This is a guest post from Molly Haskell, a critic and author of Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited .
Karina Longworth describes the orgasm scene in the Ugly Truth as a cynical update of When Harry Met Sally . Women’s pleasure, she writes, has been sidelined. But there’s a reason the romantic comedy is displaying so much anxiety about women’s sexuality. When the Nora Ephron-Meg Ryan-Billy Crystal movie came out in 1989, Meg Ryan’s character was a journalist but most of all a baby-faced cutie pie in no way threatening to the opposite sex during her and Crystal’s 11 years of best-friend foreplay. Now, 20 years later, women have moved up the economic ladder. They’ve become “boss ladies”-that fright word of 1950’s movie heroines-and must deal with the terror they inspire in men, not to mention the insecurities underlying their own perfectionism.
Enter Katherine Heigl, whose Abby is tall, blonde and regal, but also smart, serious-minded, and tightly-wound, hence believable as a woman who is clueless about seduction. When she falls for an orthopedic surgeon, the oafish Mike must tutor her about how to make herself more appealingly feminine, i.e. tinkling appreciative laughter, flowing hair piece, more cover-up for the brain and less for the body. All standard operating procedure for yet another cringe-inducing enactment of our 21st Century version of the Taming of the Shrew .
The movies opens in an insufferably macho way, and it is no high mark in the annals of romantic comedy. But in my reading, Heigl emerges with her integrity intact, both as actress and character, accomplishing something very few stars have done (Cary grant comes to mind). She undergoes the most humiliating and soul-destroying assaults, not just insults but brutal body blows (falling from a tree while watching the hunk next door is one of the more excruciating), mortifications that would destroy a lesser soul, and she keeps her dignity. One of its startling moments is when she defies Mike’s advice and rips off her hairpiece, exposing herself and looking slightly plucked.
I admit to not having been much of a Heigl fan until now. In Grey’s Anatomy her blond Amazon doctor-in-training seemed to exist solely to make her shorter, darker, less dazzling cohorts feel like losers in the beauty contest. In Knocked Up she was a Judd Apatow anxiety projection, every slacker’s nightmare of the new feminine ideal: beautiful, competent and wa-a-ay out of reach. In the otherwise unlamented 27 Dresses she began to show her left-behind side, the inner ugly duckling of the woman who apparently has it all.
And now in the Ugly Truth she shines. A combination of secret self-assurance and refusal to take herself too seriously gives her, like Grant, the ecstatic resilience of a cartoon character. Even the orgasm by remote control at a high-powered company dinner has a kind of weird Hawksian charm in a movie that is indeed about fakeness and authenticity, about the performance expected of women who have to fake not just their orgasms but their very personalities. When Abby reclaims her own it’s a triumph for us all.
Still from The Ugly Truth courtesy of Lakeshore Entertainment.