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Swanky Lady: Spare a Thought for Hilary Swank…

I feel sorry for Hilary Swank right now, but also a little hurt and confused. Swank should be a respected character actor at the very least, and I’d argue that she has the potential for a distinguished and competent leading lady. After all, the woman has two Oscars on her shelves and she’s not even forty (for Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry). That’s some kind of spectacular acting accomplishment right there. We should be looking at the next Meryl Streep, a woman who can grow old with dignity and remain a well-respected and admired performer. So, I am quite surprised to find that Swank is starring in a direct-to-video Hammer horror film, The Resident.

And I’m trying to understand how that can happen.

I thought an Oscar was supposed to open doors...

Swank is, of course, still a formidable actor with a prestigious filmography. This year alone, she’s starring in Conviction. Last year, she appeared in Amelia – sure, the film didn’t steal any Oscars (or even nominations), but it was still a prestigious film. And yet her latest project, a film co-starring Christopher Lee and Jeffrey Dean Morgan will be going direct to videos in the States.

It’s not even a problem with the studio. Although Hammer Horror is regarded as something of a corny studio, producing any number of trashy films like The Devil Rides Out, they’ve relaunched in recent years, producing the notable theatrical releases of Let Me In (the remake of the classic horror Let the Right One In). It’s hard to believe that the studio, with an actress like Swank, couldn’t secure a theatrical release in the United States.

In fairness, there is what is known as “the Oscar curse” – the tendency of actors to disappear after winning an award. It’s a downward spiral which you can illustrate best with examples like Cuba Gooding Jr. Gooding went from being a promising rising star in Boyz in da Hood to the Oscar-winning supporting actor from Jerry Maguire to a supporting actor in blockbusters like Pearl Harbour to direct-to-video features like Hard-Wired. Similarly, Halle Berry has had difficulty leveraging her Oscar into success. Following Monster’s Ball, she appeared in films like Catwoman or Gothika.

It's an up-Hil struggle at times...

It’s easy to understand how things like this can happen. Actors who have toiled in obscurity suddenly find themselves in the spotlight – after years of making solid independent films, big paychecks and starring vehicles are proposed. It’s easy to understand the urge to just grab the nearest project, regardless of perceived quality. After all, the Oscars are an annual event and the prestige only lingers for so long. If you don’t want to end up trapped playing a quirky supporting role forever, you best grab the trashiest-sounding highest-paying film you can. And then you find yourself in a downward spiral.

Swank has arguably done this. Despite her continuing work on potential Oscar candidates, she’s appeared in all manner of popular cinema. She has a blink-and-you miss it cameo in Iron Man and was the lead actress in The Reaping, a horror about the biblical plagues in Middle America. She appeared in trash like The Core or P.S. I Love You, presumably to pay the bills – but perhaps because she liked the idea of being a blockbuster lead.

It doesn’t help that they simply don’t make movie stars like they used to. Actors like Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep were able to use their Oscar success to serve as a stepping stone to commercial success, and then alternate between big crowd-pleasing films and smaller critical darlings. There was a sense that once you were a “star” you were allowed to experiment – a movie could flop and you’d be fine, you’d just make a more mainstream movie the next time. These days things are more immediate. If an actor wants to stay in the public consciousness, they have to keep churning out performances, lest the limelight fade. If you look at the “big name” actors at a given moment, you’ll find the list will be radically different this year to the next one.

So maybe I can understand the factors which contributed to Swank’s current predicament. Maybe it isn’t permanent. Perhaps the next film will receive a theatrical release. She’d just far too talented an actress to end up starring in junk released direct-to-DVD, and she deserves far better.

2 Responses

  1. Well, I don’t know, everything she does either reeks of bait or paycheck, I find it hard to like her anymore. And you know my position on Million Dollar Baby.

    Where was she in Iron Man?

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