Once upon a time — not so long ago, but long enough that today's teenagers consider it retro — there was an actress named Elisabeth Shue. Perhaps you have heard of her. If you're young enough, it's very possible you haven't. Your introduction to her might be the horror film "House at the End of the Street" with Jennifer Lawrence, which opens this weekend. That's OK, too. But, here, let us describe her to you as we grew up with her.
Shue was pretty, but not too pretty. She possessed the sort of girl-next-door looks that male moviegoers adored and ensured she was cast as the love interest of '80s hunks such as Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Alec Baldwin and Robert Downey, Jr. She wasn't one of those threatening, otherworldly beauties that flit across our screens now. She was definitely lovely but also friendly, the sort of actress that women could appreciate, both as an avatar of themselves and as someone they could be friends with. They could lose Cruise or Downey to her, and it was OK. "Oh, that's my friend Elisabeth. She's cute. She married the hot guy who shakes cocktails at that bar."
Of course, that's just being superficial. Shue wasn't just a pretty face. She was a versatile actress. She did comedy and drama (and that weird hybrid "dramedy") and action, and no one doubted or criticized her in anything. She was believable as anything — a scientist, babysitter, artist, actress, girlfriend, manipulative stepmother, doctor, bookstore owner, cop, prostitute... The list goes on.
By sheer talent, charisma and luck, she wound up in numerous iconic '80s films. She was the dream girlfriend in both "The Karate Kid" and "Back to the Future II" and "III." She was the harried and quick-thinking babysitter in "Adventures in Babysitting," and the only woman who could tame Tom Cruise in "Cocktail." You can't really think of the '80s without her. It's unfathomable that anyone would try to remake these movies and replace her. She's why "Adventures in Babysitting" works. Can you think of a single current starlet that you would believe was stood up by her boyfriend, that you'd trust with your kids or that you could see scaling a skyscraper? (Not in a latex catsuit, mind you.)
When the '90s rolled around, Shue could have gone the Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts route and continued to cash in on her girl-next-door perkiness by making fluffy romances and comedies. No one would have been surprised or disappointed. Instead, she did what many actresses talk about but few actually do, which is dip into difficult indie fare like "Leaving Las Vegas." Her character Sera isn't a happy, positive, lushly made-up prostitute who has handsome clients. She walks the streets, her clothes, skin and hair are worn, and she's frank about the messiness of the profession. (There's a particularly memorable line about going home to mouthwash that essentially scrubs "Pretty Woman" right off the map.) Her character is a cliche — the hooker with the heart of gold — and yet Shue plays her with such world-weary heartbreak that it seems like something we've never actually seen before. The pain in her eyes when Ben (Nicolas Cage, when he was edgy and promising and not a "Saturday Night Live" skit) refuses food and takes her chopsticks to stir his drink with, is the stuff every actress wants in her career achievements sizzle reel.
Shue was the darling of the awards circuit for "Leaving Las Vegas," and rightfully so. She lost out on the Best Actress Oscar, but it was probably because it seemed like the first nomination of many, the signal she was about to become a Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon of the 1990s and 2000s. Then she didn't.
Elisabeth Shue's absence from Hollywood can be easily explained. She started a family, and scaled back her career in order to spend time with her kids. It's not hard to choose time with family over a mediocre project. She told the Independent, "Just naturally it has been harder to find roles and I'm not really willing yet to do a [TV] series and work that hard." She later added, "Over the years, I've been offered a lot of series that are tempting in that they shoot in LA and would provide some stability and obviously financial stability and all those things. But I have enough friends who've worked on series and I know what the time commitment is so, up to now, it just hasn't made sense."
It's the story we've heard before with countless other actresses — they get older, and the scripts simply aren't there, especially if they've never been a massive box office draw. As admired and respected as Shue has been, she's never raked in the kind of glossy publicity and money that a Julia Roberts has.
Shue hasn't stopped working, but while she turns in solid work, the films have largely been forgettable. (Remember "Hide and Seek"? No? That's probably for the best.) There's been highlights that remind us what a powerhouse she can be, such as "Mysterious Skin," "Gracie" and the pitch-perfect lampooning of herself and Hollywood in "Hamlet 2." Lately, she's developed a taste for television and horror flicks, like her roles in "Piranha 3D" and "House at the End of the Street. A small role in "Janie Jones" as a tweaked-out former groupie who drops her kid off with the unwitting dad harkens back to her "Las Vegas" days. Is she coming back to us?
We hope so. It's been great to see her again, and while Shue admitted she did the splatter flicks for fun (and who can begrudge anyone wanting a part in "Piranha 3D"?), it's sort of disappointing that she's not earning buzz and acclaim every year. Where's her "The Kids Are All Right," "This is 40" or "Young Adult"? Can we get her into the Marvel universe somewhere? (She should really be in a Thor sequel as a delightful callback to "Adventures." A colleague to Jane Foster, perhaps?) Could we age her up and let her loose in "Mockingjay" as President Coin? We could see that casting working beautifully!
Shue is exactly the kind of actress we need more of in film. The everyday quality we always liked about her has matured. Now she's a woman who has clearly lived, enjoyed her life and notched all kinds of experience and knowledge onto her belt. There's no reason why she can't be the funny wife, the frustrated scientist, the determined doctor or the unrepentant villainess. So many of these characters are being played by women too young and glamorous to believe in; it would be a relief and a joy to have an actress who can bring a grounded reality to these roles.
So, please Elisabeth Shue... Work more! We've missed you so, and there's a legion of young directors who grew up adoring you in "Back to the Future II" and "Adventures in Babysitting" just as we did. They would hire you for all these edgy, unconventional genre flicks they're doing. Let some shiny magazine do a silly comeback story (even though you didn't go that far), and start pushing out these gamine types. Show them what a real cop or prostitute looks and acts like after a few years on the street.
Oh, and Hollywood? Start hiring her in big and flashy stuff so you can crunch the numbers and agree she's worth it. We'll see those movies anyway; Shue will just be a bonus. If she actually goes and becomes a nurse a la "Hamlet 2" because you're giving all her roles to Anne Hathaway, well, the movie screen is going to be a little darker. Because how long until it happens to the next actress we've become invested in and attached to?