Playing a dumb blonde isn’t as easy as it looks. You have only to watch Jessica Simpson making a mess of it in The Dukes of Hazzard to realise it takes talent to do it properly.
But Cameron Diaz has perfected the art offscreen as well as on, which is probably why everyone underestimates her, and why audiences were so thoroughly discombobulated when she shucked off the disguise and went for the jugular. And she certainly went for the jugular – or should I say carotid – in The Counsellor. By all accounts she had to be reined in, delivering all her dialogue in a Barbados accent; the producers thought it sounded too much like Rihanna, and insisted on her rerecording all her lines in post-production.
Even without the Rihanna accent, the knee-jerk reaction to her performance in Ridley Scott’s pitch black cautionary tale was that Diaz should stay in her lane and stick to rom-coms. To which I have two things to say. Firstly, anyone who thinks comedy is easy needs to take note of that maxim, variously attributed to Edmund Kean, Donald Wolfit or Joan Collins: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” I would go further and propose that if you can pull off light comedy, you can pull off just about anything, and Diaz had that game sewn up many moons ago.
The other thing is that her performance in The Counsellor as Malkina (and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy surely had witches’ familiars in mind when he came up with that name) is calculated to discombobulate, and by jove it does, and not only when, in one of the film’s most notorious scenes, she’s spreading her womanly attributes all over the windshield of Javier Bardem’s Ferrari. There’s not a lot that disturbs me in the movies nowadays, but Diaz’s harshly-lit catwoman (and you think Scott couldn’t have made her look softer and prettier if he’d wanted?) with her razor-sharp fingernails, cheetah tattoo and lifeless, heavily made up eyes is like no femme fatale I’ve seen before – and unlike any other character the actress has played.
Malkina’s eyes, in fact, make you think of Quint’s lines from Jaws: “Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya.” Dead eyes or not, of all the characters in the film, she’s the one who sees most clearly. “The slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining,” she remarks quite casually, over lunch. It’s a uniquely unnerving performance.
Malkina is a long way from Diaz’s film debut in The Mask (1994) as a nightclub chanteuse who also happens to be the villain’s girlfriend though – a sign of things to come – the character subverts expectations. Not many 21-year-old ex-models get a movie entrance as memorable as that slow pan up endless legs, scarlet dress, blonde hair. (But then, not many 21 year-olds have already spent five years living in Japan, Australia, Mexico, Morocco, and Paris.) Had it been filmed by Michael Bay instead of Chuck Russell, her introduction might have been lip-smackingly boorish, but somehow Diaz owns it. She’s already a class act.
But check out that family name. While at first glance she may look like a sporty Californian blonde straight out of a Beach Boys fantasy, her father’s family is Cuban, making her half Latin. “All my life, because I’m blonde and blue-eyed, people who aren’t Hispanic can’t believe I am. And people who are Hispanic always think I’m not, because I don’t look like them. Being Latin is part of who I am and I bring that part to every role.”
There has always been more to her than meets the eye, and early on, instead of settling for a series of bland blonde ingenue roles, she explored her dark side in a series of indie black comedies that seemed mostly to involve corpse disposal – The Last Supper, Feeling Minnesota, Head Above Water – before returning to the mainstream as Julia Roberts’ sweet-natured nemesis, singing off-key in in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). She was adorable as the ultimate man’s woman in There’s Something About Mary (1998) – naturally glam, game for anything, and mistaking semen for hair gel with hilarious results, while somehow managing not to be the butt of the joke. Owning it, again.
Dipping back into the corpse disposal subgenre, she was the best thing in Very Bad Things (1998), as the monomaniac bride-to-be who refuses to let a little thing like murder spoil her big day, and demonstrated a willingness to drab down and do weird as the pet-obsessed puppeteer’s wife acting out her transgender desires in Being John Malkovich (1999). Meanwhile, there were hints of bitch-to-come as the ball-breaking owner of the Miami Sharks football team in Any Given Sunday (1999), a rare strong female role in an Oliver Stone movie, and as Tom Cruise’s psycho-stalker in Vanilla Sky (2001). “I swallowed your cum. That means something!”
She was the voice of feisty Princess Fiona in the Shrek franchise (2001 bis), and upped her financial worth with Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), which set the cause of feminism back half a century with their slo-mo hair-tossing, girly squealing and shimmying around in slutty outfits, though Diaz enters into the spirit with such infectious enthusiasm it seems churlish to hold it against her. “Infectious enthusiasm” could almost be her middle name, in fact, and has certainly helped her emerge unscathed from some questionable projects, such as the mesmerisingly awful would-be female raunchfest The Sweetest Thing (2002), featuring an abomination called The Penis Song (NB: not safe for work), which surely deserves an award for most toe-curlingly embarrassing musical number ever filmed.
A few promising-sounding but ultimately unrewarding film choices aside (A Life Less Ordinary, The Green Hornet, the Gambit remake), Diaz’s only major misstep, the only time infectious enthusiasm hasn’t helped was as Jenny Everdeane, the streetwise thief in Gangs of New York (2002), in which both she and her leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, looked helplessly adrift amid a riot of ripe character acting from the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Jim Broadbent and Liam Neeson. Maybe Diaz is just too modern a presence for period drama. She was more at home as the party-girl sister of In Her Shoes (2005), (though it might have been more fun had she and Toni Collette swapped roles) and once again demonstrated infectious enthusiasm (her default mode) in the amiable rom-coms The Holiday (2006) and What Happens in Vegas (2008).
She dipped into her dark side again for Richard Kelly’s convoluted but weirdly compelling sci-fi dilemma-dram The Box (2009), before reuniting with Tom Cruise to reaffirm that she can do dizzy blonde like no-one else in Knight and Day (2010), a film that by rights should have been unwatchable (as was the same year’s Killers, which shares a similar girl-dates-hitman premise), but which entertained on the strength of its star turns by a couple of intense performers masquerading as screwball comedians. Could Cruise be Diaz’s male alter ego? Imagine a movie in which they both exposed their dark sides simultaneously!
Diaz is now in her mid-40s, and “ageing badly” according to the lobotomised fanboys who can’t get to grips with a female face that hasn’t been Botoxed into wrinkle-free immobility. In fact, as The Other Woman (2014) proved, she is still tall and tan and sporty, with a smile as wide as a shark’s and comic timing that blows co-stars Leslie Mann and Kate Upton out of the water. You get the impression Diaz could have taken on all three of the three leading female roles simultaneously – career woman, frazzled wife, sexpot – and still had change to spare.
Bad Teacher (2011) was more fun than you may have heard, with Diaz in her element as a foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, pathologically irresponsible middle school teacher trying to raise money for a breast implant, though handicapped by a lazy script and a hopelessly miscast Justin Timberlake. Sex Tape was the sort of raunchy rom-com she could do in her sleep, and her role in Annie, in which she plays the heavy-drinking, child-hating Miss Hannigan, seemed tailor-made for her talents. These last two films came out in 2014, and since then… nothing. Rumours abound that Diaz has retired. She married, wrote a book about wellbeing, attended a women’s march, but in a 2018 reunion with Selma Blair and Christina Applegate, her co-stars in The Sweetest Thing, she said, “I’m literally doing nothing.”
When The Counsellor was released in 2013, the reception was overwhelmingly negative. “The worst movie ever made.” “Very disappointing.” “A huge misfire.” “An ugly, ugly picture.” “Blah bloody blah.” “A boring mess.” And so on. And indeed it is a hard film to like, the opposite of feelgood, and doesn’t bother trying to make its audience feel comfortable on any level whatsoever. I hated it on first viewing, but here’s the thing – I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards, and not only because it contains one of the most shockingly explicit onscreen murders of a character played by a major Hollywood star that I’ve ever seen. And then I thought about it some more, this time trying to work out why I couldn’t stop thinking about it. A second look, this time at the director’s cut, convinced me I was wrong – it’s one of the best films Scott has ever made, his world building skills providing the perfect visual complement to McCarthy’s loquacious screenplay. All sunlight, no shadow, nowhere to hide.
Elements I loathed the first time around – stereotypical characters (the protagonist’s girlfriend, too pure for this world, exists solely to get kidnapped and butchered), the portentous speechifying (surely nobody pontificates like that jefe), the relentlessly downbeat but hardly eye-opening message that going into business with criminals can ruin your life – clicked into place once I’d realised that neither characters nor dialogue nor plot were intended as in any way realistic. As Outlaw Vern wrote, “Everything is over-discussed and under-explained, that’s the approach.” It’s not a thriller in which you identify with a protagonist as they go to hell and back. It’s a grim fable, nearer to McCarthy’s oft-cited but so far unfilmed masterpiece, Blood Meridian, in which we observe from a distance as the protagonist goes to hell, and is condemned to stay there, because there’s no way back, and that’s how it is. No clever sleight of hand, or long con double-cross, or cathartic shoot-out can save him.
In other words, the world of The Counsellor is McCarthy World, the same way that Brian De Palma’s films are set on Planet De Palma – a place with its own set of rules, but with a kernel of truth at its core: the world is crueller than you can ever know, and the boundary between your own life and that cruelty is a wisp of a thing that can be blown away in the blink of an eye. All it takes is one bad decision, bad luck, or bad people. Intellectually, we’re already aware of this, but The Counsellor rams it home with a vengeance, and no mollycoddling, so that you feel it on an emotional level as well. At its dark heart this is a horror movie, because for all the stylised dialogue, it contains truths so unpleasant that any halfway realistic dramatic admission of them would simply be unbearable.
Diaz’s career trajectory has been an intriguing one, so let us hope she hasn’t retired for good, and that negative reviews of The Counsellor won’t have dissuaded her from digging too deeply into her dark side. I bet there’s a lot more of it in there, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge and discombobulate us all.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in July 2014. It has since been extensively rewritten and updated.