The One Where Hollywood Keeps Taking Lisa Kudrow for Granted
In the 12 years that have passed since the series ended, it’s become increasingly clear that Lisa Kudrow was the best actor on Friends. Maybe we were too preoccupied with Rachel’s hair and perfecting our Joey impressions to notice it then, but thanks to the generous gift of hindsight, it seems glaringly obvious now. Sure, David Schwimmer gave an excellent Juice-fueled turn on The People v. O.J. Simpson. And Jennifer Aniston’s typically solid when she gets a good role. But it’s Kudrow who has proven herself as the most consistently great performer of the bunch. Why, then, has Hollywood neglected her so much in recent years? Why are films like Neighbors and The Girl on the Train wasting her in nothing, throwaway roles?
Is it the age thing? That’s the unfortunate place my mind immediately goes. And why not? The struggles women in Hollywood endure, especially as they get older, have been well documented. The older a woman gets (30 is considered “old,” by the way), the fewer opportunities she has; the roles become less interesting and she’s reduced to Mother, Grandmother, Nagging Wife, Friend at Work, Icy Professional Type, et al.
Kudrow has played most of these parts and then some: Hilary Swank’s friend in P.S. I Love You, moms in Bandslam and Hotel for Dogs, Billy Crystal’s put-upon wife in Analyze This and That. There was a period when Kudrow, like her Friends co-stars, got leading roles in studio comedies, most of which were totally forgettable — save Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the hilarious BFF rom-com that (rightfully) became a cult classic.
Where Kudrow shined brightest in the years during and immediately following her sitcom success wasn’t in polished studio comedies, but with smaller dramatic parts (like Val Kilmer’s wife in Wonderland) and leading roles in offbeat indies like The Opposite of Sex, where she began a rewarding professional relationship with writer/director Don Roos that continued into 2005’s Happy Endings. That under-seen but truly great ensemble dramedy features Kudrow as a woman who reluctantly allows a shady aspiring filmmaker to document her search for the son she secretly gave up for adoption after her stepbrother (played as an adult by Steve Coogan) impregnated her as a teenager. It sounds a bit convoluted, and it is, but Kudrow and the fantastic ensemble ground the film with humor and emotional nuance, and the end result is quite poignant.
The Roos collaborations made me realize that not only was Kudrow the best actor on Friends, she’s one of the best character actors of our time. And you don’t just cast a talented character actor as the lead in a basic, big-budget comedy or blockbuster — you can, but that’s how we ended up with Johnny Depp becoming this bizarre, baffling caricature of a giant novelty hat. Character actors should, like Kudrow, go off the beaten path with featured roles in eccentric studio films and subversive parts in unconventional movies.
When Kudrow appears these days, it’s rarely an effective use of her talents. If not for her collaborative television work with Don Roos (Web Therapy), and Michael Patrick King and Dan Bucatinsky (The Comeback), we’d likely see even less of her than we do now. Here’s a homework assignment: Watch an episode or two of Friends, followed by one each of Web Therapy and The Comeback. (If you have the time, throw in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Happy Endings.) Kudrow is remarkably different in each, even when some of them have similar surface qualities.
She is impressively versatile, and despite the exaggerated nature of some of these characters, Kudrow showcases incredible nuance and subtlety from role to role. But if television hadn’t evolved to accommodate more creator-driven content, we might have missed out on so much of Kudrow’s range. She’d be relegated to cashing in on Friends nostalgia — not unlike Valerie Cherish on The Comeback, a delightfully heightened, meta-mock-doc series about an older actress and former sitcom star struggling to remain relevant.
If Lisa Kudrow is so great, then why don’t we talk about her more? Why is it that, when my friends were trying to convince me to watch BoJack Horseman, the female guest stars they consistently name-dropped were Olivia Wilde and Charlize Theron? They’re both fantastic, obviously, but Kudrow’s recurring Season 2 role as the voice of Wanda is really wonderful, and certainly more substantial than Wilde’s.
Kudrow’s last “major” movie role was in 2010’s Easy A, in which she played Emma Stone’s school guidance counselor. Although a clever and charming update on John Hughes’ teen classics, Will Gluck’s comedy cast Kudrow as a wife and teacher — one who cheats on her husband with a 22-year-old male student (and gives him an STI), and who plays into the unfortunate typecasting that older women encounter.
More recently, Kudrow reprised her disappointingly brief cameo role from Neighbors in the female-oriented Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, in which her Dean Carol Gladstone appears (again, for just a few minutes) to deliver expository dialogue regarding sexist college sorority regulations. It’s a crucial bit of information, and to be fair, Kudrow delivers it hilariously. She’s so funny in both Neighbors films that it seems cruel to waste her in a couple short scenes. Maybe Seth Rogen couldn’t find room for more of her without cutting a few of those precious dick jokes.
As slight as her Neighbors role may be, at least those films give her something to do, unlike The Girl on the Train. Kudrow appears in two very small scenes; her job, once again, is to deliver a crucial detail (which I will not spoil here). It’s the sort of info that could have easily been handled in a number of ways — ways that don’t involve using a brilliant actor to spoon-feed exposition to Emily Blunt in a scene that reduces a traumatic revelation to a gimmicky plot twist. It’s insulting to all involved, although that’s not the least of the film’s problems.
It would be unfair to make assumptions about Kudrow’s personal feelings regarding her current level of success — she is the executive producer of the TLC (formerly NBC) reality docu-series Who Do You Think You Are?, which follows celebrities as they track their genealogy. The series, which was recently renewed for ninth season, has been nominated for two Primetime Emmy awards, and won this year for editing. Kudrow is also a producer on It Got Better, an ongoing TV miniseries in which LGBT celebrities — including Laverne Cox, Ian McKellen and Tim Gunn — recount their personal struggles.
Kudrow is inarguably successful, and I can’t pretend to be outraged on her behalf, but it is consistently frustrating to see such a talented actor taken for granted. Web Therapy and The Comeback are both wonderful, but they weren’t wildly popular shows. The fact that the former ran for four seasons on Showtime (in addition to six seasons of online webisodes) is kind of amazing; that the latter was revived for a second season nine years after HBO originally canceled it is basically a miracle.
But that in itself speaks to Lisa Kudrow’s greatness and enduring appeal, and proves that maybe television truly is the only place where a female character actor with such incredible versatility and remarkable skill can find work worthy of her talent — and be recognized for it.