Does every era get the Dumb Blonde it deserves?
The sisterhood-is-powerful comedy “The Other Woman” has become a surprise hit, presumably on the strength of an enticing premise (a wife and a mistress conspiring to wreak vengeance on a two-timing cad) and the fizzy comic chemistry between stars Leslie Mann and Cameron Diaz, who play the film’s protagonists with the kind of in-for-a-penny camaraderie and improvisational brio that overcomes all manner of formulaic writing and clunky direction.
There’s a third character in “The Other Woman,” another wronged girlfriend, played by Kate Upton, whose voluptuous physique is played almost immediately for laughs, when Diaz’s character sizes her up as a rival before coming to value her as a friend. Upton’s character, a sweet-natured, sun-kissed dimwit named Amber, is by far the film’s weakest link — a dazzling screen object, to be sure, but so woodenly portrayed by Upton that the critics’ punch lines virtually wrote themselves, usually along the lines of this being the only time the word “flat” could be used to describe the generously contoured swimsuit model.
It was painful to watch Upton in “The Other Woman,” even as she valiantly tried to deliver lines like “You guys, I think I see a dolphin,” while recalling sense memories culled from skimming “An Actor Prepares.” But it was just as depressing to consider what’s become of the Dumb Blonde, an easily maligned, misunderstood cinematic form that, in the hands of great artists, soared beyond stereotype into some of the medium’s most ethereal reaches. When someone of Upton’s limited acting skill and experience plays the Dumb Blonde, the result is just, well, dumb. In more virtuoso hands, it’s nothing less than brilliant.
The master of the form, of course, was Marilyn Monroe, who redeemed otherwise offensive, flibbertigibbet caricatures with her shrewd sense of timing, flawless physical command and an understanding of her own entertainment value whose effortlessness could be measured in direct proportion to the seriousness with which it was honed. The finest and most oft-quoted examples of Monroe’s Dumb Blonde artistry were her naive gold-digger Lorelei Lee in “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and the hilariously nearsighted Pola Debevoise in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” But even in one of Monroe’s first credited roles, as the aspiring ingenue Miss Caswell in “All About Eve,” you could see how effectively she deployed the baby’s-breath voice and kittenish glances — not in order to play dumb, but to play smart playing dumb.
It was that crucial difference that made Monroe the movies’ most enduring icon of Dumb Blonde-ery. But just as gifted, arguably, was Judy Holliday, whose little-girl-lost voice and vulnerable naivete virtually stole the show from Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the battle-of-the-sexes comedy “Adam’s Rib,” in which Holliday portrayed a woman accused of murdering her husband. Even when she was typecast in later films, Holliday — who reportedly possessed a genius-level IQ — never resorted to type, infusing even her ditziest characters with deep wellsprings of wisdom, quick-wittedness and soul. Holliday’s Billie Dawn, the childlike kept woman in “Born Yesterday,” stands to this day as perhaps the greatest Dumb Blonde in film history, a heroine who’s sexy, funny, kind and morally alert in a combination never matched since, let alone bested.
Why, then, have so few tried? With good reason, feminism has rendered the Dumb Blonde stereotype obsolete, with filmmakers, audiences and actresses themselves unwilling to accept or perpetuate lazy, sexist assumptions. Goldie Hawn represented the last gasp of the Dumb Blonde before she was swept away in a feminist housecleaning; by the time Hawn’s daughter, Kate Hudson, made her romantic-comedy debut, the archetype was virtually extinct, consigned to a cultural dustbin along with the cheerful mammy and wholesomely apron-and-pearled housewife. (The hooker with a heart of gold, however, persists to this day.)
Although the young (and brunette) actress Sarah Hyland gives the Dumb Blonde cliche a run for its money in the sitcom “Modern Family,” on the big screen the last memorable variation on the theme was Reese Witherspoon’s disarmingly chirpy Elle Woods in the 2001 comedy “Legally Blonde,” in which an otherwise superficial piece of arm candy comes into her own as a Harvard law student.
“Legally Blonde” was an iteration of the “Born Yesterday” strategy, which gave permission to the audience to have it both ways: We got to laugh at deathless Holliday lines such as “You’re just not couth!” and the most sublimely funny gin game ever filmed, and then we’re let off the hook when Billie later is revealed to be a woman of intellectual and ethical substance. We get to have the arm candy and eat it, too.
That trick is far harder to pull off today, not just politically but technically: Put simply, giving a character that many layers, and finding an actress who’s willing to embrace them, is threading an increasingly narrowing needle. Newly minted stars such as Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone may once have cut their teeth playing third banana in comedies like “The Other Woman”; today, they play young women of grit and moxie and sharp, self-aware wisecracks. There was a time when Diaz, who plays a hard-charging, elbows-out attorney in “The Other Woman,” was ideal Dumb Blonde material; the closest she’s come lately is “Bad Teacher,” a potty-mouthed raunch-com in which she portrays a cynical school employee trying to raise money for a boob job. Dumb has given way to Materialistic, Coarse and Shallow — none of which is nearly as endearing or comically rich.
For anyone old enough to remember the tired airheads and insulting bimbos of yore, the disappearance of the Dumb Blonde has understandably been welcomed as progress. For those of us who nevertheless mourn the loss of an archetype that, when channeled by a superbly gifted actress, perfected a singular brand of cinematic humor, we may be able to reclaim those pleasures if we simply widen the lens.
It may not approach the heights of “Born Yesterday,” but “Neighbors,” opening this week, stars Zac Efron as a gorgeous, empty-headed frat bro — blazingly hot and blithely clueless, he joins Owen Wilson and others in a recent trend of guys taking cheesecake roles that were once mostly relegated to women, and gamely letting us know they’re in on, and very much down with, the joke. The best among them might be Channing Tatum, who in films like “21 Jump Street” and “Magic Mike” has evinced the pacing and physical prowess of Marilyn herself. He may not be blonde — legally or otherwise — but along with his fellow him-bos, Tatum is proving that he can dumb down quite handsomely.