Tuesday, June 8, 2010

When Sarah Met Carrie

By Susan Daly
Friday May 28 2010

To the casual observer, the career of Sarah Jessica Parker begins and ends with a tutu. The alpha tutu is the short pink one she wore in the opening titles to the Sex and the City TV series. The omega tutu -- a grown-up, shin-length affair -- was borrowed from the Royal Ballet of London for her character Carrie Bradshaw to wear in the final episode of the show in 2004.

For the majority of fans who will pay this weekend to Sex and the City 2, the marketing behemoth-come-movie, Parker is synonymous with Carrie. She may have been a working actress since the age of eight, but real A-list fame only came at 33 with SATC. It took those six short years as the clotheshorse sex columnist to bounce her from quirky movie support act to household name.

Her late career blossoming has been described -- by The New York Times, no less -- as the ultimate Revenge of the Nerd. Glam, streetwise Carrie was not the career-defining role Parker was supposed to have. She played earnest urchin Annie as a child on Broadway. She was the geeky, gangly heroine for awkward pubescents everywhere in 80s TV teen drama Square Pegs. When she made it to the movies, she was the academic, mousy-haired sidekick of wild and sexy Lori Singer in Footloose.

Surprising then that the show that made her a power player was one equally obsessed with the exterior appearance as with the interior lives of its characters. "I have no illusions of who I am or what I look like or what I have to offer," said Parker in 2000, two years into her role as style icon Carrie.

She has spoken before of losing out on roles because she isn't traditionally beautiful. "I'm not particularly proud of how I look," she once said. "I've never been what Hollywood considers beautiful. It would be so great to look like Andie Macdowell. She beat me for the part in Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Parker might have her detractors but none are as deprecating as she is about herself. She has suggested that even Johnny Depp looked better than her in biopic Ed Wood (1994), where she played transvestite director Wood's girlfriend. "That was depressing because in drag he was more beautiful than me," she said.

In fact, the roles she took in her 20s were already teeing Parker up to be able to convincingly play a rom-com icon such as Carrie. The wickedly funny LA Story (1991) gave her licence to play ditsy, sexy blonde SanDeE* -- a persona she took out of the box again as trophy girlfriend Shelly Stewart for The First Wives Club five years later.

In Honeymoon in Vegas in 1992, she proved she could carry a romantic lead as she was fought over by Nicolas Cage and James Caan. Here though, her character was somewhat objectified and only given a first name, Betsy -- Parker was still a bit player.

When the Sex and the City script arrived in her lap, Parker actually thought it signalled the death knell to her career. A year into the series, when SATC was proving to be a hit, she admitted that she had been "terrified" of signing up to a TV show. "I was very nervous about doing a television series," she said, "It sounded depressing to me." She explained that she thought a return to TV was a last pit-stop before retirement. "That you'd never get better, you'd just get comfortable, and that's it."

Her husband, actor Matthew Broderick, convinced her otherwise, telling her that the worst-case scenario would be that it would be successful. "And in fact he was right," she says.

Was he ever. Purely measured against the benchmark of cold, hard cash, Sex and the City made Parker a player in the entertainment business. Her personal stock as an actress went up. Before SATC, she was not commanding outrageous fees for her movie roles. When she played Nell in a tame family movie called Dudley Do-Right in 1999, she earned her first $500,000 pay cheque because SATC had just made her a star.

She was also smart enough to translate Carrie's popularity (she was easily the most fleshed-out character compared with the archetypes of tough Miranda, prissy Charlotte and sex-mad Samantha) into a producer credit. It created some rancour among her castmates, and this apparently had much to do with the four-year delay in bringing the first movie version of SATC to the screen after the series ended.

Sarah Jessica Parker is herself as much a brand now as Carrie Bradshaw. There was a blip when Gap dropped her as their brand ambassador in 2005 in favour of singer Joss Stone, but otherwise she's raked in millions in endorsements, her own clothing line, Bitten, and in the lucrative fragrances industry.

Ironically, she insists that she is really a homebody mother of three. She had two high-profile relationships in her 20s -- with Robert Downey Jr and John Kennedy Jr -- but said "my single life was never as colourful as that [of Carrie's]. I've never been a drinker really, never gone to clubs and dances all night and been irresponsible, even as a young person". As such, she is a blank canvas for fans and advertisers to project their fantasies on.

So complete is the transformation from journeywoman theatre actress to star brand that her new perfume is simply called SJP NYC, putting her star wattage on a par with the Big Apple itself.

In the long run though, has Parker shot herself in her Jimmy Choo-shod foot? She claims that the reason she put an end to Sex and the City, the TV series, was because she was too comfortable there. "I felt it was really incumbent upon me at this time in my life to do something new and challenging," she said.

Those words came in 2005, just after she had a modest critical and commercial success as the highly strung businesswoman Meredith in dramedy The Family Stone. In truth though, none of the rom-coms she has chosen since she left SATC have raised her up the acting star league. Smart People (2007) was a small independent black comedy that was shorter on laughs than its trailer would have suggested. Failure to Launch with Matthew McConnaughey, one of her first forays into movies after her TV show ended, was disastrously titled and badly reviewed.

What is often forgotten about the first two series of Sex and the City -- perhaps most of all by Parker herself -- is that they made much use of her sharp comic instincts. This was before the writers got distracted by 'fabulousness', product placement and attempts to flesh out two-dimensional characters such as Mr Big into likeable people.

For all that, Parker appears to be as popular as ever after the demise of SATC the TV series -- it has to be noted that she only made the Forbes Celebrity 100 power list for the very first time in 2008. This was due mainly to the success of Sex and the City: The Movie -- the other movies she had made in the intervening four years hadn't put her there.

Parker appears to be making the wise choice to evolve behind the camera -- she has recently produced a comedy series for HBO called The Washingtonienne and an art reality show. She must realise that while slick SJP is no longer square peg Sarah Jessica, it's every bit as much of a pigeonhole.

Sex and the City opens in cinemas today
FIRST PUBLISHED HERE: http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/day-and-night/features/when-sarah-met-carrie-2198190.html

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