Weaver Brings Big-Screen Stardom to TV: The Rainer File

Sigourney Weaver is ready for battle in the iconic "Alien" by director Ridley Scott. Ripley, Weaver's character in the franchise, was originally written as a man. Source: Twentieth Century Fox via Bloomberg

Whether battling monsters in outer space or in Washington, D.C., Sigourney Weaver gets the job done.

As former First Lady and current Secretary of State Elaine Barrish in USA Network’s “Political Animals,” Weaver at first glance may not remind you much of Ellen Ripley in bikini panties expelling the alien in “Alien” and its three sequels. But both women have a molten core.

They’re heroines -- or to be more exact, they’re heroes. Ripley, for one, was originally written as a man.

In an interview last year for about.com, Weaver explained that she often prefers parts written for men “because I find that sometimes when it’s written for a woman and it’s a strong part, they always have some stupid breakdown scene or some stupid thing that would never really happen.”

The “Alien” films not only made Weaver rich, they also made her moviedom’s reigning sci-fi queen for almost two decades as she fought her way through vast vats of green goo, guts and teeth.

Against all odds, Weaver actually gives full-scale performances in these “Boo!” movies. In James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986), speaking to the Alien queen, she delivers the immortal line, “Get away from her, you bitch,” as if she were Medea.

Sexually Charged

Weaver has long been one of the most sexually charged women in movies, “Aliens” aside. Playing opposite Mel Gibson as an assistant military attache at the British Embassy in Indonesia in “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982), she’s so torrid that Gibson is rendered dumbstruck.

These two would be working up a sweat even without all that humidity. You’ve got to see her sashaying her near-six-foot frame to Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in a scene in the officers club to truly appreciate the roll in rock ‘n roll.

Weaver’s sexuality is heightened by the apparent disconnect between her patrician exterior and her sizzling interior. She employs this fissure to fine effect in movies like “Eyewitness” (1981), where she plays a TV newscaster who achieves melt-down with William Hurt, and in “Half Moon Street” (1986), where she plays an American academic in London who moonlights as a high-priced call girl.

Cool, Hot

She can also play very knowing, almost blase, about her allure. Her characters don’t suffer fools gladly, especially in bed. In the suburban downer “The Ice Storm” (1997), she is having an adulterous affair with Kevin Kline, who in one scene is prattling on about golf. “You’re boring me,” she says. “I have a husband. I don’t feel the need for another.” (In happier times she played First Lady opposite Kline in the 1993 White House comedy “Dave.”)

Weaver plays smart and sexy at the same time. Jane Fonda could too, and Lauren Bacall, but not many others. Katharine Hepburn, with whom Weaver shares a sharpness and blue-blood hauteur, was not a sensual creature.

Angelina Jolie, who is no bimbo and probably the only other actress besides Weaver who can “open” an action picture, has a masklike beauty that is more forbidding than inviting. Weaver’s coolness, by contrast, is a come-on. She invites you in, but you’d better be ready for what you find.

Weaver can also be very funny, even at her own expense. (She may be the daughter of TV pioneer Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, but she’s also the niece of comic actor “Doodles” Weaver.)

Don’t Shout

She played right along with Bill Murray and the rest of the guy jokesters in the “Ghostbusters” films. In the marvelous comedy “Galaxy Quest” (1999), she plays a crew member on a “Star Trek”-style series who complains that TV Guide is only interested in talking about her cleavage.

She understands power. In “Working Girl” (1988), playing Melanie Griffith’s new Wall Street boss, Weaver speaks in low, even-tempered tones. She recognizes, as Meryl Streep also did in “The Devil Wears Prada,” that the truly powerful don’t need to raise their voice. In “Death and the Maiden” (1995), she binds and maims the man, played by Ben Kingsley, she believes once tortured her as a political prisoner.

Weaver can seem so self-possessed that when she is playing someone who goes over the edge, as in this film, or as Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), her coming-apart is much more horrific than it might have been with a more conventional performer.

Recalling 9/11

For much of the past decade, her movies have been largely forgettable. A few exceptions: Her somber turn in “The Guys” (2002), directed by her husband, Jim Simpson and first performed onstage, as a writer who helps compose eulogies for fallen firemen after 9/11; the randy, world-weary schoolteacher in “Cedar Rapids” (2011); the creepy voice of the ship’s computer in “Wall-E” (2008); and best of all as Manhattan diva Babe Paley in “Infamous” (2006), dancing to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”

At 63, Weaver is down for the two projected “Avatar” sequels. But didn’t she die in “Avatar?” She is fond of quoting director Cameron: “No one ever dies in science fiction.”

Least of all Sigourney Weaver.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on restaurants and Greg Evans on television.