Skip to main content

Producer's POV: Charlie Kaufman's Women

Charlie Kaufman writes complicated, complex, proactive female roles for all ages. A brief spectrum of his female characters across his first six films.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

A great deal has been written over the past forty years about (Alfred) “Hitchcock’s Women.” Immaculate blondes, sensual ice queens that could be both treacherous yet vulnerable. These strong independent women often drove the action of his famous suspense films - and they suffered for it. They have become icons of his era.

One of our era’s most distinctive cinematic voices is Charlie Kaufman. In studying his scripts and movies (preparing for an On-Demand Webinar), I began to appreciate the spectrum of his female characters across his six films thus far: Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.


The antithesis of his needy male Protagonists, Charlie Kaufman’s female characters are aware of what they want in life - and are willing to take risks to go get it. They are often sarcastic and emasculating, almost always autonomous, confident, extroverted and manipulative.

Catherine Keener’s performance in Being John Malkovich was a breakout role for her. Although she originally didn’t think she was right for the part of Maxine, she seems the perfect Kaufman femme fatale - particularly suited to play his deadpan comedy. Brazen, cocky and audacious, he cast her similarly in his most recent directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.


Unlike Hitchcock’s always meticulously groomed bleach blondes, Kaufman seems to have a knack for making exquisite women unattractive. Take Being John Malkovich’s Lotte, so frumpy and frizzy, few even recognized her as the beautiful Cameron Diaz who played a woman so unhappy with her life that her first lesbian experience (albeit a surreal Russian doll daisy chain of an initiation) ignites her desire for gender reassignment surgery.


And in Human Nature, the otherwise lovely Patricia Arquette, suffers from Idiopathic Hypertrochosis – an incredibly rare hormonal imbalance that covers her body in hair like an ape. She spends part of the movie naked and feral – but always, true to herself.


Meryl Streep is fantastic in everything but it sure looks like she had a ton of fun playing the libelously Hollywood-ized “true” life story of Adaptation’s Susan Orlean.


One of my all-time favorite movies and Kaufman's most commercially successful films to date, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a heartbreaking yet hopeful remarriage tragicomedy, is driven by Kate Winslet as Clementine, who catalyzed the whole story by choosing to undergo a surgical procedure to erase all her memories of her boyfriend of two years, Joel (played by Jim Carey). No idealized, fairy tale RomComs for Kaufman fans, no Ma’am: he dishes out poignant, realistic, messy portraits of modern love.

Kaufman updates the “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” model when Mary in the same film, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, realizes not only the source of her puppy-dog-like adulation for Howard (played by Tom Wilkinson) was (ineffectively) washed away by this same procedure. Not only is she one of his most recent “patients” (unethical on so many levels), but her humiliation is heightened by discovering this secret in the middle of the night - in the middle of the street – with Howard’s oft-betrayed wife looking on, empathetic from her superior position. Mary takes it upon herself to re-educate all of Howard's former customers, setting in motion who knows what kind of unraveling and disruption on so many fronts.


And finally, there are so many doppelgängers in Synecdoche, New York it’s hard to tell them apart (much like replacement spouses). Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard had a revolving door of one woman after another in a series trying to fill the void left by his first wife, Adele (played by Catherine Keener) and the daughter she took with her. After trying to recast this role in his "real" life with Claire, played by Michelle Williams, he casts Tammy (Emily Watson) to play Hazel (played by Samantha Morton) - both of whom he sleeps with - so similar in appearance, audiences had a difficult time telling them apart (kind of the numbing point). The entire cast ages decades in a matter of moments as time - and life's opportunities - slip through the fingers of this asleep-at-the-wheel Protagonist.


In so many of his films, Kaufman poignantly tracks the erosion of love - and the atrophy of affection - through a cinematic dance of self-awareness, identity - and lies. But he can always be counted on to write complicated, complex, proactive female roles for all ages.

Watch this column for future articles on the Eternal Brilliance of Charlie Kaufman's Non-Linear Mind.


Get Heather's tips on rewriting in her webinar
REWRITE TIPS to Make Your Script Marketable