How Hollywood makes beautiful actresses look working class

Every now and again, Hollywood makes a go at depicting the working class, often around Oscar season and usually to hilarious effect. The story is generally some slow-moving, minor-key piece involving ordinary folks struggling with ordinary problems in ordinary parts of the country. To offset the dreariness of such an errand, the lead character—a waitress, maid, or stripper with kid/husband problems—is usually played by a jaw-droppingly attractive star, who wins positive press for being willing to subvert her beauty in order to portray one of the great unwashed doing whatever it is they do out there in the dull diabetic landmass between Los Angeles and New York City. (Hiring ugly people to play working class is a job best left to the English.)

This stunt casting has been seen most recently in Precious, in which Mariah Carey won great acclaim for donning a bad haircut and office clothes that look like something Klaus Nomi might have designed for Kmart back in the early '90s; and in the film Trucker, an indie-darling out this month on DVD, starring the adorable Michelle Monaghan as a hard-bitten long-distance trucker. (Ebert: "Her performance clearly deserves an Oscar nomination.")

This approach does have its practical side. With a fetching actress onboard, it's easier to attract funding and publicity for the film. This solves a financial problem, but it creates a bigger artistic one. Namely, how do you sell this actress in this role without burying her so deep in the part that it defeats the point of having her in the film to begin with?

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