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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What does Hollywood always get wrong when depicting ordinary people?

Joe Keohane in Slate last week took down Hollywood’s methods for trying to convince us that supernaturally beautifully actresses are actually mere mortals like the rest of us. It begins like this:

Every now and again, Hollywood makes a go at depicting the working class, often around Oscar season and usually to hilarious effect. The story is generally some slow-moving, minor-key piece involving ordinary folks struggling with ordinary problems in ordinary parts of the country. To offset the dreariness of such an errand, the lead character—a waitress, maid, or stripper with kid/husband problems—is usually played by a jaw-droppingly attractive star, who wins positive press for being willing to subvert her beauty in order to portray one of the great unwashed doing whatever it is they do out there in the dull diabetic landmass between Los Angeles and New York City. (Hiring ugly people to play working class is a job best left to the English.)

And then he goes on to break down Hollywood’s tricks into categories: ugly sweaters, bad haircuts, broad accents and profanity, and so on. With video clips, which are pretty funny, even when the movies he’s picking on are actually pretty good.
Following up at Jezebel, Sadie focuses on clothing:

But it’s not just said jaw-dropping attractiveness or the fact that said maid is frequently suspiciously gym-toned. The costumes are often slightly “off,” too. Take Erin Brokovitch [sic]. I remember reading that Julia Roberts (no stranger, of course, to playing wildly unrealistic working gals) wore a wardrobe of custom corsets. Why? Why couldn’t she just, I don’t know, shop where the actual character did and knock a few grand off the production budget? I wondered this even more when I worked in the wardrobe department of a TV drama; one of my jobs was distressing expensive new leather jackets and designer denim, all of which could, it seemed to me, have been found ready-distressed at any thrift shop. And as is the way of such things, it all looked Hollywood-real, not real-real. This is standard.

Clothes are my big pet peeve, too, when it comes to convincing portrayals of characters who aren’t supposed to be rich. What drives me nuts — and this applies more to TV than film, though it does apply to Erin Brockovich! — is when characters have seemingly bottomless wardrobes. It’s so common that I can’t help but notice when characters actually wear the same clothes more than once. And I like that: I want to see characters wearing the same outfits again and again. One of the things I love about Fiona on Burn Notice is that she does not have an unlimited wardrobe, and we see her in the same clothes from week to week.

What does Hollywood always get wrong when depicting ordinary people?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Isobel

    Looks, is what I’ll go with, because it’s the worst and most frequent offender. Take ‘The Truth About Cats & Dogs’ (which is a good few years old) with Uma Thurman and Janeanne Garofalo. Janeanne Garofalo plays someone going on a blind date and then who sends her neighbour Uma Thurman instead because she’s worried she’s so unattractive that the guy won’t like her.

    Janeanne Garofalo, who is lovely looking and I assume the majority of people would also call her an attractive woman (and who the man I watched the film with thought was actually more attractive that Uma Thurman). She plays the role without any ‘ugly’ props such as bad hair, and she’s supposed to be ugly?? I was jaw-dropped.

    Also, ‘ordinary’ people in films tend to have an extraordinary ability to be able to run off from their lives at the whim of the plot. Do these so-called ordinary people not have jobs, with deadlines and bosses and limited holiday entitlements, which they have to do in order to pay rents/mortgages and bills?

  • Isobel

    With apologies for the apalling grammar.

  • Kathy A

    I’m still upset that they cast Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny instead of Kathy Bates, who originated the role on Broadway.

    As for TV costuming, my favorite recently-noticed (because I only just started watching it a few months ago) example of good continuity is Ziva David’s winter coat on NCIS. It’s a gorgeous (as in, I seriously lust after that coat!) grey long wool coat with red lining, and it has shown up as her main winter coat for at least three seasons now.

  • David

    I would have to say dialog. Usually hollywood’s version of regular people speak in well written rythmic witty banter. Either that or it tends to be extremely boring and dry, they can’t seem to find the happy medium that most friends or family speak in.

  • Lisa

    I think it’s ok to do that if you’re making a movie about coal mining in the North East of England but if you’re watching a story like Erin Brokovitch and you cast Julia Roberts then you’re going to want to see her in cool clothes. It’s an escape from reality. A Julia Roberts movie is not an exercise in trying to portray real life. Who really wants to see that?

    I have to say I got bored seeing Scully in the same suit every week – altho she had a nice one in the movie.

  • Michael

    …Wasn’t Erin Brokovitch based on a true story and an actual person of the same name, though?

  • One thing I’ve always found distracting in Hollywood films is how large and attractive the homes are. It seems very few ordinary people live in ordinary homes in movie-land.

    I remember the first time I really noticed the discrepancy about attractiveness in films because it actually ruined a whole film for me. During A Passage to India, a young man who has been accused of rape blurts out this couldn’t have happened because the woman in question was ugly. Ignoring the egregiousness of the argument for the sake of my point, the character in question was played by Judy Davies who is unusual in appearance, but scarcely ugly. I was so startled that I was thrown off track for the rest of the movie.

    Speaking of Kathy Bates, she’s what I’ve come to call “Hollywood-ugly”, meaning that if we met her, we’d probably think she was perfectly presentable, which is part of the reason she gets the lion’s share of character roles, I guess.

  • Althea

    I’ve been watching the TV series “Charmed” to catch up with the episodes I missed. It’s like most series, the main characters are beautiful and have an endless wardrobe of high-quality, well-fitting, fashion-forward outfits – including dressy for those dates that take them to elegant restaurants with crystal and tablecloths. This through 8 seasons. They live in San Francisco – one of the most expensive places to live in the world, yet they survive when only one of the three sisters has a consistent income. Their house is said to be in disrepair but is beautifully furnished and has no flaws that I can see. (And though much of it is destroyed every week they somehow manage to have everything repaired, and the complete destruction of expensive items such as the grandfather clock never disturbs their equilibrium.) As much as I love this show, hence rewatching it, this cheeses me off big.

    The Halliwell sisters’ wardrobe brings up another monster, though, and that is so much SKIN. Movies aren’t as bad about it but TV is insanely devoted to the idea that normal women can wear necklines down to their waists, spaghetti-strap tank tops, and microskirts every day and everywhere including the office, WITHOUT getting groped, ogled, sent home for something more appropriate, or outright fired. This applies as nearly as possible to period costume as well.

    I’ll stop here or it’ll get out of hand…

  • Bluejay

    I’m still upset that they cast Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny instead of Kathy Bates, who originated the role on Broadway.

    Although I liked the movie, I agree that Pfeiffer and Pacino were probably too “beautiful” to have played their characters if they were going for complete realism.

    I agree with Isobel that “looks” is the most frequent offender. I notice this a lot in movies based on true stories: the actors who portray real people are often more “Hollywood-beautiful” than the real people themselves. It’s particularly obvious in films that show photos or video of the real people during the end credits (Milk, Invictus).

    Statistically, do more “Hollywood-beautiful” people go into acting than “regular” people? Or is it just the case that people who become actors try to make themselves more “beautiful” (staying fit, surgery, etc) to be eligible for more roles? (Which would then make it harder for them to transform back to “regular” if the role requires…)

    I remember seeing magazine covers of the cast of the Broadway revival of Hair, and thinking: “I’ve seen Woodstock documentaries, and hippies were just not that buff.

  • Cyndy

    Clothing, in general, bugs me on TV and the movies. But my pet peeve? Halloween parties where it looks like everyone was dressed by the same person. Have you ever been to a Halloween party where it looked like everyone either shopped at the same costume store or -worse yet- everyone had a costume custom sewn? And they’re all equally witty or stupid? I don’t think so.

  • LaSargenta

    RE: Clothes: I recall seeing a doc about the movie The Best Years of Our Lives which was praised at the time for its realism, despite having Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy and Frederic March as the main characters (and Harold Russell, a real ex-serviceman who was genuinely disabled). I think it was Ms. Wright who spoke about how as part of their preparation for the roles, they all went to the stores that these people would have shopped at to buy the costumes. They still seemed very well-fitting, so they were probably altered.

    And re:

    I remember seeing magazine covers of the cast of the Broadway revival of Hair, and thinking: “I’ve seen Woodstock documentaries, and hippies were just not that buff.”

    I remember actual hippies and they were pretty weedy (like you said) and they were usually visibly dirty and often smelled really bad…expecially the ones who did a lot of drugs because some of those cause some weird skin smells. There were the Insta-Hippies ™, though. They were the rich kids who went to the Haight-Ashbury and bought $100 patchwork dresses made by people on speed.

  • mortadella

    I think it’s funny when a female member of a forensics team arrives at the scene of a homicide sporting lovely long hair and never bothers to pull it back.

    Or when they hire a gorgeous girl to play a female geek, like in the movie She’s All That. They go through the trouble of trying to dress her down with glasses and dowdy clothing and a bad wig. When she undergoes the mandatory make-over, her transformation from an ugly duckling into a swan is portrayed as astonishing…which is almost hilarious.

    When that SyFy show The Chronicle ran it’s first few episodes, the background actors used in the office scenes actually looked like a real newspaper staff, with both men and women representing different ages and body shapes. Then suddenly those actors were ditched and replaced with a “staff” consisting only of model-pretty women — all white of course, in their 20’s.

  • CB

    This reminds me of the time I sat down in the middle of some crappy teen drama on TV, and they had the usual scene of the “unattractive” (meaning beautiful but badly accessorized) girl getting the makeover from the popular girl. But when they literally just took off her dorky glasses and let her hair down from it’s bun and voila the makeover was finished, I laughed and knew I was watching a spoof. Not Another Teen Movie I’m pretty sure it was, otherwise pretty terrible but that scene was a perfect send-up of Hollywood views of “normal” looks.

    Ugly Betty seems to be entirely based upon making fun of this premise, since the girl is obviously only “ugly” by the standards of high fashion. But I do have to wonder if it’s really playing counter to the stereotype when the not-actually-unattractive girl manages to succeed.

    La Feya Mas Bella (The Most Beautiful Ugly Woman), the Mexican series Ugly Betty was based on (and which was apparently based off an even earlier Brazilian(?) series) was a little more daring. They at least gave their star have a unibrow and a moustache — and the secret to making the male lead love her isn’t a wax job.

  • CB

    Re: Chronicles. A transformation that mirrors the change from SciFi to SyFy. :P

  • Bluejay

    But when they literally just took off her dorky glasses and let her hair down from it’s bun and voila the makeover was finished, I laughed and knew I was watching a spoof.

    Isn’t that the extent of what they did to the woman in Strictly Ballroom? (Which I guess is a spoof; it certainly isn’t a film that aims for gritty realism.)

    On the other hand, sometimes I just admire an actor’s skill in pulling off the transformation. I still think Christopher Reeve’s work in Superman II–changing from Kent to Supes in a single scene just with glasses removed, back straightened, voice slightly deepened–is genius.

  • CB

    Haven’t seen it, yeah maybe it’s the same thing. But let me clarify. Usually the extent of what these movies do is remove the bad accessories (because that’s all they need to do to make their beautiful actress beautiful)… but they usually imply they did a lot more (like a montage in a beauty parlor or such). It was just seeing it actually carried out in 2 seconds — she takes off the glasses, takes the pin out of her hair and tosses her head and done — that made it so funny to me.

  • CB

    Oh, and Re: Reeves. Yeah, he pulled it off like basically nobody else could. But in a way, this only kinda emphasizes how silly it is that nobody recognizes Clark Kent. :)

  • I always notice teeth for some reason. The character is supposed to be working class and making minimum wage but they have a whole mouthful of perfectly straight, white Hollywood teeth. I know lots of ordinary people have good teeth–my working class parents struggled financially so I could have braces–but thousands of dollars in veneers and bleaching? Not likely.

  • Kate

    For me, the worst offender is what I call “Hollywood Apartment Syndrome.” Showing a character with a job that in real life would pay $35,000 living with no roommates in big, sunlit, one-bedroom apartments with vintage stoves, hardwood floors, balconies, and floor to ceiling built-in bookcases. Or a couple who are supposed to be in their early 20s starting out in their careers living in a gigantic four bedroom house, in a notoriously expensive city like SF or NYC. All exquisitely decorated, of course.

    Women’s purses is the other thing that gets me. In real life, I’d say 95% of the women I know, regardless of their personal style, carry a purse or bag or backpack of SOME kind. And they have it with them every time they leave the house and wherever they go. Nowadays, a lot of men carry a bag everywhere, too. But in the movies/TV, I see women with purses maybe 15-20% of the time. Sometimes it’s so blatant I get distracted: really, that female character just got into her car and drove to the guy’s house? With no purse? Where is her license? Does she stick her keys in her pants pocket? (How many pockets does she have in her jeans and tee-shirt?) Doesn’t she have a wallet or a checkbook or an atm card? A pen? What about tampons or a comb or gum or sunglasses or her cell phone? She’s on a date and has no place for a lipstick?

  • *grin* A lot of this makes me think of Buffy, which I love, but did lead us to speculate that the Hellmouth had a side effect of making 99% of people in town look like TV stars. I was watching the commentary for one of the episodes, and the creators pointed out that Buffy had to pull her cell phone out from behind her back like a cartoon character, since she was wearing pants too tight for a phone, and no purse to carry it in. It was magic!

  • Lisa

    yeah but complaining that Hollywood glams things up is like complaining that sugar makes you fat

  • Paul

    I carried a bag around for five years, almost every place I went. I had a book for I had to hang around waiting for something (bus, a friend, a ticket) and a notebook and pens for when I had inspiration. When I went to poetry readings I might have had two or three books with poems I wanted to read to the crowd.

    I was told it was funny that I had a man purse, and I shrugged. “It’s a book bag. Big deal.”

    But enough about me. On with the topic.

    In the 90s I read an article about how only one TV show had their characters living within their means. It was “Frasier,” about a psychologist with his own radio show, and his brother who was married to a rich woman (and then got alimony after the divorce, I think).

    And I have a gripe about clothes too, how unprofessionally the women dress. Ironically, it’s not as annoying on fiction, but when I watch the news and the woman is dressed like she’s about to skip out early to party, it annoys me. I remember one vivid example of a woman dressed in a bright, flowery pattern blouse and the man was wearing the darkest, most conservative suit you can wear without being in the Matrix, and said to my Dad, “Just once, I’d like the woman to dress like she knows what she’s doing and the man to look like the lounge lizard.” Dad: “Never happen.”

  • Isobel

    Oh, and makeup! Women in film/TV miraculously wake up in full makeup, often including lipgloss. . . it’s very strange. Perhaps there is an alternative reality they are portraying in which makeup fairies do your face for you just before you wake up?

    I would love to see someone on film waking up with puffy eyes, creased cheek from the pillow and smudges of last night’s mascara (’cause no matter how long you spend taking it off, there’s always a smudged bit in the morning).

  • Isobel

    Bluejay – Strictly Ballroom is one of my favourite films; I must have watched it 100 times! It’s definitely a spoof, like at the end when the Grandmother miraculously has the dress with her so that Fran can dance in the finale and she says ‘Aha! I brought this just in case!’. Funny!

  • Parrish

    I was always impressed by the costume work in Good Will Hunting, where will appears to only own three or four different shirts which pop back up repeatedly.

    Also, jackets are an amazingly underestimated way to develop a character. Most of us own few coats, and a well-loved one can come to be identified as a part of a person both on-screen and off. Think of Rudy’s Notre Dame jacket, Lloyd Dobbler’s trenchcoat, or the bathrobes of The Dude and Frank the Tank.

  • Accounting Ninja

    The only thing that ever really bugs me is when I am watching a movie about Ye Olde Dayes, and the women (and sometimes men) are all very clean, shaved and have lovely teeth. AARRG. Sometimes they will grub up the men for that “realistic” look, but the women remain modern-day beautiful. The shaving bugs me most of all: period women with shaved pits and legs.

    On a similar note, when a couple wake together in the morning and share a morning kiss….complete with morning breath?? EW. That’s all I can imagine when I see that. No couple I know gives each other deep tongue kisses first thing in the morning.

    The money thing can bug me sometimes, like when we see 20-somethings living way beyond their means. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was broke and aimless throughout my 20s! But unless it’s really egregious, I can suspend my disbelief.

  • Bluejay

    Perhaps there is an alternative reality they are portraying in which makeup fairies do your face for you just before you wake up?

    Isobel, your comment reminded me of an animated (Spanish?) movie I saw, Nocturna. It features a magical world in which, among other things, there are little fairy hairdressers that give you that mussed-up “bed-head” look as you sleep.

    And yes, Strictly Ballroom rocks. I’ve loved the paso doble ever since.

    The only thing that ever really bugs me is when I am watching a movie about Ye Olde Dayes, and the women (and sometimes men) are all very clean, shaved and have lovely teeth.

    Accounting Ninja, have you seen the John Adams miniseries? I appreciated how they made everyone’s teeth rot (including Laura Linney’s) as the characters got older. Still, in my view even “regular guy” Paul Giamatti looks more glamorous than the real Adams, judging from his portraits.

    No couple I know gives each other deep tongue kisses first thing in the morning.

    But if they did, why would they share that information with you? ;-)

  • Althea

    I will concede Hollywood the issue of unshaved women. In our perceived universe, women don’t have body hair, and it would be disturbing to see it onscreen. It would take me right out of the moment.

    I’ll add something else that takes me out of the moment, but it has more to do with the mechanics of film than reality. Lately my beleaguered brain has been fixating on how close characters are to each other. I know that two characters face-to-face are positioned so they look right in the frame, but when I picture myself standing 10 inches away from somebody just to talk, it’s so claustrophobic that I shudder. Eeewww…

  • sophronia

    I’m one of those pedants who is often pulled out of a period story by seeing characters with super clean, shiny hair. But we’ve come a long way since those days in the ’60s when actresses in historical dramas all wore hair and costumes that looked like up-to-the-minute designer styles, with maybe a long skirt added to show it was supposed to be old-timey.

    Thanks to our current era of veneers, it’s positively startling when you see someone playing a regular person who opens their mouths to reveal enormous, blindingly white teeth. But the real problem I have is with the current shorthand of evil or special needs characters all having yellowing, imperfect teeth while everyone else looks like they just walked out of the cosmetic dentist’s office. I was thinking this yesterday while watching the Temple Grandin movie on HBO, where she was the only character who had non-Hollywood teeth.

  • WTF?

    Althea says : “I will concede Hollywood the issue of unshaved women. In our perceived universe, women don’t have body hair, and it would be disturbing to see it onscreen”

    It’s been quite a while since I heard anything this ridiculous. . .

  • Accounting Ninja

    I was going to say the same thing. Women DO HAVE body hair, Christ on a cracker. We’ve been socially conditioned to think otherwise. And, how would depicting a period woman AS SHE PROBABLY APPEARED be “disturbing”? Perhaps she would think our cultural obsession with prepubescent hairlessness “disturbing”.

  • Paul

    I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a healthy thing, but as people spend more time in urbanity and less time in nature/rural life, I think we’re going to see more, not less, in artificality in our appearance. If a woman is an avid hiker, she’ll develop great legs, but they might look a little big on her, because we live in a car society, an urban world that divides women between thin and fat, without much economic reason for muscular, so we are used to just thin or fat.

  • t6

    Here are two of my pet peeves. They are related and they drive me crazy.

    1) When guys in playing military men have haircuts that are out of regulation. Basically there hair is too long. All the time.
    2) When actors are are too old to play their parts in the military. For example, had I stayed in the military, I’d be retiring this year…at the age of 27. I was hardcore and made my rank of Sergeant at the age of 21. You would not have 50 year old Sergeants or Captains and you wouldn’t have 30 year old Privates. That makes me insane!!!!

  • stryker1121

    Characters w/ ridiculously quirky-cute jobs…see Jennifer Aniston’s oeuvre for details.

  • Althea

    Dear WTF? and Accounting Ninja: That was the point of saying PERCEIVED universe. Duh.

    Just close your eyes for a couple seconds and picture, say, Jessica Alba with leg and underarm hair, in a sex scene. How’s yer social conditioning now?

  • t6

    Dear Althea,

    I grew up with hippies and feminists and misc counter-cultural types…so I wouldn’t be bothered at all. I’d actually be excited!

    To be completely honest, I find naked underams slightly creepy.

  • WTF?

    Althea –

    I don’t find body hair disturbing – I remove mine but it doesn’t make me recoil on another person. Who was that person who had hairy legs at the oscars and everyone got so over-excited? I just thought well, good for her.

  • t6


    Both Mo’Nique and Amanda Palmer don’t shave their legs, and both women got grief over it at the Golden Globes.

  • Accounting Ninja

    The impulse to recoil at body hair on a woman IS socially conditioned. And I won’t say that I’ve never felt it, but I recognize it for what it is. Everytime you get grossed out at body hair on a woman, ask “Why?”
    Women should be hairless? WHY?
    Because hair is gross on a woman? WHY? Who says?
    Then you get into the whole issue of how porn standards have influenced the mainstream to such a degree and women must conform to be seen as sexy by the majority of people. Example: Mo’Nique’s Leghairgate.

    So, the question is, how’s YOUR social conditioning? Oh, it’s completely unchecked. Gotcha.

  • stryker1121

    Only time I ever remember seeing a mainstream depiction of body hair on a woman is HBO’s ‘Deadwood.’ Hey, it didn’t bug me…an accurate representation of the times.

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