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Welcome, Mrs. President

Maike Müller
Maike Müller

In LAND, her first feature film as a director, Robin Wright is also in front of the camera in the leading role. At FILMFEST MÜNCHEN, this drama will have its German premiere as the talented US actress and director is honored with the CineMerit Award.

Welcome, Mrs. President

No man stands a chance against Claire Underwood. She’s ruthless, power-hungry, and in politics to stay. She stands by her husband Frank, but always with a (verbal) knife in her hand. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to this role in the series HOUSE OF CARDS than Robin Wright. In her films, the Texan has hung out with the Mafia and even made the acquaintance of superheroes. The domain of power and force, with its masculine connotations, is her specialty in acting. Her characters often stand alongside “strong” men, never in their shadow.

It’s for this very reason that Wright initially had doubts about getting involved in HOUSE OF CARDS. In an interview, she said she didn’t want to play a woman who was just an accessory at the side of a successful man. David Fincher, the series’ producer, had promised her at the time that she would be that only in the first season. Wright, however, didn’t stop there and embodied so much more. From the beginning, she portrayed Claire as a maneuvering, independent woman who can be really dangerous to those around her, especially when she gets very quiet and her eyes light up. For her role in HOUSE OF CARDS, Wright received a Golden Globe and other awards.

The chemistry between Claire and Frank (Kevin Spacey) is the driving force of the series, precisely because Robin Wright is not “arm candy”. The two characters are a perfect match, being ice-cold and independent. You watch with horror and fascination in expectation the conflict of interest to come, for the relationship to implode. In the final season, Robin Wright stands alone in front of the camera, speaking directly to the public instead of Spacey, who had to leave the series due to accusations of sexual harassment. The fourth wall is no longer broken by Frank, as in the previous seasons, but by Claire, the first female president of the United States.

SUPERHEROES AND MOBSTERS

Before her rise to the presidency, Robin Wright was never a quiet little mouse either. Even in supporting roles, she offered a strong presence that could easily hold its own alongside the “tough men” and even stand up to them. Having started her film career quite romantically as THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987), the actress with a striking visage excellently maneuvers through dark, twisted, realms that usually have a masculine connotation. Wright seems at home in genre cinema.

She played the beautiful and headstrong teenage love interest of Terry (Sean Penn) in the Mafia drama STATE OF GRACE (1990). In M. Night Shyamalan’s dark superhero film UNBREAKABLE (2000), which spawned an entire comic-book universe with SPLIT (2016) and GLASS (2019), she took on the role of the dissatisfied wife of newly discovered superhero David (Bruce Willis). And in the neo-noir THE PLEDGE (2001), directed by her then-husband Sean Penn, she plays a waitress named Lori who nonchalantly stands up to men who try to take advantage of her.

 

NoT so sweet after all

Yet it all started so gently for Robin Wright, in a much more modest series. She began modeling at the age of 14, followed by some bit parts after high school, then a larger one in the soap opera SANTA BARBARA about the glamorous lives of two wealthy families in California. In between, however, Wright was also shooting a movie, which is why her character, Kelly Capwell, was summarily killed off. When the actress returned, the series’ creators gave her character a mysterious resurrection and Wright two more years with the series. Wright once called the intense, fast-paced, and thoroughly insane world of television “my acting class”: Where else could someone rise from the dead?

THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) was to blame for Kelly Capwell’s demise and resurrection. This cult film gave Wright her first major movie role as the beautiful Buttercup, who is kidnapped and needs to be rescued by her sweetheart, but certainly knows how to handle things herself. This mixture of fairy tale and cloak-and-dagger movie and the unique, almost trashy, humor made the film a classic in the United States. It was mainly the portrayal of true love that excited her about this film, Wright later said: after all, everyone dreams of it.

In FORREST GUMP (1994), true love is not fulfilled — at least not the romantic kind. Wright portrays the character Jenny, of whom Forrest (Tom Hanks) is very enamored. But she’s not in love with him, and she has so many other problems. Like an angel, often dressed in white and flower prints, she swoops into Forrest’s life again and again, but he’s not able to catch her. Beautiful, clever, and often kind of elusive are qualities that describe many of the characters she plays. With a proud demeanor and an expression of strength, Wright outshines the men, whether they’re “tough guys” or lovesick heroes.

 

Beautiful, clever, and often kind of elusive are qualities that describe many of the characters she plays. With a proud demeanor and an expression of strength, Wright outshines the men, whether they’re “tough guys” or lovesick heroes.

Wright even finds her place in science fiction and fantasy. In WONDER WOMAN (2017), she plays the Amazon warrior Antiope. Clad in armor, her body projects that almost uncanny willpower that Wright always brings to her roles. The uniform of the future also suits her well: in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), she is the icy, prim Lieutenant Joshi, nicknamed “Madam”, who gives K the job of finding the child of a replicant. Even before Marvel and Denis Villeneuve, director Robert Zemeckis cast Wright in such a physical role. Using motion capture, he shot BEOWULF in 2007 and turned Wright into Queen Wealthow. That looked a little strange; one would have liked to see Robin Wright’s own expressive eyes in a lot of the scenes. Because in animation, you miss the menacing, silent stare that she employs so perfectly in HOUSE OF CARDS.

In 2014, exactly 20 years after FORREST GUMP, Robin Wright also wanted to get into directing. She directed ten HOUSE OF CARDS episodes in various seasons, including the big series finale in 2018. In 2017, she also shot the short film THE DARK OF NIGHT. Tying into her own experience with neo-noirs and gangster films, this black-and-white film plays with violence. Femme fatale Leslie Bibb visits a diner in the US that is owned by an estranged couple. Whose side she’s on is something to be negotiated, but in the end it becomes clear that she’s only on her own side. By pointing a gun at the camera, it almost seems as if, by becoming a director, Wright is bidding farewell to her acting career. How fitting that LAND is so very different from the films she has appeared in so far.

Self-empowerment

and one’s own vision

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, author and director of the play FLEABAG, which was also adapted into a TV series, once said she wasn’t able to find suitable roles for women in the theater, so she just wrote one for herself. She’s not the only one who tailored a role to suit herself: Natalie Portman wrote the screenplay, directed, and starred in A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (2015), while others produced films and series in which they starred, such as Kate Winslet’s series MARE OF EASTTOWN, Reese Witherspoon’s WILD (2014) and the series BIG LITTLE LIES. This comes across as the self-empowerment of women whose bodies and creativity belong only to them.

Now Robin Wright, too, is surrounded by greenery. Her brown hair is loosely gathered up in a bun, her face haggard, bony, without makeup. In LAND, her first feature-length film as a director, which will have its German premiere at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN, she chops wood, dismembers rabbits, sets traps for the animals that roam these rugged mountains. It’s rare to see Robin Wright like this. This year’s CineMerit recipient is presenting herself to audiences in a most unfamiliar way.

Edee, the protagonist played by Robin Wright, wants to ignore, forget, and come to terms with the past. Where better to do that than in the solitude of the mighty Rocky Mountains? Like Reese Witherspoon in WILD, she fights her way through nature, wounds and all, as she demonstrates her indefatigable will. The path to finding herself and a future that will make life bearable again is a difficult one. Undaunted, Edee muddles through. Taciturn and shy, she finds a kindred spirit only in her companion Miguel, who is burdened by a similar sadness. That’s another rare thing in Wright’s films: a man who’s at her side, not the other way around, offering his support to her life in the wilderness, reversing the power structure. It’s 2021, after all.

 

The CineMerit gala for Robin Wright will be held at the Gasteig on July 2.

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