Some movies hit differently for adults. To a kid, Big is the story of a kid who gets to try being a grown-up only to discover that it sucks. (I never really got into Big.) To a parent, it’s hard not to sympathize with his mother, who discovers a stranger in her son’s bed one morning, after which her son has simply vanished. She believes the stranger kidnapped her son—which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but never mind—and he’s gone, too. That’s heartrending to consider and is itself the subject of no few movies, but we’re all too busy thinking of the implications of a woman in a relationship with an aged-up twelve-year-old to think about the grieving parent.
Mercedes Ruehl has done more than one movie where she plays an utterly thankless role. My most recent rewatch of The Fisher King left me pretty cold, come to that, because I just wanted her character to be with someone who didn’t suck. I wasn’t sure Jack was ever going to improve enough to be worthy of Anne, and I certainly didn’t want her waiting around for long enough to find out one way or another. In Married to the Mob, she’s being cheated on, repeatedly, and her husband is pursuing Michelle Pfeiffer—who isn’t interested—rather than maybe consider being faithful.
Now, look, few of us can compete with Michelle Pfeiffer, especially since she was in her prime in 1988. But I feel like it would take some nerve to cheat on most Mercedes Ruehl characters if you want to survive the movie. If her characters are long-suffering and trapped in thankless roles, there is still a sense of fierce determination to at least the ones I’ve seen. She puts up with things until she can’t put up with them anymore, and then she digs in and pushes back. It’s the sort of thing where it’s somewhat surprising for a character to survive messing with her. I’m pretty sure they don’t all manage it.
Unfortunately, that’s the sort of actress there aren’t a lot of good roles for, especially if she looks more like Mercedes Ruehl than Michelle Pfeiffer—and again, most of us do. It’s generally accepted in Hollywood that men can get away with looking like Dean Stockwell a lot more easily than women can get away with looking like Mercedes Ruehl. It’s not that she’s unattractive. It’s that she looks like a real person, and there aren’t a lot of roles for women who look like real people. Certainly not enough leading roles.
I suppose her roles aren’t technically utterly thankless, inasmuch as she did win an Oscar for The Fisher King. Beating, in fact, Stone Cold Hollywood Legend Jessica Tandy. She’s also been a steady presence on the stage, having won one Tony and been nominated for two more. Still, her name doesn’t come up all that much. Certainly nowhere near as often as it ought. Which of course makes her ideal fodder for this column, after all.
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