanced aliens for “historical documents,” and so enlist the aid of the confused cadre of costars against a fearsome, ruthless space foe on an exact replica of their (fictional) spaceship. And if all that sounds deliriously high-concept (and possibly that’s what turned me off 15 years or so back), I’m happy to report that I found its execution to be pitch-perfect; balancing the simultaneously satirical and endearing elements of the faded actors and their deluded fans (both terrestrial AND extra-terrestrial) in a way that seems always fun and never mean-spirited.
As such, from Tim Allen’s skillfully Shatner-esque bravado as “Jason Nesmith/Commander Peter Quincy” to Alan Rickman’s hilariously overshadowed turn as Shakespearean thespian “Alexander Dane,” indignantly typecast as the Spock-like Mak’tarian “Dr. Lazarus” (though the late Leonard Nimoy’s pointed ears seems a faint indignity compared to the latter’s complete prosthetic skull), Sigourney Weaver’s “Gwen DeMarco/Lt. Tawny Madison” is similarly drawn from a long line of “space bimbos” whose low-cut jumper and luxurious blonde hair (the name and blonde wig, together, seem to recall both the ’80s Whitesnake music video-star Tawny Kitaen and former Charlie’s Angel/Bond Girl Tanya Roberts) conceal the capabilities of both a strong, independent character and a fine, dedicated actress.
Indeed, blurring the lines between fiction and reality further, the casting of Weaver as a fictionally undervalued actress in a fictionally chauvinistic sci-fi series—where the sole, fictionally functionless role of her fictional “communications officer” is to “repeat the computer”—is, in fact, a rather ingeniously-complicated counter-variation on the real-life actress who is credited with being possibly THE first female action star, “Ellen Ripley,” in the Alien series. With the possible exception of Billy Wilder’s casting coup of silent screen star Gloria Swanson as “Norma Desmond” in Sunset BLVD (1950), I really can’t think of any other instance where fictional “realities” so wonderfully clashed and collided!
(1988, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. Mike Nichols)
by Jim Tudor
The last thing you get in Working Girl, like most any movie, are credits. The cast appears as follows:
Having never actually seen the film, but recalling its marketing when it hit in 1988, I simply assumed that to be the on-screen prominence of this particular trifecta. It is, in fact, completely, egregiously, wrong. But, it may be the only thing wrong with Working Girl, an eminently watchable, sharp, and engrossing NYC-time capsule, spotlighting the era’s bustling dog-eat-dog high-rise business culture, courtesy of the late director Mike Nichols. Nichols begins the film with opening credits over a moving helicopter shot of the Statue of Liberty. We start with her face filling the frame as Carly Simon’s Oscar winning score soars. But all too soon, we’ve flown around back and away, implying something about America turning its back and moving away from certain people. In this case, those people would be women; the main woman of this film not in fact being Weaver, but Melanie Griffith. Griffith is the corporate “working girl” of the title, and the film completely belongs to her. Having never been a Melanie Griffith fan (I’ve been dismissive of her, in fact), she left me downright pleasantly surprised. Griffith, like her character in the movie, had been pigeonholed and relegated to only a certain level – by me, and by most anyone. This would be her peak.
As for Sigourney Weaver? She’s terrific in her role as an empowered, successful businesswoman who’s had to deliberately finesse her way up the corporate ladder. Her tactics reveal her to be perhaps less than honest; her personality reveals her to perhaps be less than human. Is this the result of her meticulous lessons, which she provides for Griffith’s character? At end, she’s learned that it’s not enough for women that are seeking to advance professionally to work hard and be smart – they also need to maneuver loopholes and exploit fringe opportunities. Not sexually, but legitimately. Of course, the right dress, shoes and jewelry go a long way.
Weaver’s character is the victim of a freak ski accident, perhaps the funniest I’ve seen in a movie. It takes her out of the film until the final act, when she returns to find her secretary Tess (Griffith) maneuvering a complicated deal in her spot. (Never mind that the deal was Tess’s idea.). In terms of screen time, it’s not unlike Niell Blomkamp’s sci-fi actioner Chappie, a film from this year I also just caught up with. Playing a heartless head of an international weapons company, Weaver’s character in that film is a bland shadow of her more complex Working Girl boss. The same amount of screen time in the same areas, but with all the flavor boiled out. It’s great that Weaver is still keeping busy at her age, even if it’s in roles like she has in Chappie. But the fact that I feel the need to say that at all in some way demonstrates that the lessons of Working Girl still haven’t been taken to heart, certainly not by the industry that gave us Working Girl. Indeed, in the film business itself, women like Jennifer Lawrence are only now realizing that for a woman to get ahead and not be cheapened in the process, it will be a fight. In the meantime, time seems to have defeated Melanie Griffith, who’s smart, sexy star has been supplanted by her own daughter’s – much the same way she supplanted that of her mother’s, Tippi Hedren. At one point in Working Girl, with her hair up and dressed for The Birds, the Hitchcockian resemblance is uncanny. Nice move, Tess.
The Year of Living Dangerously
(1982, MGM, dir. Peter Weir)
by Erik Yates
Sigourney Weaver may be the female Harrison Ford. She is known for classic action films such as the Alien series and Avatar, has appeared in comedies such as Ghostbusters, Baby Mama, and Galaxy Quest, and also more serious fare such as Gorillas in the Mist and Eyewitness. And even well into her 60’s, like Ford, she shows no sign of slowing down with 3 more Avatar sequels on the way, a new Ghostbusters where she did a cameo, and a new Alien film where she will reprise her role as Ellen Ripley for a 5th time! When she was chosen as this month’s featured artist, I looked back and found a film that I had never seen but should have. That film was The Year of Living Dangerously.
Starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney plays his love interest and assistant to the British military attaché in Indonesia, Jill Bryant. Just two films after the original Alien, Sigourney finds herself more as a side character to Gibson. But what struck me was that no matter the role, Sigourney is able to take control of the camera’s gaze in any scene, and any genre and own it. And while she is always a strong character in her films, she also is able to project a vulnerability to her roles that draws you in. This is true in Alien, and it is true in The Year of Living Dangerously.
As a woman occupying a place in the boy’s club of Indonesia where westerners are being threatened as a growing civil war looms, she is able to project a confident, independent feminism that also longs for love despite her reputation for constant change and upheaval professionally, and romantically. She is a picture of contrasts, exuding confidence, independence, and strength and with her eyes conveying kindness, longing, and grace. Even in Aliens, where she is simply a female-wrecking machine, there is tenderness to her character as she is drawn into the confidence of a young girl who has survived for so long. Here, her tenderness is towards the poor culture around her, and her friend Billy (Linda Hunt) who she loves for his heart for those less fortunate.
While the film is really a vehicle for a young Mel Gibson, it’s a film that gave audiences a different look of Ms. Weaver than what they may remember of her in Alien (though there she was even more vulnerable), and put her in a role that was more relatable, than a space horror film, which allowed her to transition to other genres such as comedy with Ghostbusters just a few years later. She has continued to be versatile in her roles over the years and has endured with a legacy of films with no signs of slowing down 33 years after The Year of Living Dangerously. Through it all she continues to exude strength and vulnerability, grace, and beauty, and like Harrison Ford, is still one of the most bankable and beloved actors of the modern era.