Nobody could seem to decide whether or not Cameron Diaz had actually retired. Last month, actress and friend of Diaz, Selma Blair, said that her pal had retired from acting, then backtracked when publications started reporting on what she claimed was a joke. Then, only a couple of weeks later, Diaz took part in an Entertainment Weekly article on her 2002 film, The Sweetest Thing. There, she said, ‘I am actually retired’. At the ripe old age of 45, the actress who once commanded over $20m a picture was done with the business, having not made a film in close to 4 years. Instead, she has published books on health and longevity, and enjoyed a peaceful private life with her husband of three years, Good Charlotte guitarist Benji Madden. Diaz did not entirely disappear from the public eye - she pops up on her husband’s Instagram page, she goes to dinners with friends, and she appeared at the infamous GOOP summit - but for someone who was a defining part of Hollywood’s big time for over two decades, her absence from our screens feels unusually potent.
In the past five active years of Diaz’s acting career, from 2009 to 2014, the actress appeared in no less than 15 movies. For an actress who was primarily defined in Hollywood as the sexy firecracker of rom-coms and the Charlie’s Angels franchise, it’s notable how much Diaz tried to get out of her comfort zone during this period. The usual projects are there, such as her voice work in a Shrek sequel and the stock rom-com of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but then there are films like The Box and Annie. She tried psychological thrillers, she stepped up to the plate to be the action equal of none other than Tom Cruise in Knight and Day, and she played the primary female part in The Green Hornet, a good few years before superhero cinema became the dominant norm of the industry.
As sad as it sounds, what is also striking about this five year period is how forgettable most of the work is. That’s not to say Diaz is bad in everything, but it feels more like an indication of how the scripts thin out for actresses once they pass 35. It’s also a sign of how the kind of projects where Diaz’s special touch worked wonders just weren’t being made post-2010. The Farrelly Brothers brand of gross-out sweetness in the rom-com genre had seriously dwindled in popularity, and Diaz may have been the prime example of how good an actor can be in those stories.
There’s Something About Mary is very much a movie of its time. I’m not sure 2018 would tolerate that kind of frat-bro crudeness, especially when its followed by a chaser of such earnestness. It’s a movie about love, lost chances, and chronic stalkers who think women are objects to be owned. As the adored Mary in question, Diaz has the thankless task of embodying the kind of woman that men feel especially entitled to: The girl who’s ‘one of the guys’, or at least looks like it to the outside world. She’s gorgeous but loves sports, eats greasy food like it’s going out of style, is an accomplished doctor who selflessly puts others before herself, and she doesn’t give a shit about the appearances of the men she wants to date. Really, she’s too good for the movie, and Diaz only heightens that. Diaz is completely up for the lunacy of the role, which requires her to mostly play it straight as the dream girl until she has to be the squirm-inducing butt of the joke (that ‘hair gel’ scene, anyone?) She’s not so much playing a woman as she is inhabiting an empty vessel moulded by a committee of men. That Diaz makes Mary so human is nigh on a miracle. If only the film were brave enough to not chicken out and give it all a happy rom-com ending.
It’s a shame Diaz never got to work with the likes of Paul Feig or Melissa McCarthy, because her comic stylings would mesh so well with the pair’s sensibilities. Instead, Diaz was left with instantly forgettable dreck like Sex Tape amd The Other Woman, movies which would have felt dated even in the era of There’s Something About Mary. She fared better with 2011’s Bad Teacher, which allowed her the opportunity to command the screen as the undisputed star of the production. For someone who excels so much with sweetness, Diaz has a delightfully brazen edge which works so well with Bad Teacher. You wish for a movie with the guts to go as dark as that performances hungers for, but Diaz didn’t get as many of those chances as she deserved. In those sorts of roles, the writing is almost always done by men, and too often they lazily fall back on cheap sex gags that do little justice to Diaz as a performer. When it’s dressed up in female empowerment, as the Charlie’s Angels movies were, it merely exposes the ridiculousness of the façade.
In those latter career moments where Diaz stretches herself beyond the roles expected of her, the results veer between wildly daring and borderline disastrous. Annie is not a great movie, and her work as Miss Hannigan feels like someone put a curse on her. It’s a panto villain performance that never goes past shrill, although Diaz does admirably give it her all as the shrieking caricature of a human woman. She made some creative choices, and gosh darn it, she’s going to stick to them.
But then there’s 2013 The Counselor. On paper, Diaz feels like the odd one out in an ensemble of Oscar winners and nominees, banding together for a Ridley Scott picture written by the legendary Cormac McCarthy. It’s the sort of film that, when you first hear about it, you can’t imagine it being anything other than perfect. Of course, we actually saw it and found that assumption to be hysterically false. McCarthy’s script is a cyclone of ideas that lack the structure to make any real impact, and not even some of the most acclaimed actors of their generation can make saying that dialogue sound anything other than exhausting. Yet Diaz does it with such primal aplomb that she slinks away with the entire show. As a comedic actress, Diaz has been fearless. You have to be when you’re doing semen gags. She can be weird and crazy and pratfalling to the ends of the earth for a laugh, the hot girl with no fears about pushing that beauty aside. With The Counselor, she wields that fearlessness in the strangest manner possible. She seems to be the only actor in the movie that understands how none of that dialogue can be said in a realist manner. It works in McCarthy’s books, but for this kind of film, it needs more artifice. She plays the femme fatale part like she’s a cyborg version of Barbara Stanwyck by way of Rihanna, and it is glorious. And that doesn’t even count the scene where she fucks a car, a moment that feels like a giant Fuck You to years of objectification. Diaz at her best is weaponized boldness.
Acting isn’t enough anymore. Actors have to be producers or super-heroic humanitarians or lifestyle gurus or mommy bloggers on top of the labour of being movie-stars. Diaz went the health and beauty route, but it never felt like a natural fit. Sure, Diaz’s beauty and body were key parts of her persona - the sex goddess who went slapstick - but this wasn’t like a Gwyneth Paltrow style evolution. We expected Paltrow, with her impeccable breeding and air of new-age aspiration, to be the kind of star who tried to sell us vagina eggs. Diaz’s The Body Book is a pretty unspectacular read. The advice it offers on ‘the law of hunger, the science of strength, and other ways to love your amazing body’ could probably be found in any stock pseudo-inspirational wellness guide. Diaz’s involvement seems minimal, and while the general advice is solid and avoids GOOP-style quackery - drink lots of water, exercise regularly, believe in yourself - it’s questionable whether one needed a book for such things. What Diaz’s minor reinvention as a lifestyle guru reminds me of is the same path made by Kate Hudson: The change from acting to wellness is less a question of ‘why’ than ‘why not?’ There are worse celebrities to follow for such advice, I guess.
Diaz may very well return to our screens one day. It would be a shame if she didn’t find at least a few great roles that are suited to her talents. Then again, her quiet step back from the spotlight, one she held onto for two decades, is not a decision that one can dismiss as frivolous or without reason. Hollywood is terrible to women over 40, particularly those who were defined so heavily by their beauty. It leaves women with so few options. Frankly, if you had Diaz’s money, wouldn’t you choose to just sit it out for the rest of your years as well?
(Header photograph from Getty Images)