There Oughta be a Law!
As part of the 1996 Women in Hollywood issue of Movieline magazine, Joe Queenan examined the trend of actresses he considered to be miscast as lawyers. Queenan imagines a conspiracy starting with Cher in Suspect which leads to Cindy Crawford being cast as an attorney in Fair Game.
Way back in 1987, the ex-wife of future United States Congressman Sonny Bono appeared in the role of a resourceful, intelligent, heavily maxi-skirted lawyer in the film Suspect. The event did not precipitate any spontaneous, transcontinental, bipartisan, pluralistic, multicultural outburst of enthusiasm such as accompanied the release of Working Girl in 1988, Pretty Woman in 1990, Thelma & Louise in 1991 or White You Were Sleeping in 1995. By this I mean that America, having witnessed Cher’s exploits as a dim, dozy public defender hired to represent an odious bag person seemingly guilty of a brutal homicide, did not immediately burst into torrents of rapture, exclaiming, “Surely, this is the role that Cher was born to play!”
On the other hand, Cher’s performance in Suspect did not ignite a firestorm of national derision such as greeted Demi Moore after the release of the preposterous The Scarlet Letter in 1995, or Madonna once the critics took a gander at her work in Who’s That Girl? and Shanghai Surprise, or Sofia Coppola in the wake of her father’s ill-advised decision to give her Winona Ryder‘s part in The Godfather, Part III.
Am I saying that the public enjoyed Suspect? I am not. Am I saying that the American public found Cher credible, believable, persuasive and entertaining in the role of a public defender called upon to represent a bag person who has seemingly committed a brutal homicide with malice aforethought? I am not. Am I saying that Cher’s performance as a lawyer in Suspect directly spoke to the people of this great nation? I am not.
All I am saying is that when Cher, the only female in the history of the universe who could possibly introduce Sonny Bono as the second-dumbest man she ever married, played the part of a public defender in the 1987 film Suspect, the moviegoing public did not immediately erupt in a Vesuvius of disbelief commingled with fury and outrage at the thought of being played for suckers. No, for whatever the reason, the moviegoing public did not confront the powers-that-be in the motion picture industry with an ultimatum stipulating that henceforth all movies featuring female lawyers must bear some tenuous connection with reality, however feeble, however remote–or else they would not patronize their products.
It is impossible to overestimate the artistic carnage resulting from the public’s failure to do so. Why do I say this? Allow me, if you will, to wax philosophical for a few moments here. Not for the first time in these pages have I expressed the heart-felt conviction that everything that takes place in this universe has some hidden meaning and purpose, even Pauly Shore’s career. Things may happen for the wrong reason, and seemingly innocent actions may have disastrous consequences, but things do not just happen. They are all part of a cosmic master plan. Every act leads to the next act. Everything that happens happens so that something else can happen.
So it is with Cher’s appearance as a lawyer in Suspect. Why, one asks, would a serious, well-managed Hollywood studio cast Cher in the role of an adroit public defender when a legion of infinitely more believable actresses–Meryl Streep. Jane Alexander, Christine Land, Anjelica Huston–were overlooked for the part? The answer? Because Cher is merely the warning shot across the bow, the first fusillade in what initially appears to be a skirmish but is actually a war, the first indication of what monstrous atrocities lie ahead if the public refuses to defend itself.
Cher’s casting as a lawyer in Suspect was merely a diversionary beachhead in a much wider offensive, a sort of celluloid Anzio preparing the ground for a full-scale D-Day, an incident at Harper’s Ferry on the way to Gettysburg. Once the public neglected to hold public hearings, town meetings or lynchings to prevent a reprise of such a travesty, the path was cleared for far greater indignities. Let’s recap the official history. Once the public failed to take umbrage at Cher’s soporific performance in Suspect, the dainty, well-groomed Kelly McGillis was immediately cast as a hard-as-nails public prosecutor in the 1988 film The Accused. Distracted by Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance as a spunky rape victim, few noticed how ingeniously McGillis had been miscast in the role of a resourceful lawyer, or, for that matter, a resourceful anything.
After that, the floodgates burst. First, Theresa Russell appealed as a savvy public defender in Physical Evidence. Then Carré Otis was cast as a multilingual corporate attorney in Wild Orchid. Next, Demi Moore was cast as a prodigious litigator in A Few Good Men. Then Rebecca De Mornay was cast opposite Don Johnson as a top-flight attorney in Guilty as Sin. Then Julia Roberts was cast as a brilliant law student in The Pelican Brief. All of which led to 1995’s disaster Fair Game, in which Cindy Crawford played an attorney so gifted that she actually managed to nail her prey because of her expert command of the intricacies of federal maritime law.
That’s right, Cindy Crawford played a lawyer so gifted that she actually managed to nail her prey because of her expert command of the intricacies of federal maritime law.
“Alright, alright.” many readers will interject at this point, “we’ll admit that Hollywood has perhaps gone a bit overboard in its penchant for casting robo-babes as gifted, resourceful, brilliant attorneys. But that doesn’t mean that the American public should be unilaterally indicted for its failure to rebel against this trend. After all, Fair Game was a bomb, while Suspect, Wild Orchid, Guilty as Sin and Physical Evidence vanished without a trace. Moreover, in the three films that did fare reasonably well at the box office, the casting of Julia Roberts and Kelly McGillis and Demi Moore as lawyers was tangential to the ultimate success of the films. For example, Julia Roberts only played a law student–not a lawyer per se–in The Pelican Brief. The Accused racked up decent numbers at the box office because of Jodie Foster’s highly believable performance as a Tonya Harding prototype who wanders into the wrong bar. And A Few Good Men was a success because everyone in America wanted to see Big Jack face off against Tom Cruise.”
I am ready to concede these points, just as I am ready to concede that in the same time frame we have seen other films in which female lawyers were played with intelligence, passion and credibility by actresses as varied as Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Class Action). Jessica Lange (Music Box), Emma Thompson (In the Name of the Father) and Susan Sarandon (The Client). That does not vitiate the essential merit of my argument. Cher was deliberately cast as a lawyer in Suspect as part of a top secret, long-term plot to prepare the public for Kelly McGillis’s absurd casting as a lawyer in The Accused, Kelly McGillis was cast as a lawyer in The Accused to soften the public up for the twin outrages of Theresa Russell as a lawyer in Physical Evidence and Carré Otis as a lawyer in Wild Orchid. This duo was hired to try in vain to prep the movie-going public for the triple outrages of Demi Moore in A Few Good Men. Rebecca De Mornay in Guilty as Sin and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief. Moore, De Mornay and Roberts were cast in A Few Good Men, Guilty as Sin and The Pelican Brief in a kind of preemptive strike to prepare the public for Cindy Crawford’s role as a lawyer well-schooled in federal maritime law in Fair Game.
Anyone who has seen Fair Game can be excused for reaching the conclusion that Cindy Crawford’s casting as an attorney marks the end of this pitiful cinematic interlude, that with the box office disaster wrought by Ms. Crawford this cycle has spun itself dry. Tragically, their optimism is unfounded. No, the casting of the thoroughly unbelievable Cindy Crawford as a gifted attorney in Fair Game marks the final feint in a cunning industry-wide conspiracy to prepare the moviegoing public for the most ludicrous piece of casting of all. Hollywood insiders have assured me that at this very moment, a major studio is secretly preparing a remake of the 1960 classic Inherit the Wind, which pitted the peerless Spencer Tracy against the slightly-less-peerless Fredric March in an unforgettable courtroom drama centering on the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. The film, movie buffs will recall, dealt with the epic confrontation between America’s greatest attorney, Clarence Darrow, and William Jennings Bryan, an overarching political titan who led one of the most successful populist crusades in American history, and who himself unsuccessfully ran for the White House for decades on end. It is my honest belief that Hollywood is now preparing a $300 million distaff version of Inherit the Wind, to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow and produced by Barbra Streisand, with Elizabeth Berkley cast in the role of William Jennings Bryan and Juliette Lewis playing the part of Clarence Darrow.
Of course, as is so often the case with my theories, could be wrong.
If my elaborate theory about Cher, Kelly, Theresa, Carré, Demi, Rebecca, Julia and Cindy is in fact completely idiotic, what other explanation can we possibly find for their ridiculous miscastings in this string of highly implausible legal thrillers? Personally, I prefer a completely sexist explanation. It goes like this: Hollywood is deliberately making these movies as a way of sending a subliminal message to young females that the law is an ignoble and debasing profession where you are certain to lose your dignity, your integrity, your money, your health, your pants and your soul. In short, that you’ll end up like every male lawyer in this country.
Consider the evidence. In Suspect, a film in which Cher defends a seemingly guilty party, she is nearly murdered and only manages to crack the case by openly colluding with a flirtatious juror (Dennis Quaid). This is a clear cut case of jury tampering, and jury tampering is a felony. In short, Cher’s character is a dirtball. In Legal Eagles, a film in which Debra Winger defends a seemingly guilty party, she nearly gets murdered and only cracks the case by breaking and entering a warehouse where private records are stored. That’s a felony, strongly suggesting that Winger’s character is a dirtball.
In Guilty as Sin, a film in which Rebecca De Mornay defends a seemingly guilty party, she is nearly murdered and only ends up cracking the case by planting fake evidence against her own client. That would get any lawyer in any state of the Union disbarred, strongly suggesting that De Mornay’s character is a dirtball. In Physical Evidence, a film in which Theresa Russell defends a seemingly guilty party, she nearly gets herself murdered and only succeeds in cracking the case by falling in love with her own client, an unforgivable breach of barristerial ethics, strongly suggesting… well, you know.
Here, a personal note. I did not undertake this assignment with the intention of holding actresses such as Cher and Kelly and Theresa up to ridicule. Cast in the proper roles–like biker moms, unsuccessful prostitutes, serial killers or Tom Cruise’s girlfriend–they can be affecting, persuasive and even emotionally riveting. Yet by appearing in roles such as those we have cited here, they merely serve as stool pigeons in a mass conspiracy hatched by people named Herb and Mikey and Zalman to make women look bad. By portraying lawyers who are ethically inanimate, morally tumescent, intellectually sterilized, and too hot to trot with their wife-killing clients, this cadre of actresses does a vast disservice to the cause of feminism. By appearing in substandard films such as these, they send a message to teenage females that the law is the exclusive province of dirtball males, that they’d be better off forsaking their dreams of a career in the law and instead becoming seamstresses, waitresses or ice pick-wielding psychopaths who don’t wear any underwear.
Therefore, as a public service, I have compiled a Home Video Guide to Dud Female Lawyers which should be in every home in America where there are young girls who dream of standing for, rather than behind or atop, the bar.
I hope that my efforts will be appreciated.
Lackluster Lady Lawyers on Film
The Accused — Kelly McGillis plays a hotshot public prosecutor called upon to nail the guys who raped Jodie Foster. When she doesn’t nail them nearly hard enough, McGillis persuades Foster to let her prosecute the guys who cheered the rapists on while they were debasing her. This provides the director with an excellent opportunity to reenact the entire rape scene for the benefit of moviegoers who have never raped, been raped, or cheered rapists while they raped rapists. Exploitation, anyone? Jodie is excellent, but the pinball machines in the room where the rape takes place are more animated than Kelly McGillis.
A Few Good Men — Demi Moore plays a navy lawyer who desperately wants to defend two marines accused of murder. Her superiors decide that the two seemingly guilty marines already have enough problems without getting Demi Moore into the act, so they assign hotshot lawyer Tom Cruise to the case. Cruise spends the entire movie intimating in the strongest possible terms that Demi Moore doesn’t know her ass from third base. An interesting, well-made film strongly suggesting that the Federal Government cannot be trusted, particularly if it keeps hiring lawyers like Demi Moore.
Class Action — Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays a hotshot corporate lawyer who must defend an obviously guilty car company against charges that it makes cars that kill people. Representing the plaintiff who is suing the car company is her dad, a bleeding-heart liberal and philanderer played by the irascible Gene Hackman.
Mastrantonio has spent her entire life hating her dad for being a bleeding-heart liberal and philanderer, and has worked long and hard to become a partner in an evil law firm that makes its money by representing evil car companies that make cars that kill people. But at the crucial moment, she betrays her evil client and turns over a key witness to her father. Of all the actresses who play lawyers in this group of films, Mastrantonio is the only one who looks, acts and talks like a lawyer–until she betrays her evil client and turns over a key witness to her father, who will corroborate the company’s malfeasance, something no real-life corporate lawyer would ever do, because all corporate lawyers are evil. The movie does contain one great scene, where Mastrantonio’s mother keels over and dies in the local courthouse in a kind of theatrical, symbolic demise that God should force all mothers of lawyers to experience.
The Client — Susan Sarandon plays a recovering lush and low-rent lawyer who refuses to let her 11-year-old client tell the Feds where a crooked politician’s corpse is buried, because then the Feds would go out and arrest the murderer and the kid wouldn’t have to worry about being killed by the Mafia and the movie would be over. A tedious film, based on a John Grisham novel, that ends in an airplane hangar with the main character flying off to enter the witness protection program–an odd ending for a script which has heretofore moved heaven and earth to suggest that the United States Government cannot be trusted.
Fair Game — Cindy Crawford plays a crusading family attorney who knows more than she should know–perhaps the truth about that gerbil. Invoking federal maritime law, in a scene about as believable as Claudia Schiffer invoking the Dred Scott decision, Crawford threatens to impound a ship owned by an alimony deadbeat, little knowing that the ship is the nerve center of a global thievery ring. Marked for death by the menaced ne’er-do-wells, Cindy escapes in the company of Billy Baldwin, who plays a courageous but slow-witted cop. But the thieves stay hot on her trail, sometimes by impersonating FBI agents, other times by following a string of credit card purchases.
This is exactly the same thing that happened to Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief. Question: Since Cindy Crawford looks like the kind of lawyer who learned everything she knows about the law by buying tickets to movies based on John Grisham novels she didn’t read, and since The Pelican Brief was made in 1993, more than a full year before Fair Game, why does she keep using credit cards and falling for the old bad-guys-impersonating-FBI-agents scam? Doesn’t anyone in bad movies ever go to see the other bad movie that the current bad movie is a carbon copy of, and thus find out that you can’t use your credit card when fleeing bad guys, because the bad guys will impersonate FBI agents who cannot be trusted? Is anyone out there paying attention? Or is it just me? Fair Game does contain one good line, which the harried Crawford delivers to Baldwin: “Stop, those are police cars.”
Guilty as Sin — Rebecca De Mornay plays a hotshot criminal lawyer who, for no very good reason, decides to defend Don Johnson, a playboy accused of brutally murdering his wife. Even though Johnson is obviously guilty, because he inherits everything once his wife is out of the way, De Mornay continues to defend him, because it gives her a chance to show how nice she looks in (and out of) tight lawyer’s clothes, and because she probably thinks that if she can just delay long enough, the director will figure out a way for the movie to make sense. A film that strongly suggests that the entire American legal establishment cannot be trusted, Guilty as Sin contains one good line. When De Mornay asks her client why he didn’t wear gloves when he murdered his wife, Johnson sneers, “Killing with gloves on would be like fucking with a rubber.”
Somehow, this seems like the sort of thing Don Johnson would say.
In the Name of the Father — Emma Thompson plays a hotshot, crusading lawyer who defends Daniel Day-Lewis against charges that he and some of his Irish mates blew up a pub in London. The film strongly suggests that the government cannot be trusted. Especially the government of a country that produces people like Emma Thompson.
Jagged Edge — Glenn Close plays a hotshot corporate lawyer who used to be a crusading public prosecutor, but who quit because her partner suppressed evidence that would have gotten an innocent man acquitted. For no very good reason, her superiors decide that she should defend Jeff Bridges, a playboy accused of brutally murdering his wife. Even though Bridges is obviously guilty, because he inherits everything once his wife is out of the way, Close falls in love with him, and gets him off, as he does her.
Then, unexpectedly, she stumbles upon a telltale piece of physical evidence–a typewriter with a busted key–proving that Bridges killed his wife, something that would never happen if he owned a PC. So she stops riding horses with him, stops sleeping with him, and then kills him. Based on a Joe Eszterhas script where everyone in the audience knows that the defendant is guilty, there’s lots of horseback riding, there’s a key piece of physical evidence that gets discovered too late, and the government cannot be trusted.
Legal Eagles –Debra Winger plays a dippy ambulance chaser who must defend the obviously guilty Daryl Hannah against charges that she did what she obviously did. Throughout the film, Winger dresses like a schoolmarm and her voice keeps cracking. So what else is new?
Music Box — Jessica Lange plays a hotshot criminal lawyer who must defend her Hungarian immigrant father against charges that he murdered half the Jewish population of Budapest during the Second World War. Even though Pop is obviously guilty, Lange is deeply in love with him, and gets him off. Then, unexpectedly, she stumbles upon a telltale piece of physical evidence–a music box with a bunch of photos of Pop and his Nazi chums–proving that Dad killed half the Jewish population of Budapest. So she stops allowing her son to ride horses with him, then turns over the damning photos to the Feds, whom she originally hated because they were always using falsified evidence. A Joe Eszterhas script where everyone in the audience knows that the defendant is guilty, there’s lots of horseback riding, there’s a key piece of physical evidence that gets discovered too late, and the government cannot be trusted.
The Pelican Brief — Julia Roberts plays a hotshot legal student, a harrowing reminder that things could be worse in Lady Lawyer Cinema–actresses like Roberts could be playing hotshot legal eagles. A tedious film, based on a John Grisham novel, that ends in an airplane hangar with the main character flying off to enter the witness protection program, an odd ending for a script which has heretofore moved heaven and earth to suggest that the United States Government cannot be trusted.
Physical Evidence — Theresa Russell plays a crusading, hotshot public defender who must defend suspended cop Burt Reynolds against charges that he murdered one of his snitches. Throughout the proceedings, the harried Russell appears to be reading her lines off a Teleprompter. Perhaps the only time in Burt’s career that someone cast opposite him gave a worse performance than he did.
Suspect — Cher plays a crusading, hotshot public defender who must defend Liam Neeson against charges of illegal possession of a concealed brogue. Actually, Neeson plays a deaf-mute in the film, and is cast as a psychopathic bag person accused of murdering a woman who stumbled upon incontrovertible evidence that the Federal Government cannot be trusted, and who was trying to get the information into Oliver Stone’s hands. Ironically, Neeson looks like a roadie for Cher’s ex-husband Gregg’s old group, the Allman Brothers Band, which makes it all but impossible for Cher to convince the jury that he is innocent.
Wild Orchid — Carré Otis speaks four languages and has a degree in international law, but that doesn’t prevent her from putting on a cat mask and screwing a complete stranger while boyfriend Mickey Rourke looks on. The horrifying subtext of this film seems to be that even if you can speak four languages and have a degree in international law and look like Carré Otis, you’re still going to end up with a sleazeball like Mickey Rourke. Hey, just ask Carré.
Joe Queenan wrote about the Merchant Ivory oeuvre in the November ’95 Movieline.
Posted on April 9, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged A Few Good Men, Cher, Cindy Crawford, Demi Moore, Fair Game, Guilty as Sin, Kelly McGillis, Rebecca De Mornay, Suspect, The Accused. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.