The Political Masks of Yeoh, Newton and Streep

“You may not think about politics,” Aung San Suu Kyi (portrayed by Michelle Yeoh) tells one of the guards keeping her in house arrest in The Lady. “But politics thinks about you.”

Use of that famous quote proves that director Luc Besson thinks about politics even when exhibiting his well-practiced action-movie chops. Yeoh’s quote of a quote is part of the semiotic mask employed in the most interesting film portrayals of politically strong women, boss ladies.

Given the biased media’s celebration of comedienne Tina Fey’s derision of Sarah Palin, the prospects for serious female characterizations has been limited–as if to punish all women for political assertiveness and thinking for themselves. When Julianne Moore tried to split the difference between partisanship and artistic fairness when playing Palin in HBO’s Game Change, her efforts meant little.

This problem may have started with the media’s refusal to promote Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. (Not even black-targeted magazines like Essence, Ebony, O or Sister 2 Sister featured Rice on their covers before or after she held the highest position of any female in the country. Now that Michelle Obama has become cover girl of choice, it’s only as a clothes horse, never a woman of clear efficacy, or “agency“ as female academics like to boast.)

The Boss Lady in art has needed a semiotic mask–whether the kind Evita indicates (“Eyes!/Hair!/Mouth!/Figure!/Dress!/Voice!/Style!/Image!”) or such as Thandi Newton’s comically shrewd Rice in Oliver Stone’s W–perhaps the smartest black woman on screen since Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy and with a similar habit of seeing through the white folk (competitive male Cabinet members) surrounding her. A comparable histrionic cunning distinguished Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Critic Dennis Delrogh cited a camp quality in Streep’s impersonation–and indeed, Streep’s neigh-perfect singsongy British cadences were delightful, but never in a way to detract from Thatcher’s political force. She charmed one into fealty. Streep’s Boss Lady demonstrated assertiveness with contours of feminine prudence–especially her marvelous “habits become your character” speech.

It is an appreciation for political women’s habits that define their character in films like W, The Iron Lady and now in The Lady. Besson takes Chinese action movie legend Michelle Yeoh in the opposite direction of her butt-kicking gymnastics to play the pacifistic Aun Sang Suu Kyi and the surprising result is a stunning, subtly physical performance. What Quentin Tarantino failed to do for Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (transform a pop icon into a paragon of womanly discretion), Besson succeeds in doing with Yeoh. Of course Yeoh is a better actress than the wonderful Grier (when I first met Tarantino he sincerely referred to Grier as “She’s the Queen of women!”) but Yeoh is also playing a role of real depth and political complexity–if not mystery. Her facial expressions and poise are crucial to keeping one interested in a character who mainly walks about spouting platitudes (“Democaracy will only work if you include everybody. I encourage you to exercise democracy and the defense of basic human rights.”). The display of stress, wifely devotion, motherly passion, has to come through balletic mime.

Besson knows how movement works as acting; that accounts for the terrific Boss Ladies he previously presented in Milla Jovovich, Rie Rassmussen in Angel-A and even Zoe Saldana in Colombiana. (Critic John Demetry has illuminated twin character arcs for both Colombiana and The Lady–a definition of Besson’s principled genre aesthetics.) One high point threatens Aung San Suu Kyi with a 1-2-3 countdown–eventually depicting a moment of peace (true pacifist belief) that reverses an action-movie trope. The moment (closing her eyes like her father did when facing down a gun barrel ) spreads throughout her culture and becomes mythic. Equally great is Yeoh’s devastating fall to her knees in grief (Gregory Solman’s review adds different insight).

Boss Lady imagery, such as Yeoh decorating her house arrest with epigrammatic posters (evoking the imprisonment/rebellion of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and the aspiration/education of The Color Purple) provides a richer view of a political icon than the superficial martyrdom in Steve McQueen artsy Hunger, Steven Soderbergh’s factitious Che and Olivier Assayas’ meaningless Carlos–all silly versions of macho. In The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi’s repetition of political lessons become her identity as much as her symbiotic political and spiritual marriage with her estranged husband Michael Aris, a characterization of original intellectual, romantic and spiritual commitment by David Thewlis. How good is this duo? These are the kind of performances that never win Oscars.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair