Precious, The Good Girl, North Country: How Hollywood makes beautiful actresses look working class.

All about the Academy Awards.
Feb. 2 2010 7:02 AM

Blue Collar, Oscar Gold

How Hollywood makes beautiful actresses look working class.

Also see a Magnum Photos gallery on "The Beautiful and the Working Class."

Click to launch the slideshow 'Working Girls'.

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.)

This stunt casting has been seen most recently in Precious, in which Mariah Carey won great acclaim for donning a bad haircut and office clothes that look like something Klaus Nomi might have designed for Kmart back in the early '90s; and in the film Trucker, an indie-darling out this month on DVD, starring the adorable Michelle Monaghan as a hard-bitten long-distance trucker. (Ebert: "Her performance clearly deserves an Oscar nomination.")

This approach does have its practical side. With a fetching actress onboard, it's easier to attract funding and publicity for the film. This solves a financial problem, but it creates a bigger artistic one. Namely, how do you sell this actress in this role without burying her so deep in the part that it defeats the point of having her in the film to begin with?

Attempts to address these problems often lead instead to moments in which the whole charade is painfully exposed. Take Keri Russell's waitress in Waitress responding to a compliment on her Keri-Russell-esque beauty by saying, "What a thing to say. Nobody ever notices me that way." Or Cameron Diaz's stripper in Feeling Minnesota complaining: "I look like shit. Don't I look like shit?"

The gimmick of having a beautiful actress openly deny her own beauty is just one of many employed by filmmakers in the slumming-actress subgenre. I have identified the most common of these in the hopes that spotting them, or maybe devising some kind of drinking game out of them, might ease the pain of watching the films themselves, now and in the future.

Click herefor a video slide show about how Hollywood makes beautiful actresses look working class.

Joe Keohane is a writer in New York.