Hollywood is built on habits and typecasting. No matter how expansive an actor's talents are, the biz will try to keep him in a neat bubble. New actors are urged to avoid versatility and embrace typecasting so they can "stand out from the competition." Race generally dictates the type of roles an actor will be offered.
But there's another element to Hollywood typecasting that has plagued many talented actresses: the divide between film and television. An actress with a diverse television resume can get pigeonholed into a single type of film role. (See Rose Byrne, whose dramatic work in Damages has been forgotten now that she's a go-to actress in Hollywood comedies.) Other times, an actress can show depth on TV while getting nothing but fluff on the big screen. (Kristen Bell, who jump-started her career as Veronica Mars, then got stuck in a mainstream movie trajectory dominated by rom-coms.)
This isn't just a bad use of talent; it robs audiences of the joy that comes with an unexpectedly powerful performance. There's nothing like the rush of seeing an actor thrive in an unanticipated way. Think Mike Myers in Inglorious Basterds, Michael Keaton in Batman, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia.
It's time to lessen viewer fatigue by giving actresses a mix of characters, rather than one type that will quickly become old. If nothing else, it adds a level of freshness to the onslaught of remake cinema. Here are five women who have displayed enormous talent on TV — and who deserve the same thing on the big screen:
1. Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy has exploded on the big screen over the last three years, from her ass-kicking Megan in Bridesmaids to the tough cop Mullins in The Heat. Thematically, McCarthy is getting to do everything from comedy to action. But whatever the genre, her character is always the same: the most audacious, bawdy woman she can be. The conceit is fun in doses, but it masks her range.
In McCarthy's early days, she was the everywoman — the roommate in an awkward situation in Go, or the earnest office worker in Charlie's Angels. She perfected the approach as Sookie St. James in Gilmore Girls. McCarthy used her flying hands and spinning energy to great effect — but with a relatable humanity. Sookie was a beautiful blend of uniqueness and warmth that gave audiences slapstick comedy without ever reducing the character to stereotype. In fact, she was able to do so without ever being seen as the big or strange woman — a perk her newfound stardom has yet to embrace.
2. Taraji P. Henson
Judging by her cinematic work alone, Taraji P. Henson is a talent who gets the kind of roles generally reserved for black actresses: she stars in Tyler Perry movies and romances, and she’s a go-to for supporting gigs when films need women of color. An Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button couldn't bring a better mix of work; six years later, her 2014 films had her thinking like a man and getting terrorized by a vicious intruder.
Her work on the small screen, however, is entirely different. After guest spots on a number of shows, she played part of a team of female cops in The Division, a fierce lawyer on Boston Legal, and the principled, doomed detective Joss Carter on Person of Interest. Though all the shows dealt with the law, the mix of characters she played allowed for a charismatic strength and depth her mainstream film persona has rarely been allowed to show.
3. Gillian Anderson
Gillian Anderson's TV rise was meteroic. One year after her first feature role, she became Dana Scully in the classic sci-fi series The X-Files, and earned an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role. During the show's run, her impressive work ranged from lending her voice to Princess Mononoke to appearing in the period drama The House of Mirth. But after the show, Anderson nabbed only a handful of notable film roles before a raft of forgettable work.
The American actress ended up continuing her TV career in Britain, in series like Bleak House, Moby Dick, and The Fall. It took 11 years for Anderson to get more big stateside work — as Hannibal Lecter's shrink in Hannibal — but she hasn't led a mainstream film since 2008, which saw her playing Dana Scully yet again in The X-Files: I Want to Believe. The most recent film gig on her resume: The upcoming Robot Overlords.
4. Sandra Oh
Sandra Oh is one of the most underutilized actresses in Hollywood. She's proven herself repeatedly, but ends up in heaps of supporting work. After time as a TV teacher, detective, personal assistant to a sports agent, and cartoon voice artist, she finally thrived as Cristina Yang in Grey's Anatomy; she commanded the screen, and had 10 years to become a pillar of the series.
On film it's a whole other matter. The big-screen work Sandra Oh is known: the friend, lover, or authority figure who offers a moment of sage advice. In 2014, it amounted to playing Kathy Bates' lover in Tammy — a supporting character for a supporting character. Though she has left Grey's Anatomy, she has only one new project on the way: 33 Liberty Lane, an ensemble comedy about women who start a phone sex company. She has yet to nab a headlining part in a non-Canadian production.
5. Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin had an absolutely explosive debut to cinema. Her first role, as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, earned her an Oscar for best actress. In the following years, her film work would only trickle in: getting terrorized by a corrupt cop in Hear No Evil, needing help in In Her Defense, or leading the (better forgotten) What the Bleep.
On the big screen, Matlin is the actress who faded away — but on the small screen, her work has never waned. She played assistant D.A. Kaufman in Reasonable Doubts, a mayor in Picket Fences, a political operative in The West Wing, an artist in The L Word, a voice on Family Guy, and a mom on Switched at Birth.
Her last film work: Playing one of many diner patrons in The One I Love — her only narrative theatrical release in over a decade.
Girls on Film is a weekly column focusing on women and cinema. It can be found at TheWeek.com every Friday morning. And be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter feed for additional femme-con.