Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From Desperate Housewife to Royally P.O.’d One

"Edie's already slept with most of the guys on the street and has caused about as many problems as she could."—Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, on the creative logic behind killing off neighborhood tramp Edie Britt from his show

"Somebody up there really wanted her dead. I think whoever Edie represented in ["Housewives" creator] Marc's life was somebody he didn't like. And he had a very difficult time distinguishing between fact and fiction."—Nicolette Sheridan, not taking her departure from the show very well at all

Both quotes from Luchina Fisher, 'Desperate Housewives': Drama Behind Nicollette Sheridan's Departure,” ABC News, April 20, 2009

Gee, do you think that Ms. Sheridan is a mite bit upset about her gravy train coming to an end—and that Cherry is mighty relieved at the prospect of one less “creative difference” with a cast member?

Ever since Vanity Fair’s cover story four years ago about the assorted hissy fits and tearful cellphone calls during the magazine’s photoshoot of the five principal actresses on the show, the thought has ricocheted around the blogosphere that more sturm und drang might exist on the actual set of the sitcom/soap opera than on fictitious Wisteria Lane. Then, when the hullabaloo began to die down, what did Ms. Sheridan do but turn it into Hysteria Lane again!

Back in 2005, it was Marcia Cross getting snippy about Teri Hatcher upstaging her with a fire-engine-red bathing suit. Perhaps to placate Ms. Cross, Ms. Sheridan got the spot in the middle of the photo that was supposed to go to Ms. Hatcher.

But once past the offending picture and into the text, you got the distinct impression that Ms. Sheridan shared some bruised feelings with her redheaded colleague. The profile by Ned Zeman revealed that the blonde bombshell was crestfallen that, after auditioning for the role of Bree, Mr. Sherry immediately told her that she was much better suited for…Edie.

What a comedown, making do with the fifth wheel on a gleaming new comic vehicle, as the woman that all the other ladies of the neighborhood scorned. It must have given Ms. Sheridan serious agita to watch the other four actresses get so much attention for their distinctive characters, while she had to accept one that, in truth, is a stereotype.

Mr. Cherry has received many plaudits for writing strong roles for actresses of a certain age. Reading his clips, he might be forgiven for fancying himself the Tennessee Williams of the boob tube—an artist who had fashioned parts of unparalleled craft and complexity for women. But is that acclaim so deserved?

Sure, Desperate Housewives has been awfully sharp at times, particularly in its first season, and, at its best, mixing in a sense of bitter disappointment with life into the mix. But what is Gaby but a gold-digging bimbo? And didn’t many of the story lines involving Bree end up being rather arch and belabored? Okay, she’s a control freak who mangles her kids’ lives because they’re not perfect, even, at times, sexually confused. We get it, okay?

(In the latter case, I think a strong case can be made for Ms. Sheridan’s contention that Mr. Cherry based Edie on someone in his past who had profoundly wounded him. Consider this: he’s already admitted that Bree is based on his mother, who, after he came out of the closet, responded: “I would love you even if you were a murderer.”

Bree has been allowed some human uncertainty, and viewers come to understand how her troubled childhood shaped her need to control. Has Edie? Three-quarters of a century ago, in one of her signature roles, Marlene Dietrich said: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” But how did Edie train for trampdom?

Did Mr. Cherry ever show any sense of Edie as somebody other than a creature of insatiable sexual wants? ‘Fraid not. On this score, at least, Ms. Sheridan was showing True Britt, albeit belatedly, in calling him to task.)

Maybe Mr. Cherry’s reputation as a “woman’s writer-director” is a bit inflated, like Woody Allen’s. Just as The Woodman had a skein of films with female characters as profoundly selfish and castrating as anything this side of August Strindberg (Helena Bonham Carter in Mighty Aphrodite, Demi Moore in Deconstructing Harry, Melanie Griffith in Celebrity), so Mr. Cherry has produced scripts that play up the worst aspects of his women.

In fact, if his women appear strong, it is only in comparison with the men, who are duplicitous, dumb, or, in a major variation, duplicitous and dumb. Imagine Joey Buttafuoco in all his lechery, except that, instead of owning one measly autobody shop, he’s made a fortune running a nationwide chain of auto aftermarket stores—and he’s got the mansion to show for it.

No, I’m afraid that when it comes to depicting women, Mr. Cherry’s closest counterpart is not Tennessee Williams but W. Somerset Maugham, who created a string of women—prostitutes, adulteresses, inscrutable Asian mistresses, clingy British wives—whose only discernible similarity is that they have assured a lifetime of misery to the men they ensnared.

Most assuredly, Ms. Sheridan played up her image with a vengeance, as in the now-infamous promo starring her and Terrell Owens. But what choice did she have? The die was cast for her—Mr. Cherry had made sure of it.

If you’re Ms. Sheridan, you have to wonder if your career is closing in a circle. I mean, what is Edie, after all, but “The Sure Thing” object of lust she embodied for John Cusack in Rob Reiner’s film more than two decades ago—except that now she’s wised-up, with a mind as hard as her body?

Nowadays, Mr. Cusack goes from triumph to triumph, while Ms. Sheridan gets ready for the slag heap Hollywood reserves for actresses who’ve passed their peak of desirability.

In the old days, actresses such as, say, Jennifer Jones or Deborah Kerr would quietly fade off the scene, only to emerge, admittedly somewhat altered from our memory, years later in some award show, commemorative tribute or other.

Today’s Hollywood is far crueler. You can preserve your visibility, all right, but only on a reality show, and one of a particular kind, that exaggerates your faults. Ms. Sheridan’s best hope is to parody her destiny, on one of Saturday Night Live’s better skits in a while: “Cougar Den.”

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