''Buffy'''s Sarah Michelle Gellar and ''Gilmore Girls''' Alexis Bledel, for two, hone their craft

By Ken Tucker
April 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Sarah Michelle Gellar: Greg Gorman

It’s often been said that television is a kinder medium to women than the movies, in the sense that it offers a wider range of roles to middle aged actresses, as opposed to the New Young Thing mentality that rules the box office. (Characterization often goes deeper on TV too: Only snobbery would prevent you from admitting that ”CSI”’s Marg Helgenberger is a more interesting, fully realized thriller heroine than Julianne Moore is in ”Hannibal,” for example.)

But it’s increasingly true that TV is kinder to young actresses as well. Who knows yet what the true range of, say, a promising film performer like Kirsten Dunst is, since, post- ”Virgin Suicides,” she’s been marketed primarily in fluff like ”Bring It On” and ”Get Over It”? I’m not ascribing higher motives to the television industry; whenever they can get away with it, the networks peddle ingenues with hot bods, minimal acting experience, and (most important) scant salary leverage. But TV’s demand for product — the sheer number of programming hours required to fill — often results in a diversity of roles, and the weekly workload can hone a young woman’s talents more quickly than that of a film actress limited to doing two or three movies a year.

Cases in point: ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer”’s Sarah Michelle Gellar and ”Gilmore Girls”’ Alexis Bledel — gals with spunk even Lou Grant would have liked. The reverberations of the exquisitely shocking Feb. 27 episode of Buffy, ”The Body,” in which the Slayer’s mother (Kristine Sutherland) died, are still being felt by the show’s audience. A somber yet fiercely emotional hour, ”The Body,” written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, inspired an immediate grassroots Internet campaign to drum up industry support to secure an Emmy nod for this prize poor show.

As terrific as Whedon’s writing and directing were, the hour wouldn’t have been as soul rocking as it was without Gellar’s performance. Whedon gave her a showcase, and she ran with it: The shock, grief, revulsion, and devastation Buffy went through in 60 minutes were precise and moving, and all the more impressive for the graceful way the actress also shared scenes of equally effective emoting by costar Michelle Trachtenberg, as Buffy’s sister, Dawn.

While Gellar must be the center of her show, anchoring both its drama and its giddy horror humor, Alexis Bledel, over on ”Gilmore,” is required to remain slightly off center. As 16 year old Rory, she shares most of her scenes with the costar who plays her mom, Lauren Graham; together, they constitute the most sane yet wacky mother – daughter team in prime time.

Graham’s Lorelai is a 32 year old, assiduously nonconformist single parent whose primary mode of communication is the pop cultural wisecrack. When told that some people actually like to wake up early, she exclaimed, ”Jump back!” then footnoted herself: ”Kevin Bacon, ‘Footloose’: reaction to the no dancing rule in town, as revealed to him by Chris Penn, brother to Sean, sage to all.” By contrast, Rory is a polite, book loving, straight A student, and thus both a rarity among prime time teens (99 percent of whom complain about school and sass their ‘rents) and a potential bore.

Despite that risk, Rory is an entrancing child; Bledel, an acting neophyte whose confidence and skill can be seen to increase with every episode, uses her large eyes and low, deceptively flat vocal tone to convey playful pensiveness. Rory delights in verbal jousts with her mother, and Bledel also pulls off the trickier scenes of quiet affection between Rory and her genteel WASP grandparents, played impeccably by Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann. She has also blossomed in a story line about a tumultuous first love with the shaggy haired bag boy (Jared Padalecki) in the local grocery store.

Bledel is clearly a find; she’s just been cast in her first major film role in the weepy fantasy ”Tuck Everlasting,” so we’ll have a chance to see how she fares on the big screen. Personally, I think if she can hold her own against the deft Graham, she’ll have no trouble up against ”Tuck” costars Ben Kingsley and William Hurt.

Add Gellar and Bledel to a list of top notch actresses such as all the female young ‘uns on ”Once and Again,” ”Felicity,” and the scandalously undernoticed gaggle on ”Grosse Pointe,” and you’ve got a new golden age of girl talent. Someone wake up the Emmy nominators.