Being Plain. Hollywood-style.

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Conversation /
December 07, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

Tommy Lee Jones may not have done the catering or cleaned-out the Porta-Loos, but he pretty much did everything else for The Homesman, having written, directed, produced and starred in this dreary tale of life in 1850s mid-West America.

While Tommy Lee does most of the heavy lifting, the film actually centres on Mary Bee Cuddy, a woman in her early 30s who lives “uncommonly alone” in Nebraska (although it’s actually New Mexico for much of the film).

Mary Bee pulled the short straw – or plucked the black bean as was apparently the style in Loup – and was charged with the task of horse-and-carting three women who had “lost their minds” over the border to Meryl’s Methodist manse in Iowa.

Tommy Lee, a onesie-clad scamp, gets dragooned by Mary Bee to aid in this multi-season odyssey.

Truth be told, there wasn’t much in the plot to capture my interest: if I’m going to watch a Western it needs to be a whole lot meatier than Tommy Lee and a wagon full o’ lady crazy. (In fact…. was that not exactly the same plot of Tommy’s 2005 film Man of the House? But I digress).

What interested me most about The Homesman was Mary Bee’s status as a single, and apparently desperate, lady pioneer.

Several times in the two-hour saga, Mary Bee is referred to as plain – “plain as an old tin pail”, apparently. Bossy too, but it appears that plain is the real passion-killer. Men would rather make a trip to the other side of the country than take Mary Bee as a bride.

Is the audience really supposed to pretend that we can’t see that it’s Hilary Swank in the role?

Are we truly expected to buy the premise that Hilary Swank can’t get herself a man because she’s so very unattractive?

Of course, the premise of the film “works” – or at least is saleable – because Mary lacks adornment. She wears no make-up, no jewels and in our culture, a female without bedazzlement is, apparently, plain.

Such malarkey, of course, is at the centre of innumerable Pygmalian-themed films where women – invariably gorgeous before but nonetheless routinely unadorned – get made-over to win the affections of the Prince/Prom King/Phonetics Professor.

Now, Voyager (1942)

My Fair Lady (1964)

Clueless (1995)

She’s All That (1999)

The Princess Diaries (2001)

Glasses are whisked away, hair is de-frizzed and lashings of colour are added in a deluge of Hollywood makeover scenes, each guaranteed to convince half-wit, shallow suitors that they’re ogling a whole new woman.

Assuming decent vision, The Homesman audience can likely see that Oscar-winning Hilary Swank is the same woman who, on screen, has simpleton cheesemakers and craggy felons telling her she’s plain.

But the premise of Mary’s predicament – that her plainness has left her both pure and pious – “works” because we can equally see that she isn’t wearing lipstick or pearls in a culture that beauty necessitates work.

James Spader with bad hair and a bad accent, Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer in the buff, Tommy Lee dancing a drunken jig and a bare-footed Hailee Steinfeld with only enough lines to fit on a postage stamp, are among the other curiosities offered in this tragic Old West road-trip.

Sourcing an Australian release date is providing difficult. I’m not entirely convinced however, that this is any great loss.

© Lauren Rosewarne