After putting in her time as the poster child of romantic comedy, Sandra Bullock has at last ascended to Oscar-night favorite — and she did it by making a turn from warmhearted fluff to warmhearted drama.
Bullock has forged a career of nabbing Mr. Perfect by the end of the third reel. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however, is rarely anxious to recognize such oeuvres, no matter the America’s sweetheart in question. Meg Ryan could write an entire doctoral thesis on this, complete with footnotes, appendixes, and a forward by Hugh Grant. Bullock, understandably, draws comparisons to Ryan. But now Bullock has gone where the industry has not permitted Ryan: Not only is she nominated for best actress, but she's the almost-indisputable favorite to take home the Oscar.
Bullock plays Leigh Ann Tuohy in “The Blind Side,” a sports drama about a family who adopt homeless teen Michael Oher and set him on the path to both righteousness and the NFL. In the film, Bullock frowns and monologues and makes the bed, and there’s not one single scene involving slapstick chases or platitude-heavy conversations in the pouring rain. This is meaty stuff.
Ryan, for her part, has attempted to extend her adorable toes into the waters of drama, playing an alcoholic in "When a Man Loves a Woman," and an Army captain in "Courage Under Fire." But both were sharp left turns into addiction, war, and spousal abuse; audiences largely wouldn’t allow it. Ryan’s job is to hang twinkle lights and charm Tom Hanks. The cognitive leap was simply too much for most moviegoers, and most of Ryan’s serious films have fared relatively poorly.
Robert’s slow sidestep from "Pretty Woman's" wig-wearing superhooker to miniskirted legal wonderkid was a move both audiences and the arbiters of real movies could accept. The film was a commercial success, and Roberts walked away from the 2000 Academy Awards with statuette in hand, some whispering in her wake that she’d nabbed her lifetime achievement award a couple of decades ahead of time — she’d given the Academy the right excuse to honor her work without the stigma of a fluffy plot.
By similarly tackling the lead role in a film like “The Blind Side,” which while no “Citizen Kane,” does take on issues of class, race, and gender, Bullock may have made the leap from actress-in-a-box to serious Meryl Streep territory. She's has been laying the groundwork for this; she was an ensemble cast member of the Oscar-approved racial drama “Crash.”
Choosing roles outside of her comfort zone
And while she’s been pegged as a romantic comedy specialist, Bullock has tried her hand at scooping up actor/director/producer/writer credits for a short Sundance film, “Making Sandwiches.” (Reviews were, to put it mildly, mixed; as one thread on the film’s IMDB.com entry sums it up, “WTF?”)
It’s instructive to note that Bullock holds the dubious honor of scoring the first simultaneous nods for both an Oscar and a Razzie, the former for her work in the spectacularly bad “All About Steve,” a dark comedy that cuts closer to her typecasting. Critically and economically speaking, Bullock is at her worst when attempting to re-visit golden roles: “Speed 2” and “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous,” which she produced, were universal disasters.
Roberts has applied her Oscar capital with varying results. She ascended to the “Ocean’s” series with George Clooney and executive produced “Kitt Kittredge: American Girl.” These are options Doris Day could have only perkily dreamed of, and Roberts is exercising them. And yet: “Valentine’s Day.”
So it’s likely tempting for Bullock to sink back into the safety of Bill Pullman’s inoffensive arms, or perhaps retreat to outrunning exploding buses. Sandra Bullock knows the world of America's sweetheart; she’s successful in it. But she could also spring into an entirely new direction —more meat, less meeting cute.
Freelance writer Mary Beth Ellis lives in Washington and runs www.BlondeChampagne.com.