If you’ve kept up with the summer’s biggest releases, you may have noticed a familiar face in some of them. Or you may not have, since even though the same actress has roles in “Ant-Man,” “Jurassic World,” “Entourage,” and “Tomorrowland,” they’re nondescript enough that even Judy Greer can’t do much with them. In “Ant-Man,” she’s the hero’s ex-wife, the one who forces him back into a life of crime by saying she won’t let him see his daughter until he’s got a steady source of income. In “Jurassic World,” she’s the soon-to-be-divorced mom who occasionally calls in to scold Bryce Dallas Howard’s character for not spending enough time with her nephews. In “Entourage,” she plays a casting director, identified in the credits as “Casting Director.” In “Tomorrowland,” she’s… wait, she was in “Tomorrowland”? We’re sure? Because even as someone who’s followed her career for the last 16 or so years, when I saw her name in the credits, I did an actual double-take. I wanted to illustrate this post with a picture of Greer in any of those movies, but there don’t seem to be any.
Greer has made a career out of scene-stealing small roles, standing next to the hero or heroine and doing enough to leave a mark. (BuzzFeed’s Jarret Weiselman has a good career overview here.) She’s made the most of being not-quite-recognizable, writing an autobiography called “I Don’t Know What You Know Me From” and starring in a parodic short called “Judy Greer Is the Best Friend.”
Unfortunately, things aren’t getting better. Best friends get to be sassy and wise; they might only have a few dozen lines, but with Greer, you could count on them to be memorable ones. In “Ant-Man” and “Jurassic World,” her only purpose is to fill holes in the plot. Why are two kids alone on an island nature preserve? Judy Greer. Why does an ex-con who’s trying to go straight delve back into a life of crime? Judy Greer. (There’s so little left of her “Tomorrowland” role as Britt Robertson’s mother that there’s no way to tell what function she would have served, except for her absence making the heroine sad.) These movies have little room for character-building and, let’s be honest, even less interest in women, so Greer gets made up and stood in her light to move things along. She was more present in last year’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a motion-capture performance in which she never appears on screen. Hell, she’s more present on “Archer.”
At the Week, Scott Meslow writes on “the Judy Greer effect,” a syndrome affecting actresses, especially those approaching (or, God forbid, over) 40, who get stuck in second gear.
Hollywood has a weird, self-perpetuating dead zone for actresses like Greer. It’s a strange combination of factors: typecasting, sexism, and an industry that disproportionately produces movies full of great roles for actors and anemic stereotypes for actresses. “I’ve watched as men I started out with — guys who worked with the same directors and on the same types of shows as I did — climbed the ladder and landed larger roles with even larger paychecks,” wrote Greer. “I’d always hoped that my career and salary would follow theirs. But instead the pay gap kept growing.”
There’s another reason Greer has spent 2015 playing ex-wives and mothers. A 2014 study from SDSU’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film shows that a full 58 percent of the limited roles that do exist for women in Hollywood are “personal roles” like wife or mother. If current trends hold, things are going to get even worse for Greer and the many talented actresses like her. In just a few weeks, she’ll turn 40. The same study reveals that just 17 percent of female film characters are in their 40s — a steep decline from the 30 percent of female film characters in their 30s. For a working actress in that range, any role will be hard-fought — to say nothing of a role that actually draws upon her full range of abilities as an actress.
There’s no easy solution to the Judy Greer effect, although watching “Married,” which starts its second season on FX tonight, couldn’t hurt. It’s a “personal role,” in so far as her character is a wife and mother, but she’s not just there to help define a man or a more famous woman’s character. Of course, an FX sitcom doesn’t pay what even a tiny role in a blockbuster movie does, but that’s the choice the industry offers, especially to women: You can make money or play an interesting character, but not both.