Inside Amy Schumer sends up Hollywood magnificently. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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This Inside Amy Schumer sketch about the media's treatment of "older" women is perfect

Passing the age of "believable fuckability".

If Julia Louis-Dreyfus chugging a pint of melted ice cream, then letting rip a sizeable, rasping fart doesn’t fill you with the kind of warmth usually stimulated by, say, a basket of puppies, I don’t think we can be friends.

And this is just a snippet of a sketch from this week’s season premiere of Inside Amy Schumer, which beautifully, caustically and, in a way quite seriously, rips it out of Hollywood’s treatment of older women. And by “older”, I mean forty to fifty-somethings, which, in an age where people regularly make it past 100, hardly seems old. We see Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette (both “older women” by Hollywood standards) join Louis-Dreyfus in celebrating her last day of “being fuckable”.

Louis-Dreyfus explains that this is the point at which the media decides that, as an actress, you’ve surpassed the age of believable fuckability. So, where you were once cast as a sexpot, you’re now cast as a long sweater-wearing frump. It’s when you start getting offered sexless and dowdy roles like Mrs Claus. An apt example of this being Sally Field’s stealthy transformation from Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline to his mother in Forrest Gump. And no, the same rules do not apply to men.

Aged 65, Harrison Ford was still Indiana Jones. Aged 58, Bruce Willis was still vesting it up and refusing to die hard as John McClane. Meanwhile, Michelle Pfeiffer, in her fifties, is hardly still playing Catwoman. Can you imagine? Well actually I totally can imagine, but I’m not Christopher Nolan, so tough tits.

But Louis-Dreyfus, the extremely fuckable Seinfeld and Veep star, is sanguine about her transition to unfuckableness, hence the ice cream-chugging and farting. She can let it all hang out now. “I can grow my pubes out,” she says, shortly before being cast off in a ceremonial “no longer fuckable” rowing boat in the style of a funeral barge, with “Sally Field wuz here” carved into it.

Not only does this sketch throw ample shade at that toxic combination of sexism and ageism, ever present in show business, it’s also a giant “fuck you” to everyone still banging on about women not being funny. What’s more, it’s a true sign of women in comedy having reached a critical mass, where they can safely criticise the double standards that plague their own professional lives. They can also fart, talk about pubes and generally be extremely toiletty. And by “toiletty”, I mean (in short) unashamed of their bodily functions.

The more that gender politics are prodded and poked at in mainstream comedy, the closer we get to anything resembling equality on our screens. And if that prodding and poking also happens to involve farts, all the better. Because, I’m sorry, farts are funny. And toiletty, irreverent and pubic women are the future.

I’ve always been suspicious of comedy with a message. Generally speaking, moralising of any kind is about as funny as a replacement bus service. But this absolutely perfect Amy Schumer sketch manages to make a very serious point, without compromising a single LOL. This is what so many funny women do best.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era