Hollywood and the curse of Princess Vi

By Joan Smith

Sunday 23 February 2003 01:00

Any woman writer with an eye on posterity has to take it seriously these days: death and madness are the smartest career moves. Virginia, Iris and Sylvia have all done it in different ways and the reward – screen portrayal by an A-list celebrity – is bound to follow. Admittedly you might have to wait a while, six decades in the case of Mrs Woolf, but even she has finally achieved her apotheosis with Nicole Kidman's impersonation of her in The Hours.

And what a performance it is! Not just "Bloomsbury-theme-park heaven", to borrow a phrase from Vita Sackville-West's grandson, Adam Nicolson, but a conflation of two 20th-century icons. Forget the prosthetic nose and look at the way Kidman angles her head, coyly looking up from under her lashes, and suddenly you realise this is Virginia Woolf crossed with Princess Di. The resemblances don't stop there: Princess Vi, as we should perhaps call her, is an ethereal creature who barely eats, makes impossible demands on the servants and is horrid to her long-suffering husband.

But she does it in the name of art, which makes it all right and may even save the lives of other women, represented in the movie by Julianne Moore, who reads Mrs Dalloway in a Californian hotel room and decides against suicide. I don't suppose this risible tosh is aimed at genuine admirers of Woolf's novels, who would not need to be told that Sussex is in England – why stop there? Why not on-screen titles explaining that England is in Europe? – but people who want to be exposed to literature in a packaged, undemanding form. They are probably the same people who liked the movie Iris, which showed the novelist Iris Murdoch succumbing to Alzheimer's, and who are looking forward to the BBC's forthcoming film with darling Gwynnie as Sylvia Plath.

Unfortunately for movie producers, the daily life of most women writers is not a titanic struggle with death and madness. If someone set up a web-cam in my study, where I am currently halfway through my latest novel, it would relay staggeringly dull pictures of me at my laptop. Occasionally I go downstairs and return with a cup of tea, answer the phone or – the absolute highlight of my day – eat a few handfuls of salted almonds. It is not Oscar-winning stuff but it is what women writers do when we are fortunate enough to have a room of our own.

A longing for sensation is not the only reason the film industry homes in on the tragic elements in writers' personal lives. It also reflects a series of popular prejudices, from the idea that motherhood and authorship are not really compatible – Woolf and Murdoch did not have children, Plath left hers when she killed herself – to the notion that novelists and poets are a race apart, barely able to exist in the everyday world. Hence the cinematic fascination with the Brontë sisters, whose lives and novels are endlessly conflated; the Brontës were neither mad nor suicidal but they wrote passionate novels and had the misfortune to die young, so of course they have to be weird, tortured, tragic figures as well.

So do women artists, which is why the movie Frida, in which Salma Hayek plays the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, triumphantly defies expectations. In Mexico City, where I saw the film a few months ago, it was universally panned by the local press, who hated not just the fact that the actors speak English but also the way it celebrates Kahlo's short life. The Mexican actress Ofelia Medina, who played Kahlo in a much more austere screen version in 1984, denounced the new film (which she had not seen) as "a light version corresponding to a light world". As a woman artist, Kahlo has to be "deep, tragic and bitter" and any other reading of her life is not allowed.

Frida is an outstanding exception to the cinematic convention that creativity is a symptom of derangement in women. Anyone who has encountered Woolf only through Kidman's performance in The Hours would be astonished to read her diaries, which reveal a waspish intelligence, fully engaged with her companions and surroundings; it is hard to imagine the author of To The Lighthouse mooning around in trance-like silences, punctuated with occasional aperçus on life, death and the universe.

Leave that to Princess Vi, monstrous assemblage of the movie and heritage industries.

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