Today is Salma Hayek’s 45th birthday, and as she has with most of the men on the planet, she’s conjured some impure thoughts in me over the years. I have well and truly lusted after her, and to see her body move, glimmer, shift or heave is to feel something deep and urgent in the animal pit of your being. Typically, she’s portrayed as a firecracker. She’s the crazy, latin sex bomb, who incandescent with passion, will tear off all your clothes, drain you of everything you’ve got, and then leave you to beg forgiveness from your priest for all the wicked things you’ve done.
Whether this is a blessing or a curse for her professionally is a matter for debate. Our collective want washes over her like a tidal wave, and blind to nothing but her sexual potential, we actually don’t even notice whether she can act or not.
My guess is she can’t.
Although she’s been a fixture in our imagination for the last 20 years, I can hardly remember any of the movies she’s done. They all sort of blur into the same idea of a film, and the only thing I can pick-out from this hot mess are singular moments in which she’s done something physically to capture my imagination. I remember that Snake Dance she did in From Dusk to Dawn and the way the camera languidly poured over her hips, and a little bit distressingly, Quentin Tarantino’s indulgence of his foot fetish. I remember her being naked in Desperado and then I remember nothing else. It was like those moments knocked the possibility of anything further out of my brain. My vague impression in the years after is that most of the movies she was in were lousy and forgettable, and that her performances in them were so broadly portrayed as to be little more than a kind of burlesque.
Now, of course there was Frida, a movie directed with such painterly attentiveness that the audience had no choice but to luxuriate in the visuals, but were left at a distance from any sort of emotional engagement. Again, I remember the thrill of seeing Hayek’s body freed from the confines of clothing, but I recall little of her performance, and whether this is my fault or whether it’s evidence of her limited ability to take her roles beyond the distraction of her body, is pretty much immaterial.
At this point in her career she is what she— a fun, cartoonish sex icon. Hayek, who has always been an appealing, even ebullient presence, seems to have accepted this with the self-assuredness of middle-age. It might just be that film acting was not her biscuit, and as she got older, married a billionaire and invested herself in other ventures, and it became clear that her roles were increasingly likely to be stuff like playing the voice of Kitty Softpaws in the upcoming Puss and Boots, she turned elsewhere.
As a fundamentally one-dimensional actor, she’s taken her talents and persona to a fundamentally one-dimensional medium, TV. This, I think, was a really smart thing to do. Playing Sofia Reyes, the telenovela nurse in Ugly Betty, she brilliantly captured the camp and fun implicit in the roles that had characterized her career. And this, of course, led to more of the same on “30 Rock,” where she’s been able to work with some of the best comedy talents in the industry.
“You blew it, Jack. And now you will never see the crazy underwears I have on.”
Regardless of whether Hayek is a good actress or not, she seems to be an entirely decent and bright person. Using her legendary breasts for brilliant measure, she breast fed a week-old baby in Sierra Leone whose mother couldn’t produce milk. There’s an appealing weirdness and generosity in such an act, and if anybody can alter a cultural belief that breast-feeding renders women sexually unattractive, well, I think it might just be Salma Hayek, and so happy birthday Salma, you’re gorgeous and fun, even if maybe you can’t act.
Also having a birthday today is Keanu Reeves, who is now 47.
Very early on, I made up my mind that he was absolutely the worst actor on the planet. This was cemented in my head after watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, a movie I quite liked. It was vivid, sexy and eerily hypnotizing, and Reeves presence in it, as a bedpost or whatever it was he was portraying, just drove me crazy. Whenever he appeared in the movie, it was a huge buzz-kill. Everything just went limp, and Keanu, like some black hole, sucked all the energy and vitality out of the picture. After that, whenever I saw him in a film, speaking with that thick, blocky delivery that always makes him seem stupid, I had to turn away.
I think that there’s pretty much a universal consensus that Reeves is at best, a limited actor. He doesn’t exactly dissolve into his roles and whatever character he plays tends to become Keanu rather than the other way around, and not surprisingly, this has given us mixed results. But in spite of his reputation and his ability, he’s still managed to be in some of the biggest and sometimes most interesting films of the last 20 years. The guy’s no moron, and he’s made some really good choices, parlaying an affable and oddly magnetizing presence into a pretty cool career.
Like Hayek, Reeves has a one-dimensional quality, but there’s also something genuinely unnatural about him, too. It’s like he’s a pod being inhabited by an alien pretending to be a human, and I realized when watching the 2003 movie Something’s Gotta Give, that this can be a virtue. Improbably cast as a doctor, Reeves was perfect for the role. Playing somebody who has to erect a professional distance from the people he’s interacting with, such as a doctor, Reeves’ unnatural, disconnected manner suddenly became an example of eerie realism. He was gold! And later, when Richard Linklater disembodied him and made him an animated character in A Scanner Darkly, the trippy results were first-rate.
When he’s cast well, it’s his natural absence that brings Reeves present to the screen, and unlike Hayek, with whom we remember singular flashes of her beauty but not the movie, with Reeves we remember the movie, but not the singular moments that define an actor. Although neither Hayek or Reeves really has unique acting chops, they both have star qualities and have managed to fashion interesting careers both in spite of, and because of the limiting boundaries of their talent.