It’s easy to dislike Olivia Wilde. I should know, because I’ve done it for the last decade with very little effort. And it’s not because she’s beautiful — I have tremendous affection for dozens of beautiful stars — and it’s not because she had those horrible bangs as Marisa’s girlfriend on The O.C. My dislike stems from a general feeling of beige vapidity: she, like the rest of her similarly proportioned & styled cohort (most notable members: Megan Fox and Jessica Biel) has presented herself as the plaything of blockbuster boys, a Barbie to be repositioned, given less and less clothing, and stand around and look side-kick-ish. In Alphadog, in Year One, in Tron, in Cowboys & Aliens. . .on the cover of Maxim, GQ, and Esquire. . .it’s the same song, fiftieth verse. She’s so objectified that it bores me.
But look closer, I’ve heard — she’s smart. She’s from a well-established family. She was an Italian Princess. She reads! What I want to think about, then, is the way in which these twin understandings — of hotness and culture — twine together to form a sort of antidote, or at least alternative, to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the new Thinking Man’s Pin-Up, similar to the Gillian Flynn’s “Cool Girl,” but with the distinct connotations of glamour and class that accompany our current understanding of Classic Hollywood. And her popularity, specifically with men, reflects the complicated cultural politics of the moment — specifically, the desire to be a male feminist and reject the notion of the very notion of pin-up. . . . . and the ubiquity of the male gaze, which trains everyone — men & women, audiences & celebrities — that beauty isn’t beauty unless it’s fetishized. Olivia Wilde is the compromise of the enlightened man (or woman) who can’t help but live within patriarchy. If you’re going to make a woman into a sex object, in other words, at least she’s a smart woman — and makes you feel better about it.
The intelligence wasn’t always that clear. When Wilde first popped up on the cultural radar, her image was almost wholly defined by sex. First, there was her high-profile turn as a bisexual on a network television show, which prompted the following lead for a cover article in Complex Magazine:
Olivia Wilde turned heads when she tongued-down Mischa Barton on The O.C., but now this sex-oozing 22-year-old officially steals the show in Alpha Dog. Complex caught up with the No.1 stunna and got her to spill the beans on full-frontal nudity, making out with Mischa, and what’s eating Emile Hirsch (hint: not her!).
And then there was her body. There wasn’t much of it on display in The O.C. — mostly a lot of skinny arms in tank tops — but there soon was. Just take a look at the series of photoshoots from this middle section of her career:
Choice quote: “I’m happy being sexy.”
The photos were all sex — I don’t think I could find a better contemporary example of fetishization — but the articles and interviews were keen to distinguish her from the likes of Fox and other eye candy. Five themes, repeated again and again, established her class:
1.) She’s from intelligent stock.
Not just smart, but high brow, investigative journalism stock. Her parents are “lefty journalists” Andrew and Leslie Cockburn; her grandfather is “lefty journalist” and novelist Claud Cockburn, who was buddy buddy with Graham Greene and fought alongside Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War. We’re not talking “stringer for the local paper” journalists — we’re talking in depth overseas investigative reporting on the Middle East, nearly a dozen books to their names reporters.
2.) She herself is intelligent.
She went to one of the most elite boarding schools in the U.S., and was ready to go to Bard before she convinced her parents to let her spend a year in Hollywood. But the intelligence is mostly modeled through acts, not words: she went to boarding school; she arrives to an interview with a heavy tome in her hand; she cites intelligent, older female actors (such as Christie) as her role models. She “performs” intelligence incredibly skillfully, with quotes like “I think I have a strong journalistic streak in me—I’m really critical and analytical” and, concerning how she changed her name at the age of 18, ‘It’s not a renunciation of my parents – God, no. I go around bragging about my incredible family. But I wanted a pen name and I was inspired by Oscar Wilde, as he never compromised his identity even in the face of persecution. And he’s a fellow Irishman.’
I don’t mean to suggest that Wilde isn’t actually intelligent — it’s hard to know, really, actually, as hard as it is to really “know” anything about a celebrity — but that the signifiers of intelligence are all there.
3.) She’s married to a Prince.
Sure, they got married at age 18 in a school bus. I get that they were quasi-burn-out hippies. But you know what betrays class, and the opportunities it affords? Marrying an Italian Prince and becoming a Principesa. Her sister-in-law was A GETTY. They had a CASTLE, which Wilde talked about freely, at least before their divorce: I’m into European history, so it’s exciting to trace our family back to the 14th century and beyond. How many people get to say “This castle has been in our family since the 1400s”? Her very prominent gold ring was even embossed with her husband’s family seal.
4.) She has taste.
Money + Education = Taste. “Good” taste — highbrow taste. Thirty years ago, highbrow taste meant opera, poetry, avant garde theater. Today, at least within the realm of celebrity, you can signify highbrow taste through evocations of the classic and the vintage. She doesn’t have a Land Rover or a BMW — she has an ‘58 Chevy, which was a close second to her “dream car,” the ‘54 Bel Air. Her Chevy, which she periodically drove to premieres, was “a little funkier looking than the Bel Air, and I was like, That’s more like me. I love it. I love my car.” She loves Oscar Wilde; her favorite actress is Julie Christie; she wears a bracelet with a Pablo Neruda quote. (Neruda: the new Kahlil Gibran?) (But is Neruda actually now middlebrow? DISCUSS).
Sometimes, like when she’s promoting a new (highbrow) play in the (highbrow) New York Observer, she’s depicted wearing turtlenecks, almost entirely from the neck up, as if to encourage us to focus on her brain, not the body that made it famous.
Usually, however, the discussion of her background, education, and taste are paired with images that aggressively fetishize her.
The problem was that none of Wilde’s films worked. Seriously: that list above, the one that starts with Alphadog, is like a roll call of notable flops of the last ten years. Lainey Gossip even gave her the worst insult a gossip columnist can give, asking “Why IS Olivia Wilde?” (Translation: What makes her a celebrity despite lack of merit?)
Wilde’s films may not have been delivering, but she gave good gossip: after breaking up with her husband in 2011, she was seen with every hot male star in town. Gosling, Pine, Gyllenhaal, Cooper, Timberlake — she was playing all of them. Her flirtation with Timberlake was especially notable, given his recent celebration from Jessica Biel — a star who, as Lainey was keen to point out, would’ve loved to have the sort of work (and play) that Wilde was getting.
Somewhere in there, she met and fell in love with Jason Sudeikis, right as rumors of Sudeikis’ role in January Jones’ pregnancy began to circulate. (Jones still opts not to name the father of the child; Sudeikis is adamant that the child is not his).
Wilde’s career was stagnant. She was working like crazy — in 2012 alone, she appeared in Butter, Deadfall, People Like Us, The Words, and The Longest Week, but apart from Butter’s persistent appearance on my Netflix homepage, her work was distinctly below the radar. And not “highbrow art fair” below the radar, but “trying to be good but actually mediocre” below the radar. And therein lies the inherent contradiction of Wilde’s image: for someone with such good taste, how did she keep picking such bad roles?
At some point, Sudeikis told her to check out the work of Mumblecore darling Joe Swanberg, who happened to be casting for a new movie, Drinking Buddies. Swanberg’s movies had made waves in indie, film festival circles, but were by no means mainstream. Wilde pursuing the role was like Halle Berry doing Monster’s Ball, Entourage’s Vince doing Queen’s Boulevard, or Tom Cruise doing Magnolia — a way to change the conversation people were having about her. It wasn’t a Terrence Malick film, but it was something.
And, to be fair, Wilde is pretty great in the role: she plays a total Cool Girl, so cool, in fact, that she’s the manager of a microbrewery, the only girl in the entire building. She wears sexy jeans and tank tops and Chuck Taylors; her hair is relatively unwashed and always up in a ponytail, and her only make-up is a smear of eyeliner. She flirts mercilessly with everyone she works with, she ices out her boyfriend, she has that light of charisma that attracts everyone into her orbit . . . . and makes every other girl feel self-conscious, less-than. It’s extremely easy to dislike this type of girl, both in movies and in real life, but Wilde — and Swanberg’s direction — help paint the reality of her situation, the self-deception and hollowness of it, in a way that, at least for me, definitely worked.
Drinking Buddies is receiving a limited release, but most people will watch it, as I did, on VOD or iTunes or whatever, as it is the perfect VOD movie: just cute enough, just thought-provoking enough, just beautiful enough, that when you sit down on a Friday night you’re like this, this is what I want to charge to my boyfriend’s cable bill.
But Drinking Buddies won’t get Wilde an Oscar nomination or anything close to it. It’s just enough indieness to help bring her textual personal in line with her extra-textual one: to better match the girl onscreen with the girl who reads books and campaigns for Obama and dates Jason Sudeikis. Critics, though, are making it hard for her: a recent review in The Dissolve, the exact sort of publication that she would want endorsing her, claims that
Wilde delivers a credible performance as a woman whose external brassiness and rock-star swagger bely an underlying vulnerability, but she nevertheless feels painfully miscast. Wilde possesses an exotic, otherworldly movie-star beauty that makes her a natural for popcorn fare like Cowboys & Aliens, Tron: Legacy, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but seems distractingly out of place here. Casting a glamorous movie star might be good for the film’s commercial prospects, but it harms its aspirations to verisimilitude.
She’s too pretty, in other words, to be in anything other than a blockbuster. But I think this is a minority opinion: the vast majority of people want beautiful people playing all of the parts; screw verisimilitude. But the film makes you feel better about liking her: see, she is smart; she does have better taste than Cowboys & Aliens. It’s not unlike how I defend The Gos: sure, he did The Notebook and it’s a piece of schlock (that I will watch over and over again), but then he went and did Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson — and that’s how you know he’s a man of integrity and intelligence and worthy of my desire.
In Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling is almost unrecognizable, hidden behind twenty extra pounds, thick sweaters, and a Dad moustache. In Drinking Buddies, Wilde might not be glamorous, but she is still very much her beautiful self, and her body is still on display, arguably unnecessarily. She runs around the beach in a small black bikini and goes skinny dipping, her body belying the amount of dark beer she consumes on a daily basis. Cool girl indeed.
This division between “classy” and unclassy stars is nothing new: even in silent Hollywood, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, once married, became paragons of class and good taste, hosting salons in their Hollywood mansion that included Einstein and various Presidents. Garbo was classy because she was European; Norma Shearer was classy because she was married to studio exec and very upright and proper. But Clara Bow was flirty and bouncy and refused to lose her Brooklyn accent — she tromped around town without stockings and loved to go to USC football games. She played working class girls; she wasn’t scared to have fun and drink out of the bottle. Furs and jewels don’t make you classy, especially with a look like that one below.
Joan Crawford was totally unclassy until she married Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; Gloria Swanson made everyone forget about her unclassy days as a Bathing Beauty and married a Marquis. Bette Davis was classy because she was from New England and the stage; Katharine Hepburn was classy for the same reasons, plus the fact that she was a snob. Jean Harlow was super tacky, with her platinum blonde hair, her guileless vampiness, and her dalliances with gangsters. Hedy Lamarr was classy because she was Austrian; Betty Grable wasn’t because she was solely a pin-up.
Look at that list, and you see that class and glamour meant shielding your body — suggesting, rather than flaunting, sex. . . . and cultivating an image that hinged on acting ability, witty dialogue, and intelligence. Sex objects, however — the ‘It’ girls — were the opposite.
This dichotomy has muddled somewhat post-studio system. Jane Fonda, for example, moved between images defined by sex and others defined by activism, but she rarely occupied both simultaneously. Olivia Wilde is arguably the closest we’ve come to the conflation of the two qualities: body and mind, both beautiful; the classy and the pin-up, all in one. (The other recent example = Rachel McAdams, who I first called the thinking man’s pin-up five years ago).
The problem, however, is that this bifurcation endures. Because no person is “just” their body or “just” their mind — but even in our allegedly progressive moment, it’s impossible to combine the body and the mind. It’s not the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, but it’s close: a star is either a Dumb Bombshell or a Homely Smart Girl.
I still don’t know how to feel about Olivia Wilde, but maybe the reason I feel so unsettled is because her image, and its evocation of both intelligence and beauty, is so rare. But a beautiful smart girl, that’s threatening: who knows what she’ll do. Which is why, of course, she must be fetishized — visually reduced to the sum of her beautiful parts, even as the interview that accompanies the piece proclaims her aptitude and taste.
It’s a negotiated victory, and one I’m hesitant to celebrate. Our stars, and the ideologies their images embody, are reflections of ourselves, and the ideologies that structure our lived reality. Wilde — and, by extension, all of us — can break the dichotomy — but only if we still play by the rules. Lean In indeed.