Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) - The Overlooked Supporting Actresses (By Request)

When I had the bright idea to configure a poll to determine which Overlooked performance of 1988 I would feature in July, I had no idea I would be faced with the challenge of a now iconic animated character, voiced by not one but by two amazing actresses. (I added the film to the list of options in the spirit of inclusion, listing the performances that critics and audiences singled out in 1988 and in the years since.) But really. Leave it to my lovely readers to challenge my profiling abilities by requesting a performance like that of...

approximately 11 minutes and 41 seconds
10 scenes
roughly 11% of film's total running time

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? blended live-action and animation at a moment in American filmmaking in which the future of the animated feature seemed anything but certain. The film provided the genre's first real boost of audience interest (Disney's The Little Mermaid was still a year out, and the radicalizing arrival of Pixar and computer animation were well into the horizon). In 1988, Robert Zemeckis's high-style genre fantasy -- pitched equally to kids and to adults -- took risks that left critics and audiences alike a little puzzled. Would the kids appreciate all the pop culture inside jokes and oblique genre references? Would the grown ups accept the absurdity and over the top fantasy of its high-concept construction? Nearly 20 years later, with Ratatouille receiving the first general raves of 2007, such concerns seem precious. Making Zemeckis's film seem all the more prescient. But, more than anything, the character of Jessica Rabbit seems to be the biggest harbinger of everything that was to come.

Jessica Rabbit is the the va-va-voluptuous wife of Toon star Roger Rabbit, the crazy kooky comedy star in an imagined Hollywood of the past (which looks and sounds an awful lot like Hollywood in the noir days of the late 1940s). When Rabbit is implicated in the murder of his boss, a gumshoe PI (Bob Hoskins) gets swept up in the internecine intrigues of Toon Town and Hollywood.

A plot summary is beyond me, but -- suffice it -- Jessica Rabbit is the mysterious bombshell who Hoskins's Valiant pursues to crack the case. A femme fatale in Vargas style, Jessica Rabbit blends elements of Hollywood's most revered damsels and dames, past present and future.

Jessica Rabbit's an extraordinary visual concoction, and her attributes contribute a welcome sense of focus to the generally manic picture. The gag is that all men stop to stare when Jessica arrives to the screen, and this running gag actually serves the picture in an important way by slowing the generally manic action just a little whenever Jessica's onscreen. The result? Not only is Jessica an extraordinary and pleasing presence, but it's also something of a relief when she takes the screen.

As voiced by an uncredited, wryly sexy Kathleen Turner (Amy Irving does the singing - also anonymously), Jessica Rabbit emerges as an surprising foremother to the many animated performances that, in the decades since Roger Rabbit, have been constructed around distinctive celebrity voices. Kathleen Turner's distinctive raspy alto -- itself one of the most talked about voices of the late 1980s -- combines with Jessica Rabbit's hyperbolically animated curves to create a character that's both larger than life and also curiously, plausibly real.

Jessica Rabbit's most famous line, perfectly rendered by Turner -- "I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way" -- situates Jessica Rabbit in a kind of meta-reality that would become nearly run-of-the-mill in the computer animated era. Only through animation could Hollywood make those curves look so real.

Viewed in 2007, the green-screen seams of Roger Rabbit's construction do at time show. And some character choices (Jessica's scream upon seeing the Dip) do seem oddly "out of character." But screening Jessica Rabbit's "performance" now, I'm struck by how pivotal a character she is, not only within the narrative of the film but also in the ways animated features have come to appreciate the multiple dimensions of the "animated performance." (It's worth noting that three of the most legendary female voice artists have cameos in Roger Rabbit -- Mae Questel, Nancy Cartwright, and the incomparably brilliant June Foray -- which is oddly poignant, given that this film might well have marked the beginning of the now banal trend of using celebrity voices in animated features...a practice that has radically diminished the amount of work available for old voice acting pros like June Foray.)

So, thank you, lovely readers, for routing my attentions to this surprisingly significant supporting performance at the edges of 1988. I'm not sure I'd call it actressing but whatever it is, it's a wowza.

"Nice booby trap."


Anna said...

"I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way" - yikes - a line that drips with feminist irony - or sexist irony? Both?! You are a braver woman than me, Lulu, for taking her on! Her eye-candy curves make me wince - though the satire of film noir babes is great.

Criticlasm said...

I love the voie acting--I don't know if you've seen this, but check out red riding hood in this one. It may be June Foray, and it's a funny voice for Little Red TO HAVE, see....


jakey said...

I still think this is one of the most ambitious and creative movies ever done -- and while Jessica is such a pivotal character in the film, I never realized how little her screen time is.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I had totally forgotten she was voiced by Kathleen Turner. I love Turner!

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Kathleen Turner wasn't even listed in the credits. =(

StinkyLulu said...

Yeah, JS, I think that's the main reason I keep thinking about this perf as an important one in terms of "setting up" the context for what would become a very different practice within just a few years. By the time Beauty and the Beast came out a few years later, the voice credits had become a significant piece of how an animated film was marketed to an adult audience.

jakey said...

I know, I know, I'm double-commenting -- but because of this blog I chose to rent this movie, seeing it for the first time as an adult, not a little kid who loves seeing Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse in this movie. And while this movie is still just as brilliant as it was when I was in Pre-K years, Lulu's assessment of Jessica as a pivotal character in dead-on; her role works as both femme fatale and moral fiber.

aronthegreat said...

i was born the year this film was released. and i loved it my whole childhood. i could not sleep if i didnt have my plush roger rabbit doll lying on my pillow keeping the monsters in my closet away until a week ago when i came across a video of jessica on youtube search "jessica rabbit it's your duty" trust me it is a great video i remembered how much i loved it!! with the old VHS gone and my dear toy roger M.I.A i went out and bought the dvd i loved it as much now as i did when i was a child. i am a fashion design student and i have been designing dresses for jessica rabbit self consciously for years now wich always gets me into trouble with my teachers saying i should draw more realistic models. i love jessica rabbit and in my eyes she is a real woman!
p.s i must say now that im 19 i want jessica on my pillow sorry roger.