Icons of the Overlooked #10: Adrienne Barbeau
Adrienne Barbeau came from a stage background having appeared in Grease and some more... um... provocative productions. These other productions, plus some modelling, firmly cemented her as a sex symbol as she moved into film in the late seventies and early eighties. Yet Barbeau was less interested in the superficial and sought out roles that gave her more to do then just wear low neck lines and run. That is not to say she didn't have a lot of those roles, but even when she did she gave them a depth often not there in the writing.
Genre films have always struggled to balance toughness with femininity. Often women were hired because of traditional notions of beauty and any toughness was largely unconvincing, while in the nineties women could only seem to be seen as tough if they essentially de-feminised themselves. Barbeau, however, perfectly balanced the two elements. She is someone who wasn't in the least bit masculine, yet there was never a doubt she was in total command of her performance and persona. She could look gorgeous while shooting a look that would convince you she'd be able to kick your arse if she wanted to. It was this dichotomy that defined her career.
In Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1982) her character finds herself assigned to a research project deep in an inhospitable swamp. It is made very clear from the start it is a tough job that requires work in
Wearing fairly sensible clothes, short curly hair and little make-up her sexuality is dialled-down considerably. Yet her later topless scene, as gratuitous as it is, completely destroys any notion of her being a de-sexualised ice queen. As the film adopts the conventions of the classic monster movie in its third act (scary castle dungeon, mad experiments etc) she is saddled with being the distressed damsel in a flowing white dress. Yet she effortlessly slips into this trope without compromising her early badassery.
Her work with then Husband John Carpenter on The Fog (1980) and Escape From New York (1981) exemplifies this, especially when we look at the latter. Dressed in in a cocktail dress that is almost obscenely sexy Barbeau never plays the character as a sex object. In fact she is the only character in the film that seems to match the toughness of the uber-manly Snake Plissken.
Even when given thankless roles, such as the Lamborghini girl in Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981), she manages to throw in an ever-so-slightly subversive element to her performance. Her role in this movie is to essentially drive fast and then, when caught, expose her cleavage to the arresting officer so that he lets her go. Yet rather than playing it as a bimbo she suggests this character is clearly in control of her sexuality and does this as a careful and calculated manipulation of the simple-minded men. I'm not suggesting this is an unappreciated feminist role by any means, but considering the narrative function of the character it could have been a lot worse.
Which is, funnily enough, almost the title of her autobiography. Someone who calls their own book There Are Worse Things I Could Do, obviously has some self-awareness and a sense of humour. Her recent cameo in Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) also shows she is well aware of her place in cinema. Yet despite b-movie favourites like Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982) and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death J.F. Lawton (1989) her filmography is littered with a range of film and TV work. Plus, unlike many actresses, her age does not seem to have shut her out of work. In fact she has worked quite steadily providing vocals for cartoon series and video games and recent roles in film and TV, most notably in Carnivale.
So yes, she has a large chest. Get over it. Because despite what is going on below her neck what is going on above it is far more engaging. With absolute command over her own toughness and femininity it is gobsmacking to think she was never given her own vehicle to star in. I would have totally bought her as a Dirt Harry style cop, or a badass space pirate or... well... anything.
Those missed opportunities aside, Adrienne Barbeau remains an unappreciated film icon in that she is only appreciated for the b-movies she made and, even in those, is often only appreciated for her physical assets.