2018 Film Essays

You Gotta Act: The Wild Innocence of Melanie Griffith

Some actors don’t end up having the careers we had hoped for them. After some early successes, they get miscast a few times and find themselves appearing in less exciting, and less prestigious, films. But Hollywood is a tough and strangely simple place, where nuance and uniqueness are not always well nurtured, and a fizzled filmography can be more a sign of the industry’s lack of imagination than a true indicator of a performer’s talent. For Melanie Griffith, it seems that her very particularity, for which she became famous and gained recognition in the 1980s, may have been the very reason why the rest of her career wasn’t as luminous. Today, it is those earlier roles, where her idiosyncrasies were really put forward, that remain ingrained in our collective memory, and far outshine her more thankless parts in later years.

The daughter of Alfred Hitchcock favourite Tippi Hedren, Griffith was born in 1957 and started popping up in advertisements at a young age. But it was her nude appearance aged 17 in Arthur Penn’s thriller Night Moves (1975) that first put her on the map. In a minor but memorable role, Griffith clearly showed a level of comfort with the camera, and her beauty drew the attention of Hollywood. More roles followed, in TV series and films that played on her nymphet image. Her personal life also was not of the puritan kind: raised under the bright lights of Hollywood, Griffith was precocious with alcohol, drugs and sex, as she told People magazine in 1984. In the end, it was an accident during the difficult production of her mother and stepfather Noel Marshall’s notorious adventure film Roar in 1977 that brought Griffith to reassess her decisions. Like many of the cast and crew members on a set filled with wild animals, Griffith was injured, mauled by a lion. She had to undergo facial surgery and took a short break from acting.

The year 1984 not only marked Griffith’s comeback, but was perhaps one of the most important years of her career. Her bold decision to return to films, playing a porn star in Brian De Palma’s Body Double, payed off beautifully. Although the film didn’t make money, Griffith’s performance was admired (she was nominated for a Golden Globe), and rightly so. As private dancer Holly Body, Griffith is a particular kind of porn star, because she imbues her character with her own natural innocence and almost childlike confidence. When Holly first appears on screen, she is dressed in black leather, her close-fitting trousers cut out to let her behind show, as she dances for Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) in a club bathroom. De Palma soon reveals that the scene was part of a porn film that Holly and Jake were working on as actors, and Jake convinces Holly that he may have a role for her. But in his apartment (which he is actually only housesitting), she understands that Jake lied, and Griffith reveals her comedic aptitude. With her high-pitched voice and free-flowing delivery, naturalistic to the extreme, she starts shouting at Wasson. Griffith’s rambling makes her seem like an angry child rather than a mature porn star, and the contrast between her appearance and behaviour is startling and humanising: Holly is not just fodder, and De Palma allows Griffith to make her into a three-dimensional figure with natural behavior.

That same year, Griffith further proved that she would refuse judgment for her decadent past by playing a stripper in Abel Ferrara’s New York-set thriller Fear City. But it was her co-leading part in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 road trip film Something Wild that best employed her youthful intrepidity. Her black-bobbed Audrey is yet another woman comfortable with her sexuality, but also with her boundless enthusiasm. She seduces Charles (Jeff Daniels), a young businessman she sees walking out of a restaurant without paying, and more or less kidnaps him to go on a semi-directionless car journey for the weekend. Breaking laws, falling in love and pretending to be married, the couple first lives off Griffith’s contagious smile and vitality, and Daniels is a gullible surrogate for the audience. As Audrey keeps changing her style and even her name, Griffith is clearly enjoying herself and her playfulness truly carries the film. But when Audrey’s ex-convict husband (Ray Liotta) suddenly appears, the fantasy is challenged and Griffith’s performance becomes heartbreaking: it is painful to see this jovial and strong-willed woman terrorised, and the actress seems like a scared little girl, sharply recontextualizing her unrestrained attitude. Something Wild, like Body Double, managed to make good use of Griffith’s young naturalism and offered her a complex character to flesh out.

In 1987, Griffith tackled the science fiction genre with Cherry 2000, a post-apocalyptic film (set in 2017, making it now out of date) where people have genuine romantic relationships with robots and neglect their fellow humans. Griffith is the strong-headed, independent E. Johnson, a tracker (a.k.a. a Blade Runner) who accepts an assignment to help a heartbroken man (David Andrews) find a replacement for his android wife. The film never came out in cinemas in America but has since become a cult classic, despite being rather clunky and uneventful. Griffith nevertheless does her best with the poor script and is convincing as a fierce woman, with her shaky, girlish voice making for a great contrast with her character’s no-bullshit attitude and her hair dyed a bright, alarming shade of red.

It was the following year that Hollywood finally truly recognised Griffith’s unique contribution to acting, when she had her first leading role in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl. Playing Tess McGill, a Brooklyn-born office worker aspiring to one day become a powerful businesswoman, Griffith plays on her outward innocence — in particular her piercing voice and casual way of talking — to highlight the class difference between Tess and her inspiring but savage boss Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver). When Tess decides to take revenge on Katharine’s backstabbing, she passes for her and modulates her voice in phone conversations. Her transformation is total, from her outfits to the makeup and her politeness turning into a form of authority, as though Holly Body had decided to try and be considered for Oscar-worthy films. Nichols makes Tess’ journey a sort of coming of age fairy tale as the character finds in work the validation she never received from her family, especially her angry ex-boyfriend Mick (a young Alec Baldwin), and Griffith blossoms when Tess falls in love with investment broker and colleague Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford). Their chemistry is touching and fair, without one overstepping the other, which seems like the best situation for the wild but loving Griffith. The film got her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe, for which she delivered a typically enthusiastic and tender speech, noting that the last time she was on that stage was as Miss Golden Globes, when all people could see of her was her beauty.

The 1990s proved to be productive for Griffith, but unfortunately began a streak of less than admirable films for the actress, including a remake of Judy Holliday’s Oscar-winning role in Born Yesterday (1991) (which also reworked the blonde-rises-to-the-top tropes of Working Girl). She was nominated for her first Razzie award for her turn in De Palma’s 1990 movie The Bonfire of the Vanities, and “won” the prize in 1992 for the two films Shining Through and A Stranger Among Us, the latter being nonetheless a Palme d’Or contestant. In this Sidney Lumet film, Griffith got to play another strong woman as detective Emily Eden, and her brassy sensibility didn’t quite find its place in the serious and cool atmosphere. She returned to playing a sex-positive type with Milk Money in 1994, where she played a prostitute that Ed Harris falls in love with, but the film was far from Pretty Woman’s success.

The roles started to get smaller, but occasionally garnered Griffith some recognition, such as her turn alongside Paul Newman and Bruce Willis in Nobody’s Fool in 1994 and in the 1996 neo-noir Mulholland Falls. In Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (1997), she played the mother of the little girl prayed upon by Jeremy Irons, a part she herself could have played as a teenager. Her easygoing attitude and her natural charm were embraced in Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise, where she played a drugged up crook with more sense than the men around her. Antonio Banderas (her husband at the time) gave Griffith another Something Wild-esque part in his directorial debut Crazy in Alabama in 1999, where she portrayed a free-spirited woman who, after getting rid off her husband, goes to Los Angeles to try and become a famous actress; unfortunately, the script’s attempt to reconcile this narrative with another centred on racial discrimination didn’t succeed, and the film was panned.

A little recognition sprang from Griffith’s turn as real cinema star Marion Davies in RKO 281, the Orson Welles biopic retracing the difficult production and release of his masterpiece Citizen Kane. After yet another crazed woman role with Forever Lulu, alongside Patrick Swayze, Griffith appeared more in TV movies and interesting roles became rarer. She started to get bit parts in independent American features such as Nick Cassavetes’ Yellow in 2012, and reunited with Banderas in the science fiction film Autómata in 2014, but cosmetic surgery has undeniably and unfortunately taken away some of Griffith’s natural quirks and general ease.

The year 2017 marked a small but noteworthy return to bigger films with an appearance in The Pirates of Somalia as Evan Peters’ mother, and Griffith appeared in James Franco’s The Disaster Artist as an acting teacher showing only a little patience towards Tommy Wiseau’s theatrics. The part was more of a nod to Griffith’s status as a Hollywood legend who left her mark with only a few roles (and maybe a cute joke on Body Double’s voyeuristic acting-class student) but her still-unique voice and unconstrained delivery offered a welcome touch of spontaneity, which Franco himself seems to have adopted in his own acting.

With her beauty– but more importantly, her natural ease and irresistible girlishness — Melanie Griffith presented a form of femininity ideally suited to a specific time of the late 1980s. When female sexuality was liberating itself and appeared wild and full of promise, Griffith was a sort of precursor for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but with an independence that only a few talented directors and screenwriters were able to portray well. That her model of womanhood seems to have disappeared with her more successful roles doesn’t speak to her talent, but to the limited parts available to her and to actresses at large. It is interesting that her and Don Johnson’s daughter Dakota Johnson appeared in the 50 Shades series, a narrative centered on a woman’s struggle to maintain her sense of self as she commits to a domineering man. But in the second film, when Dakota’s Anastasia Steele gets a promotion, she repeats the famous line that Griffith delivered in the closing scene of Working Girl (“I don’t expect you to fetch me coffee unless you’re getting some for yourself”), once she has achieved better status in her company thanks to her talent. Perhaps we can hope that Hollywood today will be better able to provide roles for odd women, who are at once frivolous and fierce, simultaneously wild and working.

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.