[WIHM] How ‘Always Shine’ Uses the Actress as an Unnerving Signifier

A tense conversation between Anna (Mackenzie Davis, left) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald, right).
Oscilloscope

Sophia Takal’s Always Shine begins with two parallel audition scenes. First, we meet Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), who appears vulnerably pleading with an unseen villain. “I’ll do anything you want,” she breathes shakily, prepared to offer sexual favours to escape the dangers of a vague, fictional captor. Then, we’re introduced to Anna (Mackenzie Davis), arguing angrily with a mechanic for charging her extra on a repair she didn’t approve of. The mechanic tells Anna he doesn’t like her attitude, that if she were being more ‘ladylike’ toward him he might be willing to reach a resolution. 

The scenes are framed in identical close-ups, with both FitzGerald and Davis speaking directly to camera. In each, the actress’s environment remains indiscernible with the exception of a grey-ish white wall behind them, until an unexpected cut reveals the configuration of each woman’s surroundings. Beth is found alone amongst men, who’ve been discussing the “extensive nudity” required of her in an upcoming project, whereas Anna isn’t performing a scene at all. Rather, we locate her amongst the vehicles of an actual mechanic’s workshop, handing over money and looking around angrily. 

This visual device, which approaches theatrical performance and real-life conversation with the same heightened self-awareness, is the first of many instances in Always Shine where the boundary between conscious ‘acting’ and everyday performance is blurred. The set-up also highlights the key discrepancy between Takal’s leads — where Beth is submissive and accommodating to the images thrust upon her by the casting panel, Anna is loud and intolerant of any attempt to moderate her behaviour. 

Beth (Fitzgerald) tearfully performs a horror scene to the camera.
Anna (Davis) looks angrily into the camera while arguing with a mechanic (offscreen).
Oscilloscope

The rest of the film trails Beth and Anna, actresses and long-time friends, on a weekend away in Big Sur. Tensions are high from the get-go: Beth feels guilty about being more successful than Anna, who in turn is constantly negotiating her barely concealed envy, sometimes suspicious that Beth is actively sabotaging her. They are consistently observed either in suffocating closeups or detached long-shots that enclose both women within the frame, seemingly unable to get away from their deteriorating friendship. A sweaty sense of dread is helped by editor Zach Clark, who repeatedly decorates the film with brief, frenetic flash forwards to impending horrific events. The effect is of a narrative folding in on itself, fracturing under the weight of the characters’ growing disdain for one another.

In an interview for Vogue from 2016, Takal describes how the concept for Always Shine was lifted from her own experience as an actress, where she felt her refusal to be as obliging or courteous as other actresses had made her more unlikable within the industry. Takal confides: “I created this narrative that the reason they were getting ahead was because they were playing this game of femininity that I was losing … I was mad at myself for not fitting into this idea, but also mad at them for playing the game.” Takal’s jealousy from this time created the basis for Anna, who witnesses Beth’s success as a by-product of her willingness to embrace the position of actress-as-consumable-object, to be mutable in the ways Anna cannot. 

The film suggests that Beth’s success as an actress is thanks in part to playing up a ‘wilting flower’ persona, occupying the distressed damsel role in schlocky horror movies that require large amounts of disempowering nudity. Quiet and demure, Beth very rarely says ‘no’ to anything asked of her throughout the film, be it a photo with a fan or a date with a man she’s previously expressed no interest in. While to Anna these may seem like indictments of Beth’s integrity, the film recognises these as part of a culturally ingrained performance. Her unassertive femininity, whether she’s aware of it or not, is a stylised series of strategies for navigating the world, and which contribute in part to the success of her career. In an unintentionally loaded statement, Beth reasons: “I just happen to have a certain look that people like right now.” 

Anna (Davis) holds up a copy of the Young Hollywood edition of a magazine, in which Beth (FitzGerald) is featured.

Oscilloscope 

By considering how Beth and Anna’s careers are shaped by their commitment to certain modes of womanhood, Always Shine gestures toward the larger relationship between actresses as public figures and the ideal femininities they’ve historically represented. Richard Dyer’s work on stardom, particularly his case study on Marilyn Monroe in Heavenly Bodies, has explored how movie stars frequently come to be emblematic figures. To Dyer, it was Monroe’s “embodiment of current ideas of sexuality that made her seem real, alive [and] vital” to audiences; a cultural marker for how people felt and thought about women at the time. Actresses, as products of entrepreneurial capitalism, become commodities. And stars, as media texts in and of themselves, function as highly stylised, gendered images to be consumed.

In From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell finds that the actress figure has long been considered a symbol for women as ‘role-players’ — an extension of the inherently performative nature of femininity. Put differently, to become an actress and stake one’s claim to performance is to rearticulate a gendered performance that is already always being sustained. As the parallel ‘audition’ scenes at the beginning of Always Shine indicate, Takal’s characters don’t need to be reciting a script to be acting. They are, at all times, bearing the weight of signification, and as the mechanic’s comments on Anna’s attitude emphasise, they are constantly receiving notes on how best to present that image.  

After a series of escalating disputes between Beth and Anna — the last of which culminates in a violent, fatal struggle — the film’s approach to feminine performance shifts away from the balancing act of guilt and envy toward questions of authentic identity. Though viewers are not witness to the struggle between the actresses, it’s implied that Anna has killed Beth in the woods by the house they’re staying in. The following morning heralds one of the movie’s most quietly menacing scenes: a static long take in which Anna locates Beth’s outfit from the day prior, walks to the edge of the frame and, facing away from the audience, puts on her necklace, bra and floral playsuit. Anna returns to the centre of the frame to finish the ensemble with a belt, holding eye-contact with the camera, biting her nails in a satirically faux-modest fashion — an imitation of Beth’s ‘wilting flower’ persona, costume and all. In this moment, Anna is keenly aware of her position as a viewed object. To take ownership of Beth’s clothing and demeanour is to take ownership of the ‘part’ that previously belonged to her; the bashful feminine performance that until death, worked like currency.

Anna (Davis) wears Beth's clothes, bites her thumb and stares meekly into the camera.
Oscilloscope

Anna’s adoption of Beth’s identity becomes a form of consuming, much in the way we consume dominant mythologies and images of actresses, of womanhood, then reproduce them. This consuming heralds the beginning of a far more cognisant feminine performance for Anna — one that ultimately proves successful in garnering the attention of a local bartender, who likens her to an angel and confesses his affections on the basis that she’s “soft and sweet”. The success of the performance is threatened, however, by Beth’s new role as a looming spectre figure, the embodiment of all the rage Anna has decided to abandon. In becoming Beth-like, Anna prioritises performance over a coherent self, leaving all the truest parts of her to surge up in clouds of guilt; in the shape of her dead friend; in the sound of her own criticisms being levelled back at her. In Anna’s hands, Beth’s traditional femininity becomes overtly fraudulent, a mask drawing attention to its own veneer. 

When Judith Butler first wrote about gender performativity in Gender Trouble, she dedicated part of her essay to the analogy between theatrical and gendered performance. Employing metaphors of actors, stages and scripts, Butler wrote that “gender is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but [nevertheless requires actors] to be actualised and reproduced as reality.” Butler is careful to note that the similarities between theatrical and gendered performance are not comprehensive — the latter is a far less conscious act, and far more dangerous when performed incorrectly. Yet there remains a common element of needing to convince an audience of what you ‘are’. Both performances require belief in what they represent in order to be successful, invoking established cultural signs to reinforce said performance as naturalistic. Like a movie star forced to fashion a commodity out of, as Dyer puts it, “their own bodies and psychologies,” performing femininity in Always Shine becomes its own kind of fashioning, with Anna learning to monitor her public appearance through modifications in comportment, clothing and emotional response. 

Though the film’s emphasis on behaviour and disposition tends to overlook the ideal of normative white femininity already embodied by its leads, it does reinforce Takal’s idea of feminine performance as game-like — if one of these almost identical-looking women can win, why can’t the other? Even given Beth and Anna’s immense privilege, they continue to undermine and pick apart one another for an increasingly abstract prize. The crumbs of feminine success in Always Shine lie in the way characters fold their arms in front of their bodies, how much they drink, the level of pride they take in their career, even the shade of lipstick they choose to apply. 

A blurry image of Beth and Anna fighting in the woods. A filmmaker's clapperboard intrudes from the left side of the frame.
Oscilloscope

One of Always Shine’s final moments sees Anna dancing at a costume party with her new boyfriend. Beth’s haunting presence reappears in the crowd, winding through masked partygoers in pursuit of Anna, eventually chasing her down the street outside. The pursuit is intercut with the unseen struggle in the woods from earlier in the film, which despite initially being hidden from audiences, now appears like a crack in Anna’s carefully curated sheen. What follows is a series of frenzied, often disconnected shots in which it’s unclear whether the attacker is Anna, or Beth, or both. Beth is kicking Anna, calling her a self-obsessed liar and a “Hollywood cunt”, pinning her down, putting her hands around her throat. The scene is briefly interrupted by the blurry placement of a clapperboard in the corner of the shot, intruding on the fight. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inclusion, indicating that the characters’ brawl is as much of a performance as anything else. Everything the characters do is for someone, even if it’s just the fuzzy presence of an imagined audience. 

In Always Shine, maintaining the illusion of a stable feminine imaginary becomes inextricable from the characters’ roles as actresses. The idea of a singular, abiding self appears to be myth, with their identities constantly shifting — to seem ‘right’ for a part in a movie, to seem agreeable enough to hire, to convince themselves they still care about each other, to look desirable, to be loved. For Beth and Anna, giving oneself over to performance is to be fragmented until the ‘act’ can no longer be recognised as such.  

by Tiia Kelly

Tiia Kelly (she/her) is a writer and critic from Naarm (Melbourne). Her single most formative experience was seeing the first Mamma Mia movie in theatres, age eight. You can find her on Twitter.

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