Carrie Bradshaw will forever be her most identifiable role, but remember Sarah Jessica Parkerbefore Sex and the City? No, not in Striking Distance. Even before that. Back when she seemed so free-spirited and kinda cool -- as much for the boys as the girls. The era when she appeared in dance movies like Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Footloose and when she showed up with awesome '80s hair as an intern in Flight of the Navigator. She was only in that movie for a few minutes, but she left an impression on my young mind, enough that I was really hoping the film would end with David (Joey Cramer) meeting the younger version of Parker's character after he returns to 1978.
Well, after that breakthrough period, she did some TV work before returning to the big screen for what I consider her most memorable performance, in the Steve Martin comedy L.A. Story. When I think back to when I still liked Parker, it's this role of SanDeE* that I recall with the greatest fondness. An early form of what would later be labeled the "manic pixie dream girl" type, SanDeE* is -- as you might discern from the spelling of her name, which includes the star at the end -- a bit immature and flaky, yet she's still one of the most natural elements in an overly silly movie that's like a cartoonish cross between Woody Allen's Manhattan and The Player (which came a year later, but still). Just like her breasts, SanDeE* is surprisingly real in an otherwise fake and highly absurd Los Angeles.
In the part, Parker twirls and leaps and chews a lot of gum. She moves her arms a lot, as if she modeled the character off Jennifer Jason Leigh's in The Big Picture. And for the most part she just has to look cute in a bikini top and bicycle shorts (and at one point a wet t-shirt). But is she a better actress here than in Ed Wood or SATC, the latter for which she earned her most awards and nominations? That's certainly up for debate (and I agree she deserves praise for holding her own opposite Depp in the former). Do I consider her so terrific in L.A. Story primarily because next to the other females in the film, especially the loopy leading love interest played by Martin's then-wife Victoria Tennant, are terribly dull? Perhaps. Parker gets to be both Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway's parts (with maybe a little Carol Kane inspired from Martin's previous movie, My Blue Heaven), and that's a recipe for notice.
But I do think Parker would have shined even if someone like Meg Ryan, Goldie Hawn or Keaton herself had been cast instead of Tennant. It was certainly a star-making part, which led to larger gigs in movies like Honeymoon in Vegas, Hocus Pocus and the aforementioned Striking Distance, which was not right for her in the least. Yet she's also never really been suited for common romantic comedies (If Lucy Fell was my turning point of no-return disfavor, by the way) or serious dramas (fortunately she hasn't tried many, though doing Spinning Into Butter might be worse than doing many). I love what Tim Burton and David Mamet have been able to do with her, but such roles (in Ed Wood, Mars Attacks and the excellent State & Main) have been too campy and reflexive to properly rank against more realistic characters, even those as flighty as SanDeE*.
I admit I have a tendency to spout preference for supporting roles for most movie stars of the past twenty or so years. It would also be ridiculous after six seasons and two movie installments of SATC for me to attempt to argue that Parker can't carry a show or film on her own, or at least in the primary role. I will confess to disliking that franchise for the most part, however -- albeit more for the content than the cast. Still, I haven't liked her in anything else in the past ten years and hope that she does more little parts in better films, maybe something that recaptures that unfettered quality she had in her youth. Something disappointing about her and hubby Matthew Broderick, they just don't appear to have the same joy and verve they had in their younger days. Come on, SJP, don't you still just want to have fun?
Check out a clip of Parker and Martin in L.A. Story below, courtesy of Moviefone: