Ups and Downs of the Latest Schwarzenegger Film : Curtis’ True Role in ‘Lies’: Empowerment

<i> Writer Douglas Eby specializes in articles about women in entertainment fields</i>

Times movie critic Kenneth Turan concludes that “True Lies” exhibits “a strain of crudeness and mean-spirited humiliation, especially toward women,” and he uses as a prime example the scene of Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is acting the part of an undercover prostitute, stripping and dancing around in “skimpy underwear.” Turan calls this “painful humiliation” (“The Secret Life of ‘True Lies,’ ” Calendar, July 14). However, Curtis considers this “the best role I’ve ever had” and says of the very same scene, “I had the best time. How often do you get to do that?” (“Nothing but the Truth From Jamie Lee Curtis,” by Linda Winer-Bernheimer, Calendar, July 15)

Curtis creates a strong and credible portrayal of this “plain and mousy” housewife who has been drawn into what she wants to believe is an important spy-catching scenario, and reveals a buried or unexercised aspect of her character’s personality and sexuality. Certainly, this is a comedy and a fantasy--no more real than any film is or can be. That Curtis “awkwardly prances around,” as Turan describes it, is more believable for the role than to have her suddenly transformed into a sexually sophisticated Madonna character. That would have exceeded this film’s playfully wide bounds of unreality.


As another example of “mean-spiritedness,” Turan cites the “mortifying” treatment given the “weasely used-car salesman (Bill Paxton) in the most personal ways.” But this character, along with several terrorists, is a prime example in the film of the contemptuously demeaning attitudes and humiliating treatment of women, also in the “most personal ways.” Should such characters be well-treated and respected?


One aspect of this “bit of diversionary fluff” (Turan’s term for the underwear scene) that directly impacts on the film’s portrayal of women is the fact that Curtis was cast as the bored and repressed housewife. Curtis is known from a variety of roles to be anything but repressed, known rather for parts calling for strength and courage, even fierceness, which she again so well expresses here--in a mock interrogation, her fighting the terrorists rather than playing victim, and in punching her husband for his years of mendacity.

A movie that can depict a woman making use of her anger to help transform herself and doing what she can to defend herself in a violent situation rather than waiting for rescue, even if done in a comic mode, is surely saying something positive. To be overly concerned with the political correctness of a major film role for a woman, to lose sight of what it does offer that is valid and valuable toward improving real-life attitudes about women, risks our having even fewer such roles.