Blake Lively has a problem as old as the patriarchy that created it: When you’re nothing if not a beautiful woman, you’re nothing if not a beautiful woman. So when Lively became a star after winning the role of it girl Serena van der Woodsen on the CW’s soapy and hyper-sexualized “Gossip Girl,” it was easy for viewers to chisel her down to the most obvious of her charms.
At that nascent stage of Lively’s career — after “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” but before “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” — it was easy for audiences to conflate her with the character she played on television. Born into an affluent family that already had both feet planted in showbiz, Lively’s first screen credit was in a low-budget film that her father directed, and she landed her first Hollywood part after her brother asked his agent to send his bored kid sister on some auditions over summer break. It was all so easy, at least from the outside.
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However, her recent work seems determined to destroy those preconceptions. Emerging from a three-year acting break with an ongoing streak of raw and riveting performances — which includes her biting, Oscar-worthy turn in Paul Feig’s hilarious and sharp “A Simple Favor” — Lively has transformed into one of the most vital and quietly bankable stars in Hollywood by confronting her image and subverting it from the inside out. And, she’s made it look easy.
Of course, it’s possible that Lively was always a major talent, and the rest of us just couldn’t see it; it’s possible the industry had to write her off before she could be afforded her own blank page. And make no mistake: The industry wrote her off harder than “Gossip Girl” wrote off Jenny Humphrey.
It started when Lively began leveraging her TV fame into a string of dicey Hollywood roles that overshadowed her more adventurous work in non-studio work like “Hick” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.” Actresses, it seems, are only allowed to be one thing at a time. Adopt a Fenway-sized Boston accent while you straddle Ben Affleck, and it’s amazing how fast people forget you played the title character in a Rebecca Miller film. Star opposite your future husband in one of the goofiest superhero movies ever made, and it’s like “Green Lantern” becomes the grand total of all that you’ve done in this world. (Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Orr called her “a flat-out dud: the only way she could establish more distance from her surname would be to forego speech and locomotion altogether.”) Act the pants off everyone else in a trashy Oliver Stone opus and the only thing anyone remembers is when you said “wargasms” without a trace of irony.
The public was eager to dismiss Lively as a less-talented Gwyneth Paltrow even before Lively launched a doomed Goop-esque lifestyle brand called “Preserve.” The project expired about a year after it was launched. And maybe for good reason? Vanity Fair’s eulogy for the site partially attributed its failure to the fact that everything Lively sold was “seemingly designed for a southern-themed bridal shower.” Gawker, which is also now a thing of the past, ridiculed Lively for her “Allure of Antebellum” fashion spread. In that context, it’s hardly a surprise the the actress later found herself in hot water for marrying Ryan Reynolds on a South Carolina plantation that still has an area known as “slave street.”
“I know that people are just going to have a heyday with this,” Lively told Vogue after making the aggressive decision not to preserve Preserve, “but it’s so much worse to continue to put something out there that isn’t the best [I] can do. I’m going to take this hit, and the only way I can prove all the negative reactions wrong is to come back with a plan that will rock people.” In retrospect, she might as well have been talking about her acting career.
That was September 2015, about five months after the release of Lively’s first movie in three years, and her first leading role period. “The Age of Adaline” isn’t a particularly great film, but it proved that Lively could share the screen with greats like Ellen Burstyn and Kathy Baker, and that she could even spark some life from an otherwise somnambulant Harrison Ford. Looking back on this modest romantic fantasy today, it’s rather fitting that Lively made her comeback role in a story about a deathless young woman who — after a terrible accident froze her in time forever — returns from the shadows desperate to grow up and take chances; to actually live instead of just staying beautiful forever.
The following summer, Lively appeared in two movies that came out within a few weeks of each other: Woody Allen’s “Café Society,” and Jaume Collet-Serra’s “The Shallows.” Whatever you might think of working with Allen (even before the #MeToo movement mercy-killed his career), “Café Society” is one of the writer-director’s strongest recent films, and Lively’s soft, yearning performance as an elegant divorcée at the edge of her “prime” — the other woman in an unresolved love triangle that’s angled toward Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart — is a big reason why.
It’s a small part that could have been filled by any number of ingenues, but Lively, playing against type, finds something wounded and sad in the role of a woman who will always be second in her husband’s heart. Watch the way she looks at Eisenberg during a pivotal scene at a jazz club, smiling and grimacing at the same time as she hints at a rich inner life that her man will never notice, and her screenwriter never cared about. Lively stirred up controversy by arguing that her experience with Allen was “empowering to women,” but the emotional room she carves for herself in “Café Society” only helps to support her claim.
“The Shallows” is a more impressive (and less compromised) beast, and provided unimpeachable proof that Lively was ready to be a movie star. Playing Nancy Adams, a grieving surfer who travels to her dead mother’s favorite beach only to find herself stranded on a small rock as a great white shark patrols the water nearby, Lively is left to carry the entire film on her shoulders (no disrespect to the scene-stealing Steven Seagull). That is nothing if not an “incredibly risky” thing for her to do; not only is there an extraordinary amount of pressure on set, but the finished product was guaranteed to become something of a do-or-die test for Lively’s stardom at the box office.
No sweat. Lively lifts the whole movie on one leg, fending off all sorts of danger as she blossoms into a soulful female MacGyver before our eyes. Over the span of 86 breathless minutes, Lively’s character evolves from a lost young woman to an indomitable survivor. Her perseverant and athletic performance — filmed soon after she gave birth to her first child — is a middle finger to anyone who ever thought that she was just another pretty face. “The Shallows” grossed $119.1 million off a budget of less than $25 million; just like that, Lively was back and better than ever.
However, the most fascinating role of Lively’s renaissance was the biggest failure of her entire career. A beguiling and erotic romantic drama that sold $344,331 in tickets off a $30 million budget, “All I See Is You” stars Lively as a blind woman named Gina who lives in Bangkok with her businessman husband (Jason Clarke). Their relationship is held together by a “Phantom Thread”-like dependency between the two of them, but the whole thing threatens to pull apart once Gina undergoes successful eye surgery to restore her sight. Needless to say, her husband does not respond well to the feeling that his gorgeous wife — once a bird with a broken wing — no longer needs him. He’s petrified that Gina will now be able to see that she’s out of his league. All manner of trouble ensues from there.
This is a project that was saddled with a nearly infinite capacity for embarrassment. And yet, until just a few weeks ago, this was Lively’s finest performance, and the best indication that she possesses enough subtlety and self-awareness required to remain a star long after “Gossip Girl” is a distant memory.
Her sometimes distant screen demeanor can leave the impression of an opaque layer of glass between herself and her characters. Now, as though seeing herself clearly for the first time, Lively finds a way to use that aloofness to her advantage. Here, she turns the glass layer into a two-way mirror, and the wide-eyed Gina starts to feel as though she’s watching her life at the same time she’s living it. That careful sense of remove creates a wonderful portrait of a woman who finds the vision required to slip free of the male gaze. You’ll never look at Lively the same way again.
No wonder Paul Feig wanted to cast her as Emily Nelson in “A Simple Favor” — he wanted someone with an intimate understanding of their own screen persona, and a willingness to subvert it at every turn. With Lively, he got way more than he bargained for. Essentially playing the Rosamund Pike role in a “Gone Girl” spoof for the mommy blogger set, Lively has the time of her life as a snake-tongued, dead-eyed PR director who disappears after asking her new best friend (Anna Kendrick) to pick up her kid from school.
Delivering a supporting performance that’s every bit as revelatory and caustically funny as the one Feig inspired from Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” Lively stomps all over the movie (in a pair of killer stilettos) from the moment she steps on screen. Her Emily Nelson is an absolute powerhouse; a perverse caricature of the modern woman who wants to have it all, and won’t let anyone take it away from her. Her motto: “You gotta go right at ’em, or they’ll fuck you in the face.”
The more cartoonish the story gets, the more genuine pathos Lively is able to find in it. One of the film’s most poignant scenes begins with her walking into a cemetery in a chic white suit, swinging a cane that’s topped with a bejeweled skull — it’s like Serena van der Woodsen has been reincarnated as Mr. Big from “Live and Let Die.” Toward that end, watching “A Simple Favor” makes it easy to chart how far Lively has come since her days on the CW, when she was hemmed in by all the trappings of high fashion.
“A Simple Favor” confirms the degree to which Lively is in command of her own talents, and knows how to make them fit her needs. She manages to thread the needle between dark comedy and delicious camp while sewing an entire line of incredible men’s suits from this script. If the Academy had even the slightest taste for subversive material, Lively would be dressed in one of these outfits at the Oscars next February.
By playing someone who’s capable of anything, Lively proves once and for all that she is, too. Even the actress’ defenders might not be prepared for what she does in “A Simple Favor,” or how dangerous she can be. Fans should enjoy being taken by surprise while they still can, because Lively — once so easy for viewers to put in a box, and for Hollywood write off as just another beautiful woman — is making it much harder to underestimate her.