The Judy Greer effect: Why a ridiculously talented actress gets stuck with so many thankless roles
On paper, 2015 could hardly look like a bigger year for Judy Greer. Just this summer, she will appear in no fewer than four high-profile Hollywood releases: Tomorrowland, Entourage, Jurassic World, and Ant-Man. Those movies have already grossed a combined total of $1.7 billion and counting; Ant-Man, which hits theaters on Friday, will probably earn hundreds of millions more. It's entirely possible that the combined grosses of the movies in which she appears will be higher than those of any other actor or actress in 2015.
Of course, if you actually saw those movies, you'd be hard-pressed to describe Greer's roles as an actress' dream. In Tomorrowland, she plays protagonist Casey's mom — a small role that became even smaller when most of her work ended up on the cutting-room floor. In Entourage, she plays "Casting Director" — one of the few celebrities who wasn't cast to cameo as herself. In Jurassic World, she plays Karen, the older sister tasked with lecturing Bryce Dallas Howard on the joys of motherhood. And in Ant-Man, she plays Maggie, the ex-wife of star Paul Rudd — standing on the sidelines as he enters an exciting new life of superheroism.
How did an actress as charismatic and multifaceted as Judy Greer end up in so many tiny, thankless roles? It's a baffling missed opportunity that can be traced all the way back to the beginning of her career. In movie after movie — The Wedding Planner, 27 Dresses, Love Happens, Playing for Keeps — Greer has threatened to steal the movie from the bland actress cast in the romantic lead, despite her exponentially more limited screen time. At the start of her career, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing; in the theoretical version of Hollywood's path to stardom, putting in the hours on those small supporting roles — and performing them well — generally leads to bigger and better opportunities. This summer, Greer's movies have gotten bigger, but her parts have gotten smaller.
Greer is nothing if not aware of the strange state of her career. When an interviewer confessed he was unfamiliar with her role in the 2013 play Dead Accounts, she said, "Katie Holmes was in it. If you heard about a Katie Holmes play, that was the one." Last year, Greer published a memoir with the title I Don't Know What You Know Me From: My Life as a Co-Star. "You've heard the phrase 'There are no small roles, just small actors?'" she wrote. "Well, I kind of disagree. There are small roles, but when you get a lot of them in a row, you can become a pretty successful actress, and that's what I've done."
There is, fortunately, one real vessel for Greer's talents this summer: The FX comedy Married, which premieres its second season on Thursday. Of course, the only recent role that actually draws on Greer's range of talents is the one that doesn't pay well. "I recently took a major pay cut for a role I actually love," she wrote in Glamour. "The character is smart and funny and has no use for high heels. It's a breath of fresh air to go to work every day and tell my TV husband he's lazy and needs to find his own damn keys. I've never been happier. But I am definitely not buying a new car this year."
Hollywood has a weird, self-perpetuating dead zone for actresses like Greer. It's a strange combination of factors: typecasting, sexism, and an industry that disproportionately produces movies full of great roles for actors and anemic stereotypes for actresses. "I've watched as men I started out with — guys who worked with the same directors and on the same types of shows as I did — climbed the ladder and landed larger roles with even larger paychecks," wrote Greer. "I'd always hoped that my career and salary would follow theirs. But instead the pay gap kept growing."
There's another reason Greer has spent 2015 playing ex-wives and mothers. A 2014 study from SDSU's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film shows that a full 58 percent of the limited roles that do exist for women in Hollywood are "personal roles" like wife or mother. If current trends hold, things are going to get even worse for Greer and the many talented actresses like her. In just a few weeks, she'll turn 40. The same study reveals that just 17 percent of female film characters are in their 40s — a steep decline from the 30 percent of female film characters in their 30s. For a working actress in that range, any role will be hard-fought — to say nothing of a role that actually draws upon her full range of abilities as an actress.
Judy Greer's summer of thankless roles in huge blockbusters presents a particularly stark and galling example — but really, this state of affairs is bad for everyone. It's bad for the creative side of Hollywood, which falls back on homogenous variations of the same bland story. It's bad for the business side of Hollywood, which leaves money on the table by focusing on a needlessly narrow demographic. It's bad for actresses, who are forced to compete for roles that aren't all that compelling anyway. And it's bad for audiences, who are denied the opportunity to see some terrifically talented performers doing their best work.
But frustrating as it is to see a sparkling talent untapped for years and years, I don't want to fall into the trap of talking about these trends like they're inevitable, and not merely the product of a system. It would take the smallest of recalibrations to balance the whole thing out.
So Hollywood, here's a free movie pitch: Judy Greer plays Judy, a ferociously skilled actress who keeps getting cast in bland, forgettable bit parts: a nagging mother, a gossipy sister, a long-suffering wife. Fed up with an industry that refuses to give her a decent role, she breaks out on her own and starts a Hollywood studio. Or a detective agency. Or maybe a vampire bites her. Whatever. Just grab the best script you have lying around right now — as long as it features a real role for a talented actress. She's good for it.