By Mark Ehrenkranz
Believe it or not, Ripley, the “Queen of Sci-Fi” was born out of a non-speaking role in Annie Hall. Thought to be the first female action hero, Sigourney Weaver, is still very much a badass and continues to kick butt well into her storied career. It all began forty years ago in 1979 when she became Ripley in Ridley’s Scott’s science fiction classic Alien. This month the NY Film Critics Series produced a celebratory 40th-anniversary screening followed by Sigourney Weaver in conversation with Peter Travers (Rolling Stone, ABC-TV), live on-stage at New York City’s Symphony Space.
This first film in the award-winning franchise has been called the most influential of modern action pictures, and Roger Ebert in Variety once noted that Weaver remained the only actress who could ‘open’ an action movie, and it was a tribute to her versatility that she could play the hard, competent, ruthless Ripley and then double back for so many other kinds of roles.
Based on a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, it portrays the crew of a commercial spacecraft which discovers a murderous extraterrestrial running amok on the ship. The film also stars Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto. Alien opened in May of 1979 and kicked off the Summer Movies of that year. It was extremely well received with excellent box office success. In 2002, it was entered in the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Originally written for a man, Sigourney was on a short list for the part. After reading the script, her naivete worked favorably in her first encounter with director Ridley Scott. When asked what she thought, Weaver told Scott that, having come from the theater she didn’t think that it was very good. That it was too dark and she didn’t buy the character’s relationship with the Captain and that they would actually have sex with all that commotion going on. Her agent was going to kill her if she lost the part by saying the wrong things, but it turned out that Ridley Scott, known to be a straight shooter, actually wanted to hear her real reaction and immediately took to her partly due to her courage to be honest.
Thinking sci-fi was all Flash Gordon and like The Day the Earth Stood Still up until then, Weaver considered this movie to be like an Off-Broadway play, but in a film. When Ridley showed her his magnificent photos and drawings of the conceived Alien, it was clear to her that the imagery wonderfully expressed the female reproductive system complete with alien eggs and all. Scott had thought of everything when it came to the back story. Not big on rehearsing, Sigourney had a great fear of his style having come from an entirely measured technique at the Yale School of Drama. She felt that she had gotten into something way over her head, which ended up working in her favor due to the anxiety and unsureness of Ridley. Plus, most of the movie was improvisation! Over the years she stated that, she had learned to trust herself more and more, and that her best performances on film came from that scary uncertainty of unchartered territory.
Alien broke new ground by defying convention, and by breaking rules and social tenets that were still accepted at the time. The movie created archetypes which we take for granted these days. Ripley was a character type that was edgy in 1979, and she was the kind of woman a certain generation might call “brash” or a “chops buster”. She’s a stickler for rules; she’s disliked, disrespected and disobeyed by her crewmates; she doesn’t scream or cower or feed the “scream queen” archetype. This is all akin to the #metoo movement and the desperate need for female heroes and irrepressible women. Before Alien, big showdowns were always about the last man standing, not the last woman.
She and Peter Travers also discussed that her inability to hear all of the other actors’ dialogue when filming added additional uneasiness to the character. There was no CGI in those days, so all of her acting felt down and dirty, and that she felt more like the crew than the other cast members because she always was a mess, crawling in and out of claustrophobic places surrounded by debris and alien goo. Initially, the script was written to have the “Space Truckers” emerge from the hypersleep pods completely naked. Sigourney agreed at the time that this was a great depiction of the charterers’ vulnerability in a world of harsh metal in a barren place. In retrospect, and relieved that neither Spain nor Italy would play the movie due to religious proclivities, she was happy that Fox had them put their clothes on. Well just barely…
The film actually was never going to be made because the studio didn’t have much faith in Sci-Fi. Up until then, most of the genre was in reaction to the 1950’s “Atomic Age”, the public’s general interest in science and their fear about cold war nuclear attack. Destination Moon depicted an atomic powered spaceship taking men to the moon beating the Russians in the race. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is part sci fi, part horror as an allegory of communist infiltration. 2001: A Space Odyssey was Stanley Kubrick’s epic film which ended up doing $16.4 million in 1968. In relation, the top films prior were The Ten Commandments which made $122 million in 1956 and West Side Story making $44 million.
At the time Fox had made The Sound of Music which made $286 million in theaters. They were more interested in making successful films like Doctor Doolittle, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and MASH. They were the ones who created the Planet of The Apes series which grossed from $8 million to $33 Million. After Fox released Star Wars, which initially made $307 million, they concluded that maybe there was a future in this. Plus, at that time, neither sequels nor prequels really existed. It wasn’t until years later that Avatar director James Cameron presented a sequel to Sigourney in 1985. She remembers that the script was masterfully written, where she could find the heart of Ripley exiled into a modern space community where the sole concern of the corporation was money. Alien ended up making $78 million for Fox, with the entire franchise bringing in $590 million.
Ms. Weaver also shared insider secrets that District 9 and Chompie director Neil Blomkamp had wanted to do a fifth movie, which Jim Cameron was to be a part of with a script written by wry Avengers fame Josh Whedon. Upon hearing this, the live audience reacted with a massive groan of a disappointment since Josh has been so successful bringing wit and cleverness to the Captain America films, Thor, and others. Her final comments included that she was happy to be out of Avatar-land, having shot four more out of five new ones, and that it was nice to be back home in New York City living a normal life. Or as much as that is possible for one of the world’s most royal and beloved movie stars from the future.