With Nowhere Boy finally opening to a limited release in the US, I feel the need to discuss the brilliance of one of the most underutilized, unappreciated actresses in Hollywood, Anne-Marie Duff. Commonly known as Mrs. James McAvoy, Ms. Duff is anything by arm candy. With leading roles in The Virgin Queen, The Magdalene Sisters, The Last Station and countless other BBC-helmed projects, Ms. Duff has been making a name for herself in British cinema for sometime. Why then, has she not crossed over into mainstream US cinema, being showered with plum A-list Hollywood roles and placed on countless glossy magazine covers along the way? There are probably a few answers to this question, but I have narrowed it down to the two most plausible: she’s not what Hollywood considers “leading actress material” (read: conventionally beautiful) and she could give a shit what Hollywood thinks.
Full disclosure: I came to become a fan of Anne-Marie Duff through my interest in James McAvoy’s career. In 2004 my husband and I had recently finished the third installment in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, “Children of Dune” and decided to see the film adaptation. While the movie was mediocre at best, one actor struck us as an unusually magnetic choice for such a middling production. Being the movie nerds that we were/are, we discussed the inevitability of James McAvoy’s rise to stardom and were later vindicated as he was thrust into mainstream cinema in career changing roles in The Last King of Scotland and later Atonement and Wanted. Between Children of Dune and blinding stardom, however, Mr. McAvoy appeared on the quirky British series “Shameless” where his co-star was the luminous yet relatable Anne Marie Duff. Her portrayal of the sweet and caring family matriarch Fiona Gallagher garnered her multiple award nominations and a devoted fan base within the British Isles, but did not lead to multiple film offers as it did for her husband.
While I realize that success in Hollywood has a lot more to do with what you look like than how you act, it constantly frustrates me that I have to seek out movies containing female leads who are compelling. I’m sick of having to hunt down Anne-Marie Duff’s performances while I can watch a Jessica Alba movie anytime I want. I’m sick of watching these cookie cutter women attempt to emote when I could be watching Anne-Marie Duff or any of her various contemporaries actually emote.
I’m pretty sure I sound like just another bitter woman bitching about inequality in Hollywood productions. Be that as it may, if enough of us continue to cause a fuss and continue to support films with complex female characters and female protagonists who are “perfectly realized” as opposed to physically perfect, maybe someone will listen.