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Portraying the women behind the powerful men

Helen Mirren, Olivia Williams, Sally Field and Amy Adams take on "good wife" roles that leave a lasting image of quiet strength.

November 08, 2012|By Hugh Hart
(Chris Morris, For the Los…)

"I put up with those people who look through me as if I were invisible because all they can see is the great and glorious genius, Alfred Hitchcock."

—Alma Reville Hitchcock, as portrayed by Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock"

It's not easy being a great man's wife. This fall, several high-end dramas go behind closed doors of tough marriages to explore how formidable women routinely get a lot of grief, but not a lot of credit, for spurring their husbands on to mighty accomplishments.

"Hyde Park on Hudson" casts Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt, standing by as Franklin D. Roosevelt nurtures a relationship with his second cousin. "Hitchcock" features Helen Mirren as the director's spouse, Alma Reville, during the making of his film "Psycho"; in "Lincoln," Sally Field plays tempestuous First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln as the Civil War draws to a close; and "The Master" imagines Amy Adams as a gregarious cult leader's calculating wife.

Encapsulating the recurring Good Wife backstory especially common during the pre-feminist era, "Hitchcock" director Sacha Gervasi observes, "What often happens in history is there's an unacknowledged partner who is right there, helping guide the way."

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In Alfred Hitchock's case, Reville, a professional film editor when she married the nascent director in 1926, advised her husband on matters of casting, scripts and editing. "There were four hands that constituted the Hitchcock touch, and two of them were Alma's," says Gervasi, quoting film critic Charles Champlin. "She played such an important role in his process, and, more importantly, the great master trusted her opinion. Hitchcock did not generally tell a writer, 'I really liked your script.' He'd say, 'Alma enjoyed the pages.'"

"Hitchcock," featuring Anthony Hopkins in the title role, addresses the director's unsettling relationship with "Psycho" star Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). His infatuation with Leigh, the latest in a string of blond muses that included Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, tested the limits of the Hitchcocks' marriage. "Alma accepts her husband as he is, but as his obsessions unspool and he becomes more difficult to deal with, something crosses the line for Alma, and she fights back," Gervasi said.

Gervasi and Hopkins insisted on Mirren for the role. "Tony told me if we don't get Helen Mirren, he didn't really see the point in doing it with anyone else, and I completely agreed. She's English, the right age, and who else could have done it with her panache? Who could take on Tony at his level? Who could give as good as she got? Very few actors can jump into the ring with Anthony Hopkins and swing punches that land so exactly."

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Where Mirren's Mrs. Hitchcock generally projects a dry British reserve, Sally Field's first lady functions in "Lincoln" as a smart, high-strung emotional wreck who enables Daniel Day-Lewis' president to maintain a statesman-like composure in the face of tragedies both national and personal. The Lincolns' 11-year-old son, Willie, died in 1862, just before the film takes place. Mary Todd Lincoln's intensive grieving nearly got her institutionalized, which the film alludes to.

"Mary Todd felt everything so thoroughly, so deeply, and he didn't have to," says Field. "Lincoln unburdened himself to her, told her his dreams and had terrible nightmares and depression. She would feel it for him. She would shake all over and get so terrified. She experienced all the emotions that he would not allow himself to feel because he kept himself so contained."

The hot-headed Mary Todd also took on the bad-cop role with Lincoln's political enemies, enabling Lincoln to stay above the fray as he navigated the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865. By then, Lincoln had become the master politician that Mary Todd had long envisioned. "Mary Todd was unbelievably smart and politically savvy at the beginning, much more than Lincoln was," Field says. "Had Mary not spotted Lincoln, kicked him, never let up on him, then history would have been different."

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The cryptic dynamic between cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and reckless protégé Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) drives Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," but it's Amy Adams as wife Peggy Dodd who calls the organizational shots. Producer JoAnne Sellar says, "When Paul was writing 'The Master,' I saw Peggy as the total Lady Macbeth, and Amy brought even more of that in her performance."

Set in 1950 and loosely inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, "The Master" portrays an archetypal power couple wherein the man gets all the adulation while the woman does the dirty work. "Peggy's the enforcer," Sellar says. "The master obviously has the charisma to pull in followers through his charm, and she's the one who's basically saying, 'Stay in line.'"

The polarizing Peggy Dodd character marks a dramatic departure for Adams, which is one reason the actress took the role, Sellar says. "Talking to Amy, the idea of playing that steely woman behind the man is what really appealed to her about the script. If you measure it by screen time, Peggy is quite a small role, but it feels bigger because Amy is so strong when she is on screen. When you leave the movie theater, you think about her a lot."

Times staff writer Glenn Whipp contributed to this report.

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