Out Loud: Let's Talk About Ellen Page
Last week, the not anticipated sequel-slash-reboot to the 80s thriller Flatliners opened to universally negative reviews and weak box office results. The necessity of such a film was obviously called into question - ~Was this a property with enough name recognition to be relevant in 2017? Were there die-hard Flatliners fans just crying out for a new film that continued the mythos? - but the chances are the film will quickly disappear from the box office top 10 before anyone has enough time to think about such issues. The film opened to audiences just over 10 years after the Telluride Film Festival premiere of Juno, the scrappy indie comedy that would go on to gross over 30 times its initial budget, win its first time screenwriter an Oscar, and make a star of its lead, Ellen Page. The eponymous protagonist of Juno is the ideal star-making project: A role that requires mile-a-minute control of very mannered but exceedingly memorable dialogue, a decidedly feminine character arc, and one stripped of vanity. Page is wonderful in the role and her Oscar nomination was well earned. Roger Ebert may have bestowed the ultimate praise on the actress in his glowing review of the film, which he then declared to be his favourite of 2007:
‘Has there been a better performance this year than Ellen Page’s creation of Juno? I don’t think so. If most actors agree that comedy is harder than drama, then harder still is comedy depending on a quick mind, utter self-confidence, and an ability to stop just short of going too far. Page’s presence and timing are extraordinary. I have seen her in only two films, she is only 20, and I think she will be one of the great actors of her time.’
A decade later and Page’s career hasn’t quite offered the critical prestige Ebert had predicted, but much has changed since the actress made her mark in Juno. The woman who made her name in roles as tough, sardonic women who deny the trappings of the system has become one of the industry’s most prominent LGBTQ+ talents, refusing to follow the same path of adherence to the status quo in her real life. Yet even in our allegedly enlightened times, in the supposed bastion of liberality that is Hollywood, it’s clear that out actors still face a ceiling to their success.
Born Ellen Philpotts-Page in Halifax, she started acting at the age of 10 in small roles on Canadian TV and film, but the film that brought her to further critical attention was Hard Candy, a a wild and unnervingly fascinating take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale, crossed with revenge horror and psychological torture. Directed by David Slade and made for under $1m, the plot screams controversy, with Page playing a 14 year old who traps and tortures an older man she suspects of being a sexual predator. She has a near impossible task ahead of her, having to embody a deeply strange persona that the audience must relate to but never stop being unsure of. She’s an avenging angel but one who shouldn’t exist, so evidently young and callous beyond her years. Aged 18 when the film came out, she looks so much younger. It feels like such a cliché to say a young actor or actress is wise beyond their years, and we certainly do seem to crave that brand of precociousness from child actors, but with Page she carries herself with a maturity that cannot ignore her youthful exterior, presenting a fascinating juxtaposition of ideas: The innocent little girl coupled with every man’s worst nightmare.
The first flush of Hollywood visibility followed as she took on the role of Kitty Pryde in the 3rd X-Men film, The Last Stand, but while she’s perfectly good in what is a pretty mediocre movie, it wasn’t a star making moment. That would follow the next year in the little indie that could.
Juno has received some backlash in recent years, written off as a twee fluke or a representation of the worst indulgences of indie comedies: A more decipherable mumblecore film with an overload of hipster acoustics. In abstract, the story of a too cool for school teenage girl who gets pregnant and decides to give up the baby for adoption seems wildly dated (the word ‘abortion’ isn’t even mentioned on-screen, even though there is a scene where Juno goes into a clinic). A lot of these dismissals seem rooted in perceptions of what the film is rather than what the film actually is. As it is, Juno still feels fresh but it’s also one of the sharpest takes on that inimitable reality of adolescence - the desperation to be more mature than you really are. Juno seems like the cool kid everyone secretly envied at high school, the one who didn’t give a crap about what people thought and seemed genuinely at peace with their lower standing in the ecosystem. She’s Daria with more willingness to confess her joy. There’s immense authenticity in screenwriter Diablo Cody’s dialogue for Juno and her friends. Yes, it’s highly mannered and a bit too rehearsed, but that’s a truth of being a teenager: You practice the good jokes to impress everyone, you make up your own language to show off and keep secrets, and you live life with the utmost assurance that nobody gets your favourite band quite like you do.
Page nails that façade of unshakeable confidence that carries Juno through her pregnancy and the belief that she can just give away a baby as simply as a birthday present. She walks into every room as if she owns it, and she never lets anyone talk down to her like the kid she is. When Juno is confronted with the inescapable difficulties of adult life after the friendship she forms with the future adoptive father of the baby backfires, Page captures that fury mixed with the panic of realising just how hard this all is. She’s not mature enough for this but it’s the choice she made so she has to stick out the hardships. Page is acutely aware that the wisecracking can only carry Juno so far, and it aches to see her in the aftermath of the birth, lying on the hospital bed and finally understanding everything that’s happened to her. It’s a role that so easily could have sunk into knowing smirks and strained sassiness, yet Page keeps a tight rein on Juno’s quirks. She’s sardonic but fragile and the digs at the people she loves hurt her just as much.
At the age of 20, Page received an Oscar nomination for Juno (she lost to Marion Cotillard), yet her post-Oscar career didn’t set the night alight. She remained an indie actress through and through, with another Sundance debut, Smart People, which opened to mixed reviews, a middling psychological thriller called Peacock, and a narration gig on a documentary about bees. There are wonderful highlights during this period: The hugely underrated roller derby comedy Whip It, the sole directorial effort of Drew Barrymore, is a warm and punchy story of female solidarity and power that offered Page an opportunity to add new shades to her Juno performance; and, of course, Inception.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Christopher Nolan, for all his exceptional talents, is not great at writing women. To his credit, he seems painfully aware of this fact, and Dunkirk is partly his acknowledgement that he’s better off just not including women in his films. As Ariadne in Inception, the film that finally landed Nolan a Best Picture nomination, Page may be the exception to that rule. She plays the token woman in Leonardo DiCaprio’s team of crooks who infiltrate the dreams of their targets to steal their secrets. Ariadne, an accomplished grad student of architecture, is recruited to help build the dream worlds. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Nolan’s films could easily imagine where Ariadne’s arc would end, but thankfully she’s given more substantive material to work with (or at least as substantive as any character in the film, which is almost a rag-tag ensemble of tropes from an old-school action movie than anything traditionally Nolan). Acting as an audience surrogate, Ariadne nonetheless has the enthusiasm and savvy to comfortably fit in with the crew, and most of the time she seems like the most mature one there. Page is good at these roles - mature beyond her years but still too green to be cynical about it, the level head in the room who could probably dominate everyone else with nary a glance if she wanted to.
An interesting mish-mash of roles followed: She went delightfully crazy in Super, as a wannabe superhero’s demented sidekick; there was a fascinating turn in the underseen eco terrorist thriller The East; she garnered her first producer credit with Into The Forest, starring alongside Evan Rachel Wood; and she took to the world of video games with a motion-capture performance in Beyond: Two Souls. Page can make an impact in bigger projects but she’s decidedly an indie star, finding comfort in the freedom smaller budgets and increased creative control can give her.
Yet it wasn’t a film that brought her back into major headlines. In 2014, while giving a speech at a Human Rights Conference event, Page came out as gay. Rumours of her sexuality had floated around, as such things are want to do, although she was also subject to gossip around speculation she was hooking up with her co-star from The East, Alexander Skarsgård. She even mocked the rumours of her sexuality in a sketch on SNL. In her speech, she said, ‘I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility. I also do it selfishly, because I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission.’ It’s a wonderful speech and I recommend you watch it in its entirety. You can practically see the weight being lifted from her shoulders as she speaks. When asked in an interview in 2016 if she felt her coming out had affected he career, she said, ‘I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t something I feared, and that’s the big reason so many people haven’t come out. For me, being out within my life became far more important than being in any movie… I think my gayness was already playing its role in regards to my career. I’m not naive to that element of the business. I hope it changes.’
It’s true that there aren’t many notable projects on Page’s filmography after her coming out, but it hasn’t changed much in terms of the work she was already doing. She always did smaller projects, she always kept a foot in the Canadian industry, and she continues to produce. If anything has changed, it’s that Page is now more comfortable being herself on screen and all that entails.
Freeheld is not a good movie - in fact, it’s toe curling in its cloying take on an immensely important real-life event - but when you watch it, it’s hard to ignore how little you see what you’re seeing: A highly buzzed about movie with a major A-list cast, where one of them is openly gay and playing a gay character. It just doesn’t happen as much as you’d think it would. LGTBQ+ roles are still the bastion of straight actors, and it’s a job that carries an insulting weight to a heterosexual world because it opens the floodgates for people like Jake Gyllenhaal and Cate Blanchett and Eddie Redmayne to be asked about how difficult it must have been and how they’re so brave for taking on the mantle. Nobody ever asks Ellen Page if she feels brave or challenged for kissing men on-screen; it’s just assumed that’s the cultural and societal default. Freeheld may be pretty bad but Page is wonderful in it, taking the most cliched dialogue and making it sing with fragility and determination.
Page’s next role was simply to be herself, taking on hosting duties for Viceland’s travel series, Gaycation. Alongside her friend Ian Daniel, the pair visit parts of the world and explore them from an LGBTQ perspective. Not everything about the show works - it’s too Vice-esque to be as introspective as it needs to be and there are some uncomfortable imperialistic moments to their travels - but this is also Page at her most personal. As a famous gay woman followed around the world with a pack of cameras, she has to constantly read this line of fun, combative and journalistic. She has to pick her fights carefully, especially when confronting homophobes on their home turf, and she doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes she panics or gets flustered when trying to formulate cohesive thoughts, and this naturalistic approach - so achingly Vice - has its good and bad sides. Yet I do recommend you watch a few episodes if only to see Page at her most self-interrogating, which is something that major stars don’t tend to do so freely, much less with a documentary crew tagging along.
When she came out, Page talked about that personal responsibility she felt as a public figure to use her voice. It’s a battle marginalized people often face, particularly in the public eye, where your status forces an identity upon you as ‘the voice of the demographic’ in a way never demanded of straight white men. You can see Page wearing this badge in her work and life, and doing so with immense responsibility. She works with LGBTQ+ rights and feminist organisations, she produces films written, directed by and starring women (her upcoming film, My Days of Mercy, about two women who fall in love across the divide of the death penalty debate, is also produced by her), and she takes her status as the film industry’s most famous young gay woman very seriously, from the Human Rights Campaign to Gaycation. Hollywood’s obvious prejudices may have put a few bumps in her page, but Ellen Page has always fought for more.
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