Whatever happened to the girl next door?

Hollywood seems obsessed with synthetic female stars. Ben Walsh watches Katherine Heigl, Angelina Jolie and the rest, and pines for the days of Carrie Fisher and Teri Garr

Whatever happened to that girl-next-door actress in Hollywood films – the believable, (the sort of, but not really) attainable, sassy, droll American actresses that graced big-budget Hollywood fare throughout the 1970s and early 1980s? Who are we talking about, pining for? Well, the much-missed likes of Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman), Margot Kidder (Superman), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, Reds), Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment), Teri Garr (Tootsie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Carrie Fisher (Star Wars).

They were (still are) all pretty, clearly, but they weren't overwhelming (oppressively) "beautiful". They were, for want of a better word, real. They had an artless, attractive, acting style, as well as a fierce intelligence, a distinctive look (Karen Allen's lovely crooked smile) a distinguishing "voice" (Allen, Kidder and Winger all possess a rather husky one) and, most crucially, they always managed to have some sort of chemistry with their leading men.

They were sexy. Richard Gere never again achieved the chemistry he had with Winger (Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman? Don't be silly) as he did in An Officer and a Gentleman. Winger's factory girl Paula Pokrifki was vulnerable, flirty, independent and natural; it made perfect sense that this newly qualified Navy flight-officer would endanger a back muscle hauling her out of the paper plant to the strains of Jo Cocker and Jennifer Warnes's "Up Where We Belong".

Who are their nearest equivalents now? Well, the obvious ones are Jennifer Aniston (too glossy, too much sheen, too much sheer tan), Sandra Bullock (funny, but a tad too one-note) and Reese Witherspoon (again way too much sheen, and too fond of gracing glossy magazines). They're all talented comediennes, but they're also far too sleek and lustrous to be considered a girl-next-door type.

The less obvious examples and the most promising girls-next-door around now are Michelle Williams (sensational in Kelly Reichardt's downbeat but lovely one-girl-and-her-lost-dog tale Wendy and Lucy and Thomas McCarthy's The Station Agent), Anna Kendrick, whose chemistry with George Clooney was the most satisfying thing about Up in the Air and the enormously talented Ellen Page, who was captivating in Juno and Hard Candy.

In recent times, other characterful actresses have been sidelined in pretty sub-standard fare; the most glaring example being Catherine Keener, whose considerable talents have recently been shamefully squandered in the likes of Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief (fantasy drivel), Where the Wild Things Are (morose animation) and Hamlet 2 (a Steve Coogan vehicle to be avoided at all costs).

Big-budget Hollywood movies are now dominated by a conveyor belt of front-page-of-a-glossy-magazine "hotties", perfectly interchangeable women, with their flawless teeth, hair, curves, and skin. And, most crucially, they're not terribly compelling actresses. They're seemingly selected for how good they'll look (mainly to teenage boys) on a movie poster. "There's so much plastic in this culture that vinyl leopard skin is becoming an endangered synthetic," Lily Tomlin (Nashville, Short Cuts) once quipped. And the sharp-witted actress is spot on.

Who are we talking about here? Well, there's Megan Fox, star of the mirthless, noisome Transformer franchise, Liv Tyler, the exceptionally beautiful actress who flounces through the Lord of the Rings franchise, Scarlett Johansson, whose credit rating has been crashing since her breakthrough in Lost in Translation, Jessica Alba, Katie Holmes, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jessica Biel, Leslie Bibb and, of course, the high priestess of them all... Step forward Angelina Jolie, the not-so-human star of such Hollywood action duds as Tomb Raider, Alexander, Salt and the frankly unacceptable and unpleasant Wanted. Jolie, indubitably, proved her acting chops in Clint Eastwood's harrowing The Changeling, but there is still something profoundly unengaging about the 35-year-old Californian; something distant and detached.

Put simply, you don't really care what happens to her characters because she lacks a sparkle, warmth, wit, substance. It's reminiscent of John Cusack's sudden realisation that his glamorous former girlfriend, Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is supremely shallow in High Fidelity: "Charlie's awful," he says. " She doesn't listen to anyone. She says terrible, stupid things and apparently has no sense of humour at all."

Jennifer Garner is another Amazonian model who bestrides action films (Daredevil, Elektra) and Hollywood comedies (including Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Ricky Gervais's mawkish The Invention of Lying) and, while she is more engaging than most, it would have been more pleasing to see, say, someone like the wonderful Tina Fey (who was given a chance with $55m Date Night, where she played a beleaguered thirty-something mother) in these sort of roles instead. Fey might even have rescued Gervais's hopeless comedy.

Perhaps it's unfair to pick on these actresses for their carefully constructed beauty – and there is obviously some sort of romanticising for times past going on here. And, in a lot of the 1970s action films, the women mentioned – Winger, Allen, Fisher – played second fiddle to their hunky love-interests. They were there to make the often topless Harrison Ford and Richard Gere look sexier. Also the demands on the modern actress – the photo shoots, red carpets, glossy magazine interviews – are no doubt more arduous and trying than they once were.

But does the world really deserve, for example, another Katherine Heigl comedy vehicle? Heigl is statuesque, striking but deeply unfunny, as proved by a succession of "comic" turkeys: Knocked Up (no jokes), The Ugly Truth (misogynistic claptrap), Killers, 27 Dresses and, worst of all, Life as We Know, currently in British cinemas and described as a "desperate contrivance" by The Independent's reviewer, Anthony Quinn.

Karen Allen knew how to deliver a funny line: "We never seem to get a break, do we?" she laments in Raiders of the Lost Ark; as did Margot Kidder: "How do you spell massacre?" snaps her Lois Lane in Superman; and so did Carrie Fisher: "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" quips her Princess Leia in Star Wars.

But Heigl wouldn't know a funny line (not that she gets many) if it bit her on her perfectly formed tootsies. Here's hoping that the next successful action franchise benefits from the charming Kendrick, Page or Williams in a lead role.

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