thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Angelica Huston Rises Above Smash

In Angelica Huston, gender, musicals, Smash on February 27, 2012 at 9:06 am

Phoebe B.

Grand moments in NBC’s new show Smash have been few and far between. After seeing many previews for it, I felt assured that the show would be full of big dance numbers, great songs (including some Marilyn favorites), and flashy costumes. The premiere had its moments like anytime Angelica Huston was onscreen, but not including Katherine McPhee’s (Karen) version of “Beautiful,” which was anti-climactic and quite frankly seemed an odd choice. But since then, there has been very little grand about Smash. Indeed, NY Mag’s TV recapper takes the show to task in the most hilarious way possible, while this reviewer wishes for something more like A Chorus Line—which was definitely what I was expecting and hoping for. However, there is one thing that is seriously grand and awesome about Smash, and that is Angelica Huston on network television. In fact, I think they really should have put her on top of the pyramid in the publicity shot (and not Katherine McPhee).

Aside from Angelica Huston, there is another relatedly redeeming thing about Smash: the show, as NY Mag’s recapper Rachel Shukert remarked, truly takes women’s ambition seriously. We see this in Ivy and Karen’s desire to be on Broadway; in Julia’s (Debra Messing) career taking precedence over her husband’s; and in Eileen’s (Huston) desire to go out on her own in the theater production world. In fact, in Julia’s marriage, she is the career-oriented one in the relationship and seemingly the major breadwinner. What makes these women lovable and remarkable is that they have ambition and work hard, rather than just the usual things like body, sex appeal, etc. Although, we also see how other men and women see them: an early shot of Ivy stays on and revels in her tush as do the series of people at the casting table. But, as Shukert says in her NY Mag recap,

“One of the things I genuinely like about this show is that so far, it has generally treated the career ambitions of its female characters seriously, as opposed to something of which they have to be disabused in order to be “lovable.” Smash, for all its flaws, shows us women who are lovable because of their talent, not in spite of it, and that’s why it’s so disappointing to see Karen be such a pushover about this.”

But the show’s push towards valuing smart and amazing women appears oddly conflicted. For example, when Karen travels back to Iowa for her best friend’s baby shower, another friend casually remarks, “Feminism is dead.” It appears that in Iowa everyone over 21 is married and/or with child, per Karen’s friend’s remarks. Because of this, Karen’s friend argues, Karen should let her boyfriend, Dev, take up the slack while she does this Marilyn, the Musical workshop. Granted this logic is fairly terrible, but it is seemingly the logic of the show in this particularly moment. And Dev’s proposal, which comes earlier in the episode, mind you, is something he suggests after he interrupts Karen’s drink with the director via an obnoxious performance of his manhood. At that moment too, he seemingly marks her as his territory through a uncomfortable performance of PDA. No wonder Karen is not too thrilled about accepting his offer. At once, the show celebrates Karen’s drive but undermines it by strange and anti-feminist moments like these. Smash does something similar with Ivy in showcasing her drive, but also figuring her as desperate for attention and thus falling prey to the dangers of the casting couch (she sleeps with the director).

And, this conflicted sense of women in Smash is mirrored in the ways in which Marilyn is imagined and produced for the musical. She is the powerhouse that inspires the show, but the musical they write within the show figures Marilyn somewhat meekly, and always in terms of the men she married. Smash’s Marilyn is far less complicated than–and has got nothing on–Michelle Williams’ version of the icon in My Week With Marilyn. That said, I do like Ivy, and am pleased she got the part.

Marilyn (Ivy) vs. Marilyn (Karen)

It is amidst this landscape of conflicted and waffling representations of women that Angelica Huston emerges as the magnificent Eileen. And she is divine. We encounter Eileen mid-divorce with her seriously slimy and cheating ex-husband, Jerry, with whom she is trying to negotiate a reasonable settlement. Rather than settle on an unfair compromise, she puts all their holdings in escrow, including but not limited to their co-production of My Fair Lady. But as My Fair Lady goes into escrow, so too does Marilyn, the character, emerge somewhat oddly as Eileen’s new American Eliza Doolittle. Just as both Marilyn and Eliza Doolittle make themselves over, so too it seems is that Eileen’s plan. But unlike, these characters, Eileen intends to do it on her own instead of relying on a man.

Eileen, unlike the other women of Smash, always comes off as strong with a slight hint of vulnerability. But she undoubtedly wants a career for herself at this moment in her life. Among the many things that make Eileen so grand are the ways that her expressions change so little no matter what is happening, as if she is above it all. She seems clearly more awesome and smarter than everyone she is working with. And she is delightfully no-nonsense, as indicated by her consistent Manhattan-tossing at her ex-husband each and every time she encounters him.

Angelica Huston as Eileen Rand looking quite smashing

As she gets out of her no-good marriage, Eileen becomes determined to maker her own life and do things for herself. One of the delightful things she does is she buys herself fancy and fake Marilyn-esque earrings. She finds them as she sells off jewelry presumably given to her by Jerry (the icky ex). For Eileen, the earrings–though small–represent her newfound freedom, which  she intends to enjoy and revel in. Later in the same episode, Jerry imagines that someone bought them for her and thus becomes jealous, resulting in a feeble attempt both to get her back and to harm Eileen’s chances of doing the production. Of course, as always, she throws a Manhattan at him and refuses his bullying help. At one moment, two potential backers suggest Eileen doesn’t quite have the head to do the finances. The nerve. If only she had had a drink to throw at them. I am worried that she might have to take his help–the potential backers she meets with seem horribly sexist, but only time will tell I suppose. Although, I feel confident that Huston’s performance as Eileen can rise above any sexist curveballs–like attempts to make Eileen more beholden to men.

One of the most wonderful parts about Huston’s Eileen Rand is that she exudes power and she is most certainly self-possessed. Her performance of femininity is unlike those that overrun the network landscape. She is not out to prove anything, including her sexiness, and instead exudes a wonderful kind of confidence and comfort in her own body. And she flatly rejects Jerry’s drive to turn her into a sex object (which results once again in her tossing a Manhattan on him). Plus, she wears fabulous black clothes. It is quite refreshing to see a female character on network TV who wants something for herself that is separate from the men in her life and that is not given to her by those men. Indeed, Eileen’s desire for a space created by her own musical, as symbolized it seems in her new earrings, is quite lovely to see. In a show that is rather conflicted about its women—from admiring and celebrating female ambition, although exclusively white female ambition, to suggesting feminism is dead—Eileen represents if not the sole, then definitely the main, reason to watch Smash.

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