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Emily Blunt and the Half-Life of Female Action Stars

I went to see Looper, encouraged or provoked by a few excited reviews I had seen, though every account of the film warned, don’t bother to understand the plot. There is even a moment when the Bruce Willis character (a generous term) says as much, while plainly offering us a tranquillizer to get through the next couple of hours. I have a simpler guide to the film’s nonsense: In the future there will be time travel, in which people still shoot at each other not just with the large guns we know and dread, but with encrusted phallic firepower that hints at a comic-book past. The film, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is terrible and so close to ridiculous that it has to keep offing people with these guns to retain any of our attention.

In the course of this, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does enough harm to his appearance, his charm, and his acting ability to make us forget the old and unusual JG-L. This is our loss, as well as his. He now stares throughout the film he is in (and which he co-produced), as if staring could generate interest. In this, he is assisted and perhaps stimulated by Bruce Willis, who pursues a duality in life and time: He stares at people very unkindly or he shoots them. I found myself dreaming of the days when Willis would take a rest from Die Hard–ing to do character cameos of unexpected depth and pathos: Pulp FictionNobody’s Fool, and Billy Bathgate, and a few others. Now he clings to stoic longevity, and shoots people.

Amid this inane monotony, for which I paid $11, I began to notice Emily Blunt. Why? She was acting, and struggling to urge life and sentiment into this shooting gallery. She plays a young single mother, with an odd son (Pierce Gagnon, the best thing in the picture), and she lives in a rundown house on the prairie on the edge of a blasted corn field. She is tough yet gentle, and she takes JG-L to her bed, a gesture that only leaves the bed needing to be made next morning (and guess who is expected to do that). But she is appealing and human, things for which you can get shot in Looper.

So I thought of Emily Blunt, and I then I started to think of Emma Watson and Linda Hamilton. (You have to do something during a film like Looper). Emily Blunt is 29 and for a few years now she has been so smart and funny and desirable in big supporting parts—Charlie Wilson’s WarYour Sister’s SisterThe Adjustment BureauThe Devil Wears Prada—that you have to say, “Give her a big lead part in a great comedy—quick.” Alas, her big part came in The Young Victoria, which was not a comedy. Now she is 29, which comes just before 30, which precedes 40. Plenty of time, you say?

But only for the girl parts in manly films, and only for as long as Emma Watson is moving from 22 to 29. You know Watson; you have grown up with her. She was Hermione in all the Harry Potter films and now a substantial campaign is going on to suggest that she is an English beauty and a sly sexpot, with great wit. The Internet is crowded with photo-shoots of her where she looks as pretty, sharp, and minor as her jilted girlfriend to the hero in My Week with Marilyn. I don’t think she’s got the stuff for a big career, or even the roles Emily Blunt has handled. But soon enough we’ll see Watson in leather and with guns nearly as big as she is. The system has decided that she could go all the way.

Then there is Linda Hamilton, who was 56 a week ago. That’s how I noticed her: She was a birthday person on IMDb. You may have forgotten Hamilton, but as Sarah Conner in the two Terminator films she was more memorable and special than either Blunt or Watson have managed yet. She was the mother protecting her son, who might become a brave resistance leader in the terrible future. That was a story about time, too, and I’m sure it’s one of the influences behind Looper. But the Terminator films were James Cameron and Arnold, if you recall, and Linda Hamilton, while some way from being a beauty, delivered a ferocity and a strength of will that was memorable (if you actually remember her). Cameron was so inspired that he married her for about a year-and-a-half and was able to give her a sustaining settlement when divorce followed. Since then, Linda Hamilton has done not very much of note, but she says she is happy.

This Watson-Blunt-Hamilton sequence seems to me a more interesting loop than anything in Looper. It suggests that being an actress with a lasting and worthwhile career is very hard and crazier than the young women can understand at first. I think Blunt is the most talented; I feel Hamilton has the greatest achievement; and I’m sure that she and Watson are secure and imprisoned by the money they have made by virtue of being cast in big hits and/or financially involved with the director. None of them is going to last like Bruce Willis, who is 57, worthy of lead billing, and so secure in the art of deadly staring that he may go on another 20 years given the right weapons. And he knows by now that in pictures weapons are far more easily obtained than scripts.

This is unfair on the actresses, but it is devastating for us, for it prolongs a Hollywood attitude (as vibrant in off-screen life as in on) that grizzled, inexpressive geezers with guns can go on for ever, absorbing every fresh generation of pretty women and taking advantage of them. It’s one reason why we have a crowd of actors 60 and more who coast in bad projects, unable to keep the acid of disenchantment out of their stares—think of Robert De Niro.

Emma Watson had her first kiss, her first glamour photo shoot. Emily Blunt has been stalwart in preferring good lines and strong scenes to body shots. And Linda Hamilton had a role for a couple of years so complete and demanding one hardly noticed what or how much she wore. And there are thousands waiting to be next for as long as they can manage.