Pop Culture

Can ‘it girl’ Megan Fox actually act?

In a Newsweek article published back in June, entertainment writer Ramin Setoodeh observed that movies and television these days are rife with older female actresses, because there are no 20-something female actors around who can “open” a movie.

“Just ask Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Biel, Natalie Portman or Jessica Simpson,” Setoodeh wrote. “Someone like Sandra Bullock is still a brand in Hollywood, and even if she’s had a recent string of flops, there’s still hope she can sell out theaters.”

Don’t expect that situation to change as Megan Fox ascends to leading lady status with her role in the upcoming Diablo Cody-scripted film “Jennifer’s Body.” Fox has been the entertainment industry’s “it girl” since she starred alongside scene-stealing special effects in the hit “Transformers” franchise, and then became a media sensation.

But for her breakout vehicle, Fox isn’t being showcased in a romantic comedy or drama, where she can show off her acting skills. She’s being featured in a horror film. “Jennifer’s Body” features Fox as a cheerleader who becomes possessed by demons and kills off boys in her town.

Cody’s film, which is the follow up to her hit “Juno,” might be high-grade, knowing horror, with its tongue firmly set in its cheek. And it might provide Fox with a role so good, she becomes a leading actress, the way Jamie Lee Curtis and Sissy Spacek did after they respectively starred in “Halloween” and “Carrie.”

But it probably won’t because of a crucial difference: in Curtis’ and Spacek’s case, they played humans who became victims, which demanded a range of on screen emotions (plus Spacek had already garnered critical acclaim for “Badlands”). Fox, on the other hand, is playing the role of the victimizer — another tough girl role, like the one she played in “Transformers.”

And while “Jennifer’s Body” gives screenwriter Cody the chance to reverse longstanding horror film gender roles, it’s not going to give Fox the chance to do what she really needs to do to become the next Julia Roberts: humanize herself. Unless Fox is burying her inner Meryl Streep somewhere, she’ll be bringing little to the big screen than her famous attitude and even more famous curves.

Hot or not Fox seems to like to draw comparisons with Angelina Jolie, by copping elements of Jolie’s style, such as the many tattoos. But style is where the comparisons begin and end. Jolie was an actress who became a tabloid fixture. Fox is a tabloid fixture who hasn’t yet earned her stripes as a serious actress.

Before Jolie developed the “Tomb Raider” tough girl persona Fox seemed to draw from in her “Transformers” role, she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her turn in the 1999 drama “Girl, Interrupted.” A year before that, she wowed critics and audiences with her gritty portrayal of doomed supermodel Gia Carangi in the TV biopic “Gia.”

Playing tough in “Tomb Raider” was just one element of Jolie’s acting style. Since her personal life has started to draw more attention than her acting in the past few years, people tend to forget how much range and skill she had as an actor.

But when it comes to actresses in their 20s, Hollywood doesn’t seem to recruit from acting schools anymore. They now seem to draw from the men’s magazines, all of which feature women like Alba, Lohan, Simpson and Biel — women with great curves but dismal box office results.

Fox seems almost genetically engineered to be a Maxim cover girl. But getting 13-year-old boys to drool over magazines isn’t quite the same as getting adults of all sexes to plunk down nearly $10 for a film.

The post-women’s liberation era of movies expanded the kinds of parts women could play. A lot of the female actors from the 1970s to the 1990s were definitely attractive, but they were actors first, beauties second. They made movies where their roles, not their looks, defined them. Look back at the collective works of Julia Roberts, Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and even Reese Witherspoon, and you’ll see actors who had honed their craft.

If you’re wondering where the next Sandra Bullock is, she’s probably in some indie film playing in a theater at the edge of town. She’s not at the multiplex, because somewhere along the line, Hollywood decided that hot women make for better leading movie roles than talented female actors.

Looks over talent So we have a situation where female actors who might have been bound for stardom 15 years ago are now designated as “quirky” and not given a fraction of the hype that the Maxim crowd gets. Think Zooey Deschanel and Alexis Bledel, both of whom starred in smaller films this summer. Meanwhile, former model Fox gets the big budget roles and the hype.

Now it’s understandable why 20-something actresses can’t open movies. The star system that used to herald their arrival has fundamentally changed. This doesn’t just apply to female actors, either. As Linda Holmes noted in a recent article, Ryan Reynolds is getting pushed by Hollywood as the Next Big Thing more for his Ken Doll looks than for any acting chops he’s shown.

As previously noted, Jolie’s talent provided the springboard for her hype. Fox’s talent seems to be in generating hype itself. This is why she’s becoming known more for the continuous stream of outrageous things she says in interviews than for any of her on-screen work.

There’s an old saying that goes “Looks get you in the door — personality makes sure you stay.” Fox’s looks have obviously opened a lot of doors for her. But unless she shows she can be a compelling on-screen personality, she’ll stay around only until the next “it girl” with a hot body arrives.

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