She had me at “Willoughby.” The sounds in the name curved and billowed, as though her voice were the undulating figure of a ballet dancer, winding seductively around my heartstrings. I had never seen her before. Dirty blond ringlets framing a smooth-skinned face…lips so soft their edges blurred. She was lovely. Just lovely. I could listen to that British accent all day.
I didn’t know then, as I watched Sense and Sensibility, that she was my age. Actors exist in their own timeless universe; they’re even ageless until a certain point. There’s no way a famous 19-year-old would be experiencing anything that a 19-year-old like me would be—waking up to the stench of beer in the dorm hallway, vacillating endlessly between two pairs of cheap jeans to wear, visiting friends in New York City via Amtrak or Greyhound. She was tragic and over-emotional and utterly exquisite and talented in her role as the rejected Marianne Dashwood. I was uncertain and over-dramatic and needy and nerdy in my role as a small-town college English major.
My hometown girlfriends and I went to see Titanic together the week it came out in December of 1997. I’m pretty sure that we all blubbered in solidarity as Rose claimed she’d never let go and then she did, and Jack’s ghostly face rippled away in the freezing black waters of the North Atlantic. I would spend the following ten years viewing that movie on VHS tape over and over again, on Sundays as I graded papers, on sick days as I lay on the couch, on all days as my newborn Maddie slept. Now, when I find the film on the Oxygen channel, I stay up until the wee hours to follow it through, and recite every word of the script, as trite as it is. I can still hear my mother-in-law saying, “Next to her, Leonardo DiCaprio is like lemonade.” Yes, Mary, yes. She is all substance. Not only does she have a real woman’s body, she also acts with humor, intensity, and realness. I also like that she punches a Titanic crewmember in the face. All she wants is to find the boy she loves, you asshole! He’s all chained up and about to drown. Tell her where the crewman’s passage is. LISTEN!
Shortly after my romance with Titanic began, I discovered a film in which she stars by the name of Heavenly Creatures. The movie is based on a true story about two New Zealand girls from families of different social class who form an intimate friendship, and eventually murder one of the girls’ mothers for standing in the way of their relationship. Before Marianne, before Rose, the character of Juliet Hulme grew up in a privileged family, escaped her loneliness by bonding with another loner named Pauline, contracted tuberculosis, and was abandoned by her parents in a sanatorium while they traveled the world. The movie earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The movie debuted my favorite actress of all time and yet, barely anyone had heard of it. From the start she wasn’t commercialized, some high-profile celebrity who took any role that would make her money regardless of its quality. So what if she was frumpy and plain back then, in 1994. She was also deliciously dark and complicated. As Juliet, she was a young girl trapped by her circumstances but unapologetic and self-liberating within those limitations. And she had an erotic affair with her best friend at 15 years old and then helped that friend to kill that friend’s mother and went to jail for it. Absolutely divine.
My love affair burned. Oh, how it burned! I sucked down those films, one after the other: Jude, Hamlet, Quills, Hideous Kinky, Holy Smoke, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children, The Life of David Gale, Finding Neverland. In Revolutionary Road, with the icy poise of a crazy wife, she transported the self-destructive April Wheeler from page to suburban-beige-carpet-and-failed-50s-marriage-stained-with-uterine-blood. In The Reader, through her portrayal of the stubborn but skittish Hannah Schmitz, she taught me how people’s shame can keep them victimized, and how often human beings are torn between following orders in order to survive and doing the noble, morally idealized thing…and at the same time are still so quick to judge everyone else’s choices. Okay, so Labor Day was slow and corny, though honestly, I’d help the girl make a peach pie anytime. But every time I sit down to watch her on screen, I get trembly and nauseated, and envision what I would ever say to her if I had the chance to stalk her on some movie set. And when I envision seeing her in the flesh, I get kind of choked up and weepy. And I wonder what she smells like, whether she really wears Trésor by Lancôme, and I wonder whether Macy’s would ever sell me one of the oversized Lancôme ads with her gorgeous face on it for me to hang on the inside of my closet door. (My former boss gave me the Time magazine with her on the cover from 2009 after she won Best Actress for The Reader, and the issue hung in my cubicle for years. My husband wondered why I had a picture of her at work and not of him.)
She and I just shared a milestone: turning forty. We also share an astrological sign: we’re Libras. We also share a name: her middle one is Elizabeth. And I’m beginning to understand something else we have in common. I am beginning to understand a large part of the appeal.
She is all of the characters that I want to write into existence. As a professional actress and a Marianne, and a Rose, and a Juliet, an April and a Hannah, she is dynamic, headstrong, and afflicted. And many of these attributes are because she is a woman, because she is a woman in a world that forces women to struggle harder. She is the woman I love to explore in my fiction, a woman who refuses to be easy. A woman who might not be able to control her entire lot but grabs what small parts she can by the balls and wrestles them to the ground. Think about it. She manages to flee a suffocating engagement and find the love of her life within the confines of a boat on the open sea. She emancipates herself from the misery of suburban motherhood by inducing a miscarriage, and though her gesture is devastating, she reclaims her autonomy. She asserts her independence by keeping her secret of illiteracy intact; to her being unable to read is more abominable than allowing 300 Jewish women to perish in a church fire, and even though the logic feels faulty to us, it’s her reality. She goes to the most extreme lengths to ensure that her vulnerability doesn’t happen at the hands of anyone else.
So I’ve admitted it. She’s my first girl crush, and probably my only. I look forward to our growing old together.
You made me want to go back and watch her movies. What is it that the Brits do or know about acting?