The Headly Surprise: Up in the Air

Welcome back to another round of The Headly Surprise! Today’s honoree is Vera Farmiga as Alex in Up in the Air. This 2009 film follows middle-aged Ryan (George Clooney) as he crisscrosses the country firing people for companies too chicken to do the firing themselves. It’s a bleak premise, and the movie carries that feeling throughout, not least because Ryan is, by nature and by habit, kind of a dick. He gives lectures on how to stay emotionally disconnected from others, and he has a trunkful of reasons why his job is helping people rather than devastating them. Of course, Ryan is played by the puppy-dog eyes and aww-whatever-I-did-I-promise-not-to-do-it-again-baby half-smile of George Clooney, so we can’t totally hate him.

Vera Farmiga Up in the Air

I ain't lookin' for love, but I am looking at you. (photo from

Our wayward hero meets Alex in a VIP airline lounge, and they bond over car rental discounts and credit card miles before having a passionate night in Ryan’s hotel room. They sync their calendars to meet up again in various cities around the country, as both their jobs keep them almost perpetually on the move. All goes well until Ryan’s young colleague Natalie lectures him on using Alex instead of committing to her. [**SPOILER ALERT**] Ryan feels inspired to ditch his emotionally stunted viewpoint, and he surprises Alex at her Chicago home in one of those grand romantic gestures that the movies have primed us to receive for decades. But uh oh! Alex is furious that he’s shown up, since she’s married with two kids, and he could ruin her home life with any displays of affection. Ryan returns to Omaha and his previous life a bit sadder and, of course, a bit wiser.

Alex’s Headly Surprise status rests in the way the movie handles this big reveal. There’s no commentary on how her cheating is immoral, or how it makes her a bad mother. In fact, the movie does a neat job of setting Alex up to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, there to help Ryan find himself without having her own personality, needs, or desires; it then inverts those expectations by showing that this part of her life, which is so central to Ryan and the movie, is merely in her periphery. Her real life is with her family, and Ryan, fond as she is of him, is just an escape.

And she made no bones about that. Sure, she never told Ryan she was married, but from their first encounter, she sets up their boundaries so they’re both on the same page; she wants a no-strings-attached, uncomplicated, passionate affair. This is what Ryan wants too, and it’s why they work so well together, at least until he starts to fall in love with her. Then Natalie gives him that push over the edge into acknowledging his feelings and suddenly he doesn’t just want a passionate affair anymore.

About Natalie’s speech: she’s not wrong to tell a grown man to stop leading a woman on and tell her how he really feels and take steps toward building a life with her. She just happens to be wrong in this instance because she doesn’t know what Ryan does, namely, that Alex explicitly said what she did and did not want. Alex even expresses this at the end of the movie, saying how surprised she is at Ryan’s hurt, since she never said she wanted more than what they had and she’d thought they were on the same page with that.

This is a wonderful example of listening to what a woman says instead of listening to what you think she means, or what you want to hear. We are far too ready in these United States to dismiss a woman’s words as game playing or indecisiveness, rather than her actual thoughts and feelings. This has very real and dangerous consequences, of course–see all the men who stalk women who have told them they aren’t interested, or the men who rape women who say no, or the legislators who tell women that they don’t really want an abortion no matter what they say. There are other, less physically harmful, consequences to this line of thinking, too, like assuming a woman must be coyly angling for a commitment when she says she needs no such thing. This robs women of their agency and reinforces the idea that they’re untrustworthy, scheming beings instead of autonomous individuals fully capable of making their own decisions and expressing their own desires. If our needs and wants aren’t heard when we plainly state them, it’s no wonder some women start speaking in the code that’s expected of us, just to eventually get the desired result one way or another.

Anyway, Ryan is clearly upset by what he sees as Alex’s betrayal, but he doesn’t argue with her that she was anything but upfront about their relationship. The film honors her character as a three-dimensional person who makes the possibly ill-advised decision to cheat on her husband without punishing her explicitly. It hurts her to lose Ryan, but we get the sense that her life will carry on without him pretty well, and she’ll maybe think of him wistfully in a hotel here and there. That kind of complex characterization is rarely afforded to women who cheat in film; they’re usually shown as sluts or too simpleminded to make up their minds about which man to love more. Alex knows which man she loves and builds a life with, but she’s not above finding some good times on the side as she travels for one-third of the year. She’s not perfect, but she’s not a devil, and for that, she earns The Headly Surprise.

The Headley Surprise: Before Sunrise

Ladies and gents, it’s time for that occasionally recurring Stowaway feature — The Headley Surprise! Today we welcome Julie Delpy and her Before Sunrise character Celine to the canon, and I tell you, I was so pleased with her. In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, French college student Celine (Julie Delpy) meets American post-grad Jesse (Ethan Hawke) on the train from Budapest, and soon they’re disembarking in Vienna and spending the whole night talking, kissing, and watching the morning arrive, before parting ways with promises to meet again in six months. This movie is 15 years old, so I knew the basic story before ever putting it in my Netflix queue, but the execution of that story was more beautiful than I’d expected.

julie delpy before sunrise looks at Ethan Hawke in the train

Julie Delpy, another Headley Surprise

Linklater’s favorite technique is to take a movie consisting entirely of long monologues and philosophical debates, shoot it in an interesting locale or format, and hope that the speeches are good enough to carry the plotless film. (This strategy even mostly worked in Waking Life.) In Before Sunrise, it works magnificently, due in no small part to the magnetic performance of Delpy, who is instantly likeable and entirely believable as a young woman trying to figure out how to move away from her loving parents into a life of her own.

Before Sunrise is often described as a romantic comedy, although it’s more of a straight romance. Either way, Celine defies genre convention. If this were a normal romantic comedy of the last thirty years, Celine would be desperate for a man, but too uptight to get one (in adult rom coms) OR she’d be too strange or superficially unattractive and in need of a makeover in order to realize she wants a man and can win one (in teen rom coms).

Some of it is a function of the age of the characters; in adult rom coms, it is all about MARRIAGE and BABIES and THAT BLAND POTTERY BARN FURNITURE SET THAT PROVES OUR ETERNAL LOVE,

The Proposal Sandra Bullock

"I am telling you for the last time, I have a very busy career -- oh all right, if you're going to insult me like that, I give in. Kisses!"


Rachel Leigh Cook in She's All That wears glasses

"Wait, did you just glance my way? I never thought to brush my hair before now! All my artistic dreams seem silly compared to being your prom date!"

Celine is in her last year of university at the Sorbonne,  so she’s in that particular place of in-betweenness and uncertainty, as you start to realize that you are not as worldly as you thought you were at age eighteen, and that actually the world is kind of terrifying if you have to navigate it totally on your own. She’s not in any popularity contests anymore, and people haven’t started asking when she’s going to settle down yet.

Ages 21-24 are pretty scary territory to navigate, but they’re also a time of great freedom in Western society, when it’s ok to not be just like everyone else. You were expected to toe the party line in high school, and you’d better start cultivating domesticity soon, but for right now, you can try other things, maybe even see who you are without all those expectations. So age is definitely a factor.

But Celine could still be desperate for Jesse to find her attractive and do whatever he liked to get that attention. She could find herself in a dangerous situation with this strange man and be told she asked for it by not being more careful. She could laugh at all his jokes and agree with whatever he said so as not to appear too smart or threatening. But she does none of these things (ok, she does laugh at his jokes, but fair enough, she seems quick to laugh in general). She has her own opinions and she states them. She is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t seem at all concerned by wearing her rumpled traveling clothes while flirting with Jesse. Here’s the other factor – she’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl (damn Nathan Rabin for coining a term I’ve been trying to define for years).

MPDGs are women with childlike interests and worldviews who spontaneously attach themselves to the mopey hero of the tale, who is in serious need of some life-altering sex and full-fledged adoration from a woman with no discernible personality other than “quirky helpmeet.” (See Garden State, Along Came Polly, half the cast of Love Actually.) MPDGs are usually assigned to comedies, but they can be found in dramas and romances, too, especially in death dramas like (Sweet November, Love Story, etc.).  Jesse is clearly a mopey man in need of some life altering, but Celine doesn’t exist just for that purpose; you can see the story equally as that of an energetic woman in need of some conversation and life affirmation. (Hint: if you can switch the focus of the story fairly easily from one major character to another, you have two fully developed characters.)

Celine and Jesse do eventually have sex, but not until two important things are said: 1) Celine goes back and forth a bit on the issue, but not as a tease; she’s genuinely trying to figure out if this will ruin or perfect a lovely night. She expresses her concerns to Jesse, saying something along the lines of, “I think I wanted to sleep with you as soon as we got off the train, but now I don’t know.” She tells him she doesn’t want to sleep with him just so he can go home and brag to all his buddies about banging a French girl in Europe. 2) Jesse responds by saying that it’s not that important that they have sex, and even though he clearly really wants to, there’s no implication that he thinks she’s a frigid bitch for not doing it, and it’s clear that she is a person he cares about and so she wouldn’t just become bragging rights.

How often do we hear these kinds of conversations take place in the movies? These are real concerns in the real world, and they have a lot of dramatic potential, too, from an artistic perspective. They humanize the characters so much, and when they do start kissing and roll over into the dark to begin undressing, it is sexy and sweet at the same time, and not a boring inevitability or titillating display.

julie and ethan stare deeply into one another's eyes

Oh yeah, they totally do it later

A palm reader appears at one point and tells Celine that she will grow into a great woman. She then gestures to Jesse and says “he’s learning,” which Jesse finds insulting, as if he doesn’t matter, but it’s true that his outlook is much less mature than Celine’s. We get no sense that Celine is settling, though, when she spends the night with him. She’s figuring out what she wants in life, and for this night, she wanted him. There’s no slut-shaming and she didn’t do what he wanted to do without regard for her own wishes. She really is growing into a great woman, and this lovely film captures one of the days on that journey.

Of course, there’s a sequel (Before Sunset), and I’m apprehensive about seeing it, but probably I will. I hope Linklater keeps Celine’s intelligence and independence, because these really made her a terrific Headley Surprise.


Post Script:

Another Richard Linklater film that really surprises me with its occasional tip of the hat to strong women characters is Dazed and Confused. In his best-known work, the Parker Posey character is the female version of the Ben Affleck character; both of them take gender roles at their crudest and harshest and make those their rules to live by, which, if not easy to watch, is interesting to see portrayed. And the movie has other teenage girls with their own personalities, thoughts, and dreams; maybe not as many as the boys, since they’re not the main focus, but they’re not all relegated to being just props, either. (Some are – the sophomore who spends the night with the freshman, among others.)  Sure, the boys talk about them the ways teenage boys talk about girls, as sexual conquests to be made, T&A to check out, and girlfriends to be avoided. But we get to see the girls as themselves, by themselves, too, whether it’s having feminist lite conversations about the gender politics of Gilligan’s Island or worrying over whether other girls like them.

I find the movie as a whole too unpleasant to watch anymore, with its relentless focus on vicious “initiation” scenes that are cast in the same nostalgic glow as the pool hall or the Aerosmith concert, but the last time I watched it, I was struck by how many of the female characters were as fully realized as the male characters.

Total Recall: Totally Badass Heroine

This weekend I watched Total Recall for the first time, and while it’s not my most favorite action movie, it features what I’m going to call The Headly Surprise. Remember that review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote a while back? (If not, go read and enjoy.) The happy surprise in that movie was that a pretty woman (Glenne Headly) deceived the male leads and was not punished for it, but rather was celebrated. It’s so rare to see that happen in mainstream culture, including Hollywood movies. So rare, in fact, that I think we should point it out when it happens and jump up and down a little with excitement.

And so I bring you a sporadic feature, The Headly Surprise. Whenever I see a movie that features a woman not punished by the film for something women usually get punished for, I’ll mention it here. This doesn’t necessarily mean a physical punishment, but can include the way the woman is talked about or the way the movie frames her. A Headly Surprise movie may include: a woman is smart but isn’t labeled uppity, a bitch, or cold-hearted; a woman is not white but survives the end of the film (if it’s an action film) or isn’t the sassy best friend (if it’s a comedy with a white protagonist); a woman is pretty but there are no nude shots or lingering shots of her body; a woman is fat but her desire for sex isn’t laughed at; a woman has no desire to have sex with men and isn’t derisively called a lesbian or a bitch; a woman saves her own damn self from the villain; etc. The Headly Surprise is usually a movie showing love for, instead of fear of, a badass woman.

Glenne Headley

Glenne Headly, Hollywood badass (image via

Which brings us to today’s entry in the canon of The Headly Surprise: Rachel Ticotin as Melina in Total Recall. The basic plot of the movie (which is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story I haven’t read called “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) is thus: After a bad trip to the implanted-memory doctor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Quaid) realizes that he is not the married construction worker he thinks he is, but instead is some type of government agent whose memory was erased because he knew too much. He travels to Mars, where he first learned the dangerous information that he can now no longer remember, and sorts out the twists and turns of who he is and who he’s fighting as he meets up with a former flame (Ticotin) and journeys into the underground world of a planet so corrupt that its rulers sell air.

Rachel Ticotin

Rachel Ticotin, inaugural Headly Surprise honoree (image via

It is not necessary to tell you how it ends to tell you that Melina is awesome. First, Quaid starts out “married” to Lori (Sharon Stone), who is, as we all know, a gorgeous blond, but even brain surgery can’t make him forget the woman he truly loves — Melina, who is a gorgeous woman of color. Unexpected Hollywood Moment #1, right there. #2 arrives when we are introduced to Melina in the shitty bar/brothel she works at. We see right away that Melina is a prostitute, but we don’t get lingering shots of her body or even revealing clothing. We also don’t see any condemnation that she works as a prostitute; that’s just her job and there’s nothing titillating or sad or morally wrong with it, according to the film. Love it.

But my favorite Unexpected Hollywood Moment is #3, when Quaid is dragged to an elevator by Lori and some thugs to be delivered to the big boss for even more of an ass-kicking. The elevator door opens and BAM! It’s Melina, and she came prepared. She mows down all the thugs without missing a beat, then gets into a mighty brawl with Lori. Unexpected Hollywood Moment #4 — this ain’t no catfight. There is no hair pulling, nail scratching, or (always a favorite) accidental-ripping-of-clothing-in-curvaceous-places. These women are fighting to the death, and it shows; there’s punching, kicking, and general ass-kicking by both.

Not only does Melina save Quaid’s life at the elevator, [MILD SPOILER] she also saves his life at the very end of the film, when he’s face to face with the bad guy. This time Quaid is about to be killed, and Melina shows up armed and ready, and BAM! takes out the bad guy. Love it! Now teeeechnically Quaid still saves the day just after that, by pushing an all-important button, so technically the man still saves the world, but it is still a big deal for the woman to save the man from the villain instead of the other way around.

The best part is that it’s an ambiguous ending — did this movie really happen or is it another false memory or fantasy of Quaid’s? — because if it is Quaid’s fantasy, then it is his fantasy that a kickass woman kicks ass and saves his! Fantastic.

I don’t know how many of these elements of the film were drawn from the Dick story, how many were the ideas of the three writers credited with the screenplay, and how many were director Paul Verhoeven’s, but kudos to Verhoeven for producing a Hollywood blockbuster with a Headly Surprise.

Do you have any Headly Surprise suggestions?

Pretty Awesome Scoundrels

I recently watched a movie about a smart, lying, double-crossing, two-faced woman, and she was not called a bitch. This is such an incredible thing that it merits its own post.

The movie is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Michael Caine/Steve Martin vehicle that plays to each of their strengths perfectly. Michael Caine gets to be a genteel know-it-all, and Steve Martin gets to be an obnoxious loudmouth. They are both con men, although Caine works only among the upper crust and does very well for himself, whereas Martin considers himself well off when he cons a woman out of twenty bucks. The entire movie consists of Caine trying to get Martin out of his small French Riviera town, so he can go back to working it by himself, conning rich women out of their jewels and pocketbooks by pretending to be a prince in need of funds to battle communists in his home country. Hilarity ensues. (No, really, it’s very funny.) The main plot unfolds when they bet that the first one to get $50,000 out of Glenne Headly, an American heiress, wins the rights to stay in Beaumont-sur-Mer, and the loser leaves town.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Hide your valuables, ladies, the charm offensive is on

*SPOILER ALERT* The problem is, the heiress turns out not to be an heiress, but rather a woman who is touring Europe as the winner of a contest for a detergent company. She’s promised both men the $50,000, but has to bankrupt herself in order to get it. Caine turns out to have scruples and calls off the bet. Martin, unsurprisingly, has no scruples and wants to continue the bet, or at least amend it — the first man to bed her wins. Caine shows even more character when he says that he won’t try to woo her himself, but he’ll bet against Martin’s success. *NO REALLY, THIS IS THE FINAL TWIST OF THE FILM* Headly declares herself in love with Martin, and visits his bedroom. Caine hears of this and is ready to admit defeat, but then Headly shows up at his house, crying that Martin took her $50,000 and she has nothing now. Caine gives her $50,000 of his own money and takes her to the airport, where she thrusts the bag of his money back in his hands, declaring she can’t take it and running onto the plane. Only then does Martin appear, screaming that Headly took HIS money, and when Caine opens the bag, he finds instead a note from Headly that reveals she knew their con all along and played them the whole time.

Martin’s reaction: “Of all the lousy… She is disgusting! She is lying, deceitful, two-faced. She is conniving and she is dishonest!” Caine’s response: “Yes. Isn’t she wonderful?”

Now, in just about any other Hollywood film from the last fifty years, Martin’s reaction would’ve included “That bitch!” in there somewhere — we’d need to know that she is not just another player in the game, but that her gender makes her a particularly despicable one. She would not be a worthy opponent with individual skills to assess and combat, but a generic enemy in need of crushing. We would have had lingering shots of her legs and chest throughout the film. We probably would’ve seen her get naked in preparation for sleeping with Martin.

Not only that, but the other women Caine and Martin con would be bimbos, sluts, easy marks not just for being rich and stupid but for being rich and stupid in a gendered way. Instead, they are easy marks because, in Caine’s words, they’re “screened. They’re wealthy and corrupt.” His scams always involve women, yes, and they hinge on the need of these particular women for flattery, romance, and a distraction from the stultifying boredom of extreme wealth. But the scams don’t involve sexual humiliation, or dick-waving bragging afterward, or even stripping the women of all their material wealth. Caine takes a large amount of money, possibly after a mutually satisfying sexual liaison, and then slips away. And when things go badly, say, for example, when he is robbed of $50,000, he does not blame the woman who played him, or call her a bitch for outsmarting him, or plot revenge. No, he calls her wonderful, seeing her as an equal, a great challenger to his title as master con artist of the Riviera.

The movie even ends with Martin put firmly in place. Unlike Caine, he did try to degrade Headly by betting on his ability to conquer her sexually. The I-bet-I-can-screw-her-oh-wait-now-I-love-her-so-I-will-be-honorable-and-at-the-last-minute-not-continue-in-my-lie-and-take-her-clothes-off-but-it’s-cool-because-that-one-moment-of-restraint-is-enough-to-convince-her-of-my-love-so-she’ll-totally-screw-me-later-so-the-moral-of-the-story-is-I-get-laid-either-way trope is so tired, and it was refreshing to see it turned inside out here. Not only does Martin not get with Headly, and not only does she not fall in love with him, but she steals his money and leaves him naked in a hotel room. And at the end of the film, when she returns to the two men to pull them into working a con with her, she introduces Caine by name and has him talk as an integral part of the con, but then introduces Martin — “he’s a mute.” Caine was going to dupe her out of her money but not her dignity. Martin was going for whatever he could get, and what he got was shut the hell up. Fantastic.

The remarkable thing about Headly’s deception is that the movie is clear that she does this not because all women are evil, or cold-hearted, or only in it for the money, but because she is the same creature as these men, a brilliant liar who lives for the con. I don’t know how you feel about movies based on crooks swindling hard-earned money out of honest folks, but I love them. Con movies — Trouble in Paradise, The Sting, etc. — are delightful works of sparkling wit, fine-tuned plot, and great reaction shots. Morals shmorals, give me Paul Newman’s nose-scratching signal any day. This is one of the few films I know of that is so devoted to the wonder of the con that it lets women play too. And that’s pretty awesome.