Where Are All The Classy, Smart Female Stars Today? (Thank God - I Found One)

Joan Allen is a quiet, steady, pre-possessing performer who combines her all-too-evident God-given skill with an understated style and allure, and also happens to make lots of extremely good pictures.
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A few months back, I was speaking with a New York magazine publisher, and he mentioned that his daughter, in her thirties, was now running his fashion magazine.

Since we were on the subject of timeless film, he volunteered that when his daughter thinks of true class in film fashion, she does not summon up names like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jennifer Aniston, or even Angelina Jolie. Instead, her icons are Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn.

Purely from a style perspective, this is understandable. But both Hepburn and Kelly, whatever their off-set shenanigans (and there were some), understood how to use fashion and bearing to project an image of innate class. This they both did successfully throughout their careers.

Times change I know, and most of my heart and my footprint clearly lie in that former era. Mind you, not every actress had that same quality even in Hollywood's Golden Age; Katharine Hepburn did intrinsically, though she was quite mannish. Joan Crawford and Mae West lacked it entirely, but made hay out of being different. But then there was also Garbo, Vivien Leigh, and Myrna Loy. They literally oozed the stuff of class.

Personally I still miss this unmistakable quality, and have to ask, where has it gone? We have no shortage of talent and beauty in Hollywood today, but those stars that come across (to men at least) as having true class, style, and by extension, smarts, seem in low supply. I don't see that rare, ethereal quality in Angelina, Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts, or Halle Berry, capable "actors" all. (Admittedly, Laura Linney comes close, but she has a certain earthbound quality; notwithstanding her obvious acting chops, too often she comes off like everyone's sister, the one you instinctively passed over.)

So who's got that "it" factor today?

It's not a twenty-five year old newcomer; it's not someone (like Paris or Angelina) who makes The National Enquirer every other day; but rather a quiet, steady, pre-possessing performer who combines her all-too-evident God-given skill with an understated style and allure, and also happens to make lots of extremely good pictures...both art-house and otherwise.

What's her name? Joan Allen.

An Illinois native from a working class family, from the outset young Joan strove to excel and was voted "most likely to succeed" in high school. She ended up finding her calling at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre. Finally, she could shed her small town inhibitions, and let loose. A whole new world opened up for her.

She proceeded to build her acting credentials steadily during the eighties, both in films (Manhunter, Peggy Sue Got Married, both released in 1986), and on stage, winning a Tony Award for her role in the acclaimed Burn This.

Entering the nineties, she really hit her stride, as some of the titles I'm about to list will demonstrate. But even in three somewhat over-rated commercial films she's done over the past fifteen years, Nixon (1995), The Notebook (2004), and two of the recent Bourne films, each of those titles benefits significantly from her very presence. But putting those aside, she's also done plenty of movies that stand very much on their own, and thus are listed on www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.

So -- what follows are my favorite films of Joan Allen, this actress who effortlessly hearkens back to a time when it could be an asset for a female star also to be a real lady -- classy, subtle, strong, and intelligent, all at the same time.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) - Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who'd won an Oscar for adapting Schindler's List, makes his directorial debut in the true tale of Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), a normal seven year old in every way but one: he exhibits an incredible aptitude for chess. Father Fred (Joe Mantegna) and mother Bonnie (Allen) want to foster this gift, but must walk a fine line between supporting Josh and pressuring him. Kingsley plays Bruce, a ruthless former chess master who takes the boy on as a pupil. Will Josh become the next Bobby Fischer? This warm, intelligent film boasts a powerhouse cast (including Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy, Laura Linney, and David Paymer in support). Young Pomeranc is convincing, and both Mantegna and Allen are a joy to watch. Additionally, in this ultra-competitive society our kids face very day, the film sends an important, often unheeded message about handling competition: that the will to excel and win should always be counter-balanced by mellower, more thoughtful interests, in order to cultivate a broader, balanced life perspective. For a touching, involving, and relevant family movie, search no further than Bobby.

The Ice Storm (1997) - Set in 1973, this pungent, disturbing tale of suburban malaise concerns the emotionally frigid relations between two families in the affluent town of New Canaan, Connecticut. Returning from his Manhattan prep school for Thanksgiving, 16-year-old Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is greeted at the train station by his remote father, Ben (Kevin Kline), and unsmiling mother, Elena (Allen), as well as his Watergate-obsessed younger sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci). Unbeknownst to Elena, Ben is carrying on a torrid affair with neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while Janey's spacey son Mikey (Elijah Wood) has been targeted for sexual experimentation by Wendy. Paul's got issues of his own, too, including a crush on a priggish socialite (Katie Holmes). Unhappiness and alienation seems to be everyone's lot, at least until the weather breaks... Based on Rick Moody's novel, this perceptive adaptation by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) and screenwriter James Schamus effectively recaptures the bad hangover of the sixties drug-and-sex revolution, most emblematically at a discomfiting spouse-swapping "key party" that ends rather bitterly. Veterans Kline, Allen and Weaver are all first rate, but the young Maguire, Ricci, and Wood also hold their own, touching your heart with a coming-of-age awkwardness that sadly reflects their parents' own disillusionment and inner gloom.

Face/Off (1997) - Deranged criminal mastermind Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), currently in a coma, has planted a biological weapon somewhere in LA and only his equally psychotic brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) knows where. Crack FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) has a long, painful history battling the Troys, and undergoes a radical medical procedure transferring Castor's face to his own, in hopes that once he's reunited with Pollux in prison, the ever loyal little brother will talk. But the insensate Castor's got life in him yet, and unfortunately, Archer has left his own face behind. Despite the grotesque, almost preposterous premise, Hong Kong director John Woo's second American-made actioner has all the savage bite, black humor, and balletic fight choreography of his best-known Asian films. Deliberately mythic in concept, Face/Off probes questions of honor, identity, and morality while giving Travolta and Cage plenty of leeway to stretch their archetypal good-and-evil personas. And Allen delivers beautifully in the tricky role of an unhappy wife whose numbness is suddenly dispelled by a dramatic change in her husband's behavior. Ingenious, kinetic and reveling in its choreographed, over-the-top violence, Face/Off is a complex thriller that's also bloody good fun.

Pleasantville (1998) - After an oddball repairman (Don Knotts) comes to their house bearing a new remote control to replace the one they broke, nerdy teen David Wagner (Tobey Maguire) and his MTV-loving twin Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are teleported into the idealized, black-and-white universe of Pleasantville, a squeaky clean 1950s TV sitcom where they're expected to conform to picture-perfect, all-American values. But Jennifer, a/k/a Mary Sue, stirs up the repressive establishment with her very '90s attitude toward boys and sexuality, quite literally introducing a badly needed dose of color into the old-fashioned, Ozzie and Harriet-like town. Pleasantville is a sparkling, witty, highly original film fantasy that examines the nasty underside of quaint family values as they are embodied in every age, especially as it critiques the social rigidity of black and white (i.e., prejudice) with its thinly veiled conceit of "color" (i.e,. diversity, individuality). William H. Macy and Joan Allen are extremely well cast as the teens' comically sedated and content parents, playing nicely off Maguire's low-key, conformist David/ "Bud" and Witherspoon's wild girl. Enhanced by some charming special effects, Pleasantville is a blissful comic fantasy containing a subtle yet timely message of tolerance for us all.

The Contender (2000) - When Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) is unexpectedly chosen by the President (Jeff Bridges) to fill the spot left by his late vice president, veteran Beltway insider Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman, in heavy makeup), who loathes Hanson for defecting from the Republican side of the aisle, heads up the confirmation committee. Hunting for dirt, Runyon uncovers a scandalous sexcapade from Senator Hanson's college years, throwing her nomination into jeopardy. A gripping political drama that appeared in the aftermath of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Rod Lurie's The Contender sheds serious light on the presidency and our tainted political process. A star-making (or star-reinforcing) vehicle for the prodigiously talented Allen and a strong platform for Bridges (who delivers a knockout Presidential speech), the film portrays the intense personal scrutiny imposed on those in line for national office--particularly if the candidate is a woman. Contender is a resonant morality play about honor and political ambition. This entry takes the prize as my favorite Joan Allen film to-date.

Off The Map (2003) - Told via an adult daughter's flashback ( creating a small, subtle turn for Amy Brenneman), Campbell Scott's excellent but under-exposed indie concerns IRS auditor William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) who's forced to travel to remotest New Mexico to check on the filing of a family's back taxes. Arriving on said family's property, he meets Charley (Sam Elliott) who's sunk into a depression and won't speak, his free-spirited wife Arlene (Allen), who actually talks but is less than encouraging about their tax compliance, and precocious daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis), who's already got plans to be rich and famous. William promptly comes down with a raging fever, and before you know it, has decided to stay in this mystical spot, for reasons he himself can't readily express. Beautifully shot and rich in emotion, Map is a film that quietly gets under your skin. Elliott is a revelation as Charley, a man carrying a nameless despair that's struck him dumb, while Allen is fabulous (no surprise) as philosophical bedrock Arlene. Young de Angelis also shines in a demanding juvenile role. A story about life's infinite possibilities and finding sustenance when and where you least expect it, Scott's movie is a quirky, heartwarming delight. Go off the map to see it.

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