The Big O: How Sandra Bullock Found Her Own Sense of Gravity

The Big O: How Sandra Bullock Found Her Own Sense of Gravity

As
Sandra Bullock embarks on her spellbinding one-woman space odyssey in Alfonso
Cuaron’s stunning 3-D thriller Gravity at theaters this weekend, let us
consider her extraordinary trajectory right here on Earth.

How
did this romcom queen become an Oscar-worthy actress while on the cusp of 50 — a time when opportunities in Hollywood tend to shrivel up for females who aren’t
Meryl Streep — while starring in one of the most physically demanding roles in
her career? 

“Sandra
is willing to take risks,” say Jeanine Basinger, a noted movie historian
and head of film studies at Wesleyan University. “She is willing to take
an unusual part and play smaller roles or do something offbeat. Nobody expected
her to be an Oscar nominee much less a winner. She has very good judgment about
what she can and cannot do. “

Bullock
herself still seems surprised that she won an Academy Award as the fierce
football mom in 2009’s The Blind Side nearly 20 years after her breakout role
as the bus-driving heroine in in the action blockbuster Speed
Speaking
from the stage after Gravity premiered at the Toronto International Film
Festival last month, the actress said of earning a trophy, “I think most
people have an out-of-body experience when they win an Oscar. I haven’t gotten
my moment with it yet. Maybe one day it will come.”

Bullock
better start getting used to such golden opportunities. Oscar nomination No. 2
is likely to be right around the corner, considering the glowing early
reactions to her Gravity performance as a brilliant medical engineer and novice
space traveler who is left stranded when hurtling debris destroys her shuttle.

George
Clooney makes an invaluable though brief appearance as a veteran astronautical
buckaroo who looks for all the world like Toy Story‘s Buzz Lightyear as he jet-propels
himself across the great beyond. But much like plane-crash survivor Tom Hanks
in Cast Away, Bullock’s struggle to keep her wits about her, salvage her draining
oxygen supply and survive is practically the whole show in Gravity. An edge-of-your-seat,
emotionally draining yet ultimately uplifting show.

Talent,
of course, is key to collecting such honors. But the film industry likes to
reward its box-office champs as well. It doesn’t hurt Bullock’s trophy chances
that The Heat, which paired her with super hot funny lady Melissa McCarthy
as competing cops, is the top-grossing comedy of the year so far with nearly
$160 million.

The
situation mirrors what happened four years ago, when Bullock scored two
of her biggest moneymakers while showing off her versatility in different
genres. Besides her mighty matriarch in a family drama with The Blind Side
($255 million), the actress showed off her still-considerable romantic-comedy
chops as an uptight boss who forces underling Ryan Reynolds to pretend to be
her fiance in The Proposal ($164 million).

A
newly adopted son and a divorce caused this A-lister — who admirably manages to keep most of her off-screen life private — from
doing more than a smallish but satisfying role as a 9/11 widow in 2011’s
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close after she took home her statuette.

“She
laid back and got herself together,” Basinger says. “She doesn’t let
her desire for work and fame drive her to do things that are bad for her.”

That
Bullock now is back with such a bang is a testament to her endurance as a star
at any age. Luck
alone couldn’t have launched her to a new level of success at middle age. True,
her combo of box-office clout, skill and sheer likability is hard to
beat.

But
even as the younger Bullock picked as many misses (Two if by Sea, Gun Shy) as
hits (A Time to Kill, Miss Congeniality), she possessed a keen sense of what
the audience wanted from her – and how to fulfill their expectations without
repeating herself.

“She
has always had an independent edge to her,” says Basinger.” She made
romantic comedies but her characters didn’t define themselves through romance.
She also did thrillers like The Net and Speed. A woman on the run trying to
figure things out. At times, she was more like an action figure. That, in
addition to taking control of her own career by producing and finding her own
projects, gave her an option to keep going.”

Compare
Bullock’s current status to that of her former rival for the title of America’s
Sweetheart – Meg Ryan, 51. They initially followed a comparable path to
stardom, beginning with being a standout gal in a guy-heavy action flick
(Ryan in 1986’s Top Gun and Bullock in 1994’s Demolition Man). They each honed
their lovable personas in popular comedies (Ryan found her defining role in
1989’s When Harry Met Sally … and Bullock honed her big-sis image in 1995’s
While You Were Sleeping) and eventually took on new challenges.

It
was the transition from sweetheart to serious performer that proved the
trickiest, at least for Ryan.  She went dramatic as an alcoholic
whose recovery upends her marriage in 1994’s When a Man Loves a Woman (Bullock
went a similar route in 2000’s 28 Days) and as an Army captain whose heroism is
questioned in 1996’s Courage Under Fire.

Both
films did OK, although not as well as her return to romantic comedies in You’ve Got Mail in 1998 and Kate and Leopold in 2001. However, it was
Ryan’s choice to totally upend her image in 2003 with the sexually graphic
crime thriller In the Cut — as well as apparently altering her girlish looks –
that left many of her fans in the lurch. After several small-budget flops, she
hasn’t done a film since 2009’s Serious Moonlight, which made all of $25,339 at
the box office. 

“Some
people are bought by audiences in a way that allows for a longer shelf life,”
says Basinger. “It’s not that Meg Ryan couldn’t do something else or try.
Actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis kept going by
adjusting their established personas all the time. It’s just that people just
didn’t want Ryan THAT way. You have to remodel yourself to keep going, but
according to how you are already defined.” 

When
it was Bullock’s turn to stretch, she did so in 2005’s Crash, an ensemble piece
in a distinctly disagreeable role as a woman of privilege who shows her ugly
racist side after she is carjacked. The actress dared to test the sympathies of
her following – but then used those feelings to enrich their reaction to her
character. That the film would go on to win a best-picture Oscar did not hurt
her standing, either.

She
also earned praise for her supporting part as To Kill a Mockingbird author
Harper Lee in 2006’s Infamous, the Truman Capote biopic starring Toby Jones.
Unfortunately, the biopic was overshadowed by the previous year’s Capote
starring Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. But, again, her choice landed in
the plus column for her.

And
Bullock knows when to laugh at herself, as demonstrated by her showing up to
personally accept a Razzie award as worst actress for her utterly misguided
2009 comedy All About Steve

That
she continues to pull off slapstick stunts with aplomb in The Heat offers
assurance that she isn’t straying too far afield just yet. Although Gravity‘s
venue is definitely new, the actress is still relying on the same strengths
that have always caused moviegoers root for her in any genre.

“Sandra
has two invaluable characteristics,” Basinger notes. “A real strain
of American female toughness and a real strain of American female
vulnerability. The audience sees her as one of us. She does feel like a real
person. It is tough enough to be believable as an astronaut, but equally
difficult to make people care.”

One
can’t imagine some of the original casting choices for Gravity  – Angelina
Jolie and Natalie Portman topped the list — coming close to bringing the
necessary humanity needed to keep us engaged as a solo act for most of the film’s
90-minute running time. 

Besides
a wicked sense of humor and a lack of pretense, what Bullock possesses that
those 30-somethings lack is a feeling of being grounded.

In
other words, gravity. 

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Comments

bacio

Yes, she is very American in her appeal, and so is her recent über-success. The Heat and The Blind Side didn't do nearly as well as in the States. That will, of course, change with Gravity, which seems destined to be a world-wide hit.

Jill C Brooke

Nice piece Susan. I wonder if Meg Ryan's personal life began to overshadow her professional life. Sandra Bullock seems to have kept a lid on her private life and more power to her!

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