Skinny Milly Miller.
I remember that name from the roller derby shows on Saturday afternoons in the seventies. My poor old grandfather loved sports of any kind and when there was nothing else, it was roller derby he would watch, and invite me to do so with him. I loved him so much I never had the heart to tell him how stupid a sport I though it was, so I sat down and watched it with him. His favorite skater was a tall, black woman named Skinny Milly Miller.
I like Drew Barrymore. Always have. As she got older I liked the way she talks, the manner in which she treats you as an old friend, embracing me each time we meet. Though I never thought much of her as an actress until this year, I have always liked her, knowing that she was less an actress than a movie star. This year I wanted the chance to tell her how much I adored her performance in the HBO film Grey Gardens, which should win her an Emmy Award for Best Actress next weekend. She smiled, I thought I saw a tear and thanked me.
“Knowing how tough you are with performances in films that means a lot to me”, she smiled.
Barrymore gave a drop dead brilliant performance as Little Evie, the younger of the two very odd ladies living in squalor in Grey Gardens – a true story about cousins of Jackie Onassis, the subjects of a famous documentary in the seventies. Opposite Jessica Lange, Barrymore gave a performance that had the film been released as a feature in theaters would have gotten the younger a nomination for Best Actress. Drew Barrymore blows Jessica Lange off the screen in the film.
She is here at the Toronto International Film Festival with her new film Whip It which she not only stars in, but directed. Yep, Drew Barrymore has directed a film. Though some will shake their heads and ask what the world is coming to when this young lady is allowed to direct a feature film, others will celebrate the fact a woman actually gets to make a movie about women. That is after all what is most exciting about Whip It: That Barrymore has made a film about women and for women without shutting men out.
The film is set in the world of roller derby, which really had its heyday in the mid to late seventies, but is now enjoying a comeback as a grassroots sort of entertainment. In fairness I have heard that roller derby appeals to the trailer park mentality of America, and though I despise that sort of cruel thinking, after seeing a match playing on television, one has to agree. The very idea of women hurtling around a circle on roller skates, heavily padded to allow the falls and fighting not to injure them too terribly, the sport must have a strange fascination to a certain sector. I found it deplorable, but then I like ice hockey, which many people loathe as well.
As a director Barrymore does a nice job plunging us into the world of roller derby. Bliss (Ellen Page) is tired of being placed in beauty pageants by her mother, a faded debutante who wants her daughter to have the glory she never did. While in Texas, Bliss attends a roller derby match and is hooked on the game, finding it both fast-paced and everything she has never been allowed to do. She dives into the sport and is soon living a double life (or trying to), as a beauty queen and roller derby hellcat. The portrayal of the sport is surprisingly real, with Barrymore pulling no punches about the sort of violence that takes place during these games. These girls hurt one another, with flying fists, bodies and feet – whatever it takes to get ahead.
Page is outstanding as Bliss, proving again she is very likely the finest young actress working in cinema today. She slips effortlessly under the skin of this character and inhabits her in every way, and after meeting Ellen Page a few times, I can safely say that the characters she creates bear no connection to her at all. She quite simply disappears into the role. The real stars of the film however, are the supporting cast who steal the show, including Barrymore as Smashie Simpson, Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly and perhaps best of all Juliette Lewis as the dangerous Iron Maven.
Whip It is fun to watch, and the girls look they are having a blast on screen, and perhaps that more than anything else is Barrymore’s greatest accomplishment as a director: She made a film people had fun making and that audiences will have fun watching.
Is it art?
Hell no, but neither was it meant to be.