The Half-Life of the Stepmom


Bronski

There
is Susan Sarandon looking handsome, proud, intelligent, brave, powerful and
dignified. Oh look, and there’s Julia Roberts looking beautiful, nervous,
quirky, and well, very much like Julia Roberts. It’s Stepmom—the
high-profile holiday movie. Susan’s the real mom, Julia’s the stepmom and
their intersecting lives are a battlefield for the love of two cute kids and a
rotten (ex)husband. Julia has patience, Susan has cancer, both are
extraordinarily photogenic, and everyone cries at the end of the movie so it
must be Christmas. Stepmom is—in the tradition of Terms of
Endearment
and Dying Young, among others—your basic heartwarming,
family values, Christmas disease movie. As written by Gigi Levangie and
directed by Chris Columbus it is a weak entry into the genre.


What makes Stepmom
notable is that it is powered by two of Hollywood’s most dynamic women:
Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, who co-produced the project. Traditionally
disease movies are a sub-genre of the “woman’s film” —Greta Garbo in Camille,
Bette Davis in Dark Victory, Ali McGraw in Love Story, Barbara
Hershey in Beaches. What distinguishes Stepmom in this line-up
is the films ostensible feminist politics and its desire (after two hours of
cat fighting) to create a bond between the maternal earth mother Sarandon and
the crafty career woman Roberts.


On paper Stepmom might
have looked good. Ed Harris plays Luke, a high-powered attorney who, in
mid-life crisis, has left Jackie (Susan Sarandon) his wife of many years. He
is now living with Isabel (Julia Roberts) a famous, well-paid fashion
photographer. The bulk of the narrative dwells on both women’s relationship
with Jackie and Luke’s children: sexually budding Anna (Jena Malone) and
unbearably cute Ben (Liam Aiken). Both kids are confused (the couple has joint
custody) and Anna is cultivating an active dislike for Isabel.


The struggle between Jackie (Sarandon)
and Isabel (Roberts) is predictable: Jackie resents Isabel’s youth and
possibly her career; Isabel resents Jackie turning the children against her;
Jackie thinks that Isabel is irresponsible; Isabel thinks Jackie is
controlling. When Ben is lost in Central Park (during one of Isabel’s photo
shoots), Jackie goes ballistic. When Isabel gives Anna bad advice (by
Jackie’s standards) about a boyfriend, she goes ballistic again.


While the theme implies that
both Jackie and Isabel have corresponding, if conflicting strengths and
weaknesses, the emotional fervor of the film is generated by Jackie, allowing
Sarandon to play some high-drama scenes, but it also slants the film in a
peculiar fashion.


Stepmom
is a film about two women of different ages, temperaments, and qualifications
for motherhood who discover that, in the face of tragedy, they can be sisters
not rivals. But rather than an example of sincere (if Hollywoodish) feminism,
the film has a distinctly anti-feminist feel. This is mainly due to the fact
that neither screenwriter Levangie nor director Columbus find a way to break
out of the traditional “women’s picture” constraints.


This is evident, most
startlingly, in the fact that the narrative thrust of Stepmom is the
ever-sharpening rivalry between Jackie and Isabel. Not once do they—or the
writer, director, or stars/producers—seem to think that deadbeat husband
Luke bears any responsibility for anything. Sure, leaving Luke out of the
emotional/psychological equation gives Roberts and Sarandon more high drama,
but it also skewers the sexual politics of the film.


Here the burden of kids,
emotions, relationships, and dealing with illness all become women’s work.
Neither Jackie nor Isabel think it odd that Luke is emotionally and physically
absent through most of this.


But the problem with Stepmom
goes deeper than its silly plot: what are women to do in a Hollywood movie?
Since the early 1970s there has been much written about women in film and in
the industry. With little power, limited parts, and less access to the
decision-making process (not to mention having to struggle for years under the
industry’s perception that male-oriented films made more money), women have
certainly had a tough time in tinsel town. But in the past 20 years this has
supposedly been slowly changing. There have been a smattering of female studio
executives and a crop of female stars—Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Goldie
Hawn, Sigourney Weaver, Jessica Lang among others—who decided they would
produce as well as act to ensure that they got the parts and the pictures they
wanted. Great plan, and to a large degree it has resulted in movies that
feature more complex female characters and deal more substantially with
women-centered issues.


Certainly Stepmom was
intended to fall into that category and Roberts and Sarandon have a field day
with their roles. But a feminist film? Even a very good film? On both counts Stepmom
feels alarmingly retro, like an old Bette Davis weeper crossed with a modern,
extended family version of Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas. Perhaps
the point isn’t so much that it’s a bad film—which it is—but that
actors with the talents of Sarandon and Roberts have few other options.


Sarandon
has paid her Hollywood dues. Her first role was a small part in the 1970
leftish political melodrama Joe. Since then she has played in 52 Hollywood and
television movies—garnering great press in such diverse projects, from a
blackjack dealer in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City to a bisexual vampire
in Tony Scott’s The Hunger to her now-classic female 1990 road
warrior fil,m Thelma and Louise.


In many ways this latter film
seemed, at the time, to be a breakthrough for women in the industry. Its theme
and presentation was completely women-centered and the power (and anxiety) it
generated was palpable. Since then, however, Sarandon has made a series of
respectable if slightly boring films. As Marmee in Little Women (1994)
she was luminous but underused. Films like The Client (1994) and Twilight
(1998) were routine thrillers. Only the 1995 Dead Man Walking, in which
she played Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist, displayed her
enormous capabilities.


Some critics have suggested
that the unleashed female power of Thelma and Louise pushed Sarandon
into playing less powerful (and less threatening) characters. In Stepmom
 Sarandon’s energy goes into creating a portrait of Jackie as the
perfect mother. She has apparently dated no one since the divorce, she has no
career other than “mom,” and is so dedicated to her children’s welfare
that, at times, she’s a little scary. If Stepmom—and Sarandon—had
wanted to take some chances, Jackie might have been portrayed with some
ambivalence (or resentment) toward not having a career, not having a lover,
pretty much anything. But the film and the actress/producer are so determined
to focus on the poles of mom/stepmom, ex-wife/ girlfriend, homemaker/career-
woman that the film stunts itself.


Making
her film debut in 1986 (a small part in Crime Story, an audacious,
nervy made-for- television movie, Julia Roberts entered the industry just as
Sarandon was hitting her stride with films like The Witches of Eastwick
and Bull Durham. With her quirky wide-eyed looks and her direct,
non-acting sort of acting, Roberts was always in “women’s pictures.” She
quickly went from the 1988 Mystic Pizza—an intelligent, emotionally
acute film—to the 1989 overwrought Steel Magnolias (where she dies
young and beautiful) to her star-turn in the 1990 Pretty Woman where
she plays a hooker with a heart of gold who manages to snag a millionaire. She
then went from thrillers (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Pelican
Brief)
to children’s fantasy (Tinkerbell in Hook, Speilberg’s
remake of Peter Pan) to historical drama (Michael Collins) to
high-tone horror (Mary Reilly, a semi-feminist remake of Dr. Jekyll
and Mr. Hyde
). In the 1997 My Best Friend’s Wedding, as a
self-centered career woman who selfishly tries to snatch an old flame away
from his fiancée, Roberts finds her niche, replaying the Joan Crawford
shop-girl-makes- good plot (only the sales clerk was now a whore).


After dying, being
terrorized, being historicized, and being a sprite, she lands in up My Best
Friend’s Wedding
as the conniving career woman who can’t find love. In
Stepmom Roberts is the career woman who gets her man, but then
discovers that she is not (at first) as suited to be a mother as a mistress.
In the end, she learns how to do this as the “real” mother dies
beatifically (although realistically, this is a serious movie) of cancer.


Stepmom
“tries” to deal with serious issues and understands the complexity of
relationships, emotions, and lives more fully than many of the women’s films
of decades past. But we are still left with these half-women, characterized by
and trapped in paradigms that do not allow them the fullness of character and
emotion that actors of Sarandon’s and Roberts’s stature and talent should
have, and in which they should flourish.