I always bristle when I hear anyone refer to an actor as “brave.” Yes, there are professional risks when Jake Gyllenhall plays a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain or former model Charlize Theron goes ugly for Monster. But in the end, these are major movie stars who, whether or not their film succeeds, still live an enviable existence. Having said that, I’m struggling to think of another word to describe the recent career choices of Kristen Wiig, whose latest and perhaps greatest film, Welcome to Me, opened last Friday. The film exemplifies the virtues of her career: her willingness to take chances with risky material, bare herself to her audience (both physically and emotionally), and fight feminist battles against a patriarchal Hollywood system that has stymied women of her age for years. In Welcome to Me, she does it all in one role, and when an actor takes those types of risks, it’s okay to call her brave.
The film is based on the true story of Alice Kleeg, a bipolar woman living off of government assistance who wins an $80 million lottery jackpot and uses her winnings to create her own talk show. Instead of interviewing guests or promoting products, Kleeg uses the show – entitled “Welcome to Me” – to explore her own life. She hires actors to re-enact traumatic episodes from her past; incorporates her real-life friends and lovers into segments; and even holds a revealing phone session with her psychiatrist, without telling him he is on the air.
In Alice, Wiig has created her most complex, multi-faceted character, but one quality in particular stands out: her sexuality. Alice has a healthy sexual appetite, which the film admirably never judges nor exploits. Upon meeting the lovelorn, thrice-divorced co-president of the network that airs her show (Wes Bentley), she quickly sleeps with him and initiates an undefined, apparently open relationship. Later, she meets a graduate student who wants to interview her, and she performs oral sex on him in a limo. Is she using sex to avoid actual intimacy? Is it just a symptom of her disorder? Perhaps. The film allows for that possibility, but with its non-judgmental tone, it also allows us to see Alice simply as a mentally troubled woman who just happens to like sex.
Playing a sex-positive character is nothing new for Wiig. In fact, she has quietly made a career of it. In Bridesmaids, her character had a casual, albeit unhealthy sexual relationship with a lothario played by Jon Hamm. Later in the film, she sleeps with Chris O’Dowd’s kindly police officer, and rebuffs him when he tries to turn it into a relationship. In other words, it’s a subversion of typical Hollywood gender roles, which more commonly depict a commitment-averse male learning to settle down. Then, of course, there is her vocal cameo in Spike Jonze’s Her, in which she has weird, loud phone sex (“Strangle me with the dead cat’s tail!” she screams, while orgasming) with Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely divorcee. Although it’s a small part, it fits the theme: This is a woman who has no shame or compunction about getting her sexual needs met, no matter how unorthodox they might be. Finally, there was last year’s little-seen Hateship Loveship, in which her character – a thirtysomething virgin that hadn’t left her house in decades – starts a relationship with a single dad and discovers her inner sex kitten.
It’s a notable shift from the typical depiction of female sexuality by Hollywood, which has for decades avoided depictions of female pleasure. Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, for example, showed how the MPAA promotes a double standard by consistently slapping NC-17 ratings on films showing female orgasms, while allowing room in R-rated films for men to receive such pleasure from women. The tide, however, may be turning. In addition to Wiig’s sex-positive motif these last few years, Reese Witherspoon’s turn in Wild, released last December, made an equally powerful feminist statement. Her character is driven to walk the Pacific Coast Trail as a means of dealing with several emotional and physical traumas, one of which is a recent abortion, the result of a period of promiscuous behavior. The film’s emotional climax comes when she learns to accept this behavior without shame, and it concludes with a one-night-stand with a handsome stranger, depicted as a healthy expression of self-love.
Part of what makes these films so sexually revolutionary is that their leading ladies are at an age when Hollywood typically starts denying women the right to be sexy. Wiig was 38 when Bridesmaids was released, an age when many actresses struggle to get cast as romantic leads. Now 42, Wiig continues to explore characters whose sexuality is a vital – but not all-defining – part of their identities, and she is doing so in the bravest possible ways.
Consider the film’s most buzzed-about scene: Late in Welcome to Me, Wiig goes full-frontal walking across a crowded casino floor. There is nothing shocking or titillating about it. It’s a striking character moment, in which Alice, at an emotional low point, expresses physically what she has been doing on the show all along – baring herself. But it also can be read as a statement of defiance to an industry that insists that women be either objectified or desexualized completely. In Welcome to Me, Wiig takes the path less traveled and bravely depicts female sexuality for what it is: a fact of life. It’s a path she is traveling often these days, and we should hope that others will be inspired to follow.