The Paradox of Rachel Weisz in ‘The Mummy’

A “meek librarian” becomes a dashing adventuress, subverting archetypes along the way.

Universal Pictures
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The Stephen Sommers-penned script for 1999’s blockbuster The Mummy introduces the half-Egyptian, half-English Evelyn (Evy) Carnahan played by Rachel Weisz in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities as “a rather uninteresting British girl: eye-glasses, hair-in-a-bun, long boring dress, your typical prudish nightmare.” But in a swift turn that is a terse encapsulation of the place Weisz’s Evy holds in the hearts of women the world over, the script prophesies: “We’re going to fall in love with her.” And indeed, we do.

As is the case with most blockbusters, scripts are written before leads are cast, and so Sommers’ script didn’t foresee Weisz’s beauty. Universal Studios initially auditioned American actresses for Evelyn’s role before finally landing on the British actress. Sommers says he auditioned the relatively unknown Weisz about five times before ultimately casting her based on the charming chemistry she had with the film’s other lead, Brendan Fraser. This was all for the best. Though critics enjoyed the movie for being generally fun but not groundbreaking, they loved Weisz’s performance: Roger Ebert’s many favourite phrases from the film are uttered by Evy; The Hollywood Reporter said Weisz is deft at keeping pace with the overwhelmingly male cast. Certainly a commercial hit at the time of its release, the film is now a classic, beloved for how lovable Fraser is as the beefy but kind hero Rick O’Connell, but also for the image of the nerdy adventurer Evy, showing generations of women that a love for books can be sexy. Evy is the quintessential ‘90s heroine, possessing the gumption of her male counterparts, but outshining them in the intellect department. All this is undeniable — Evy is, to this day, a gem. However, there is a scene in The Mummy that few talk about but that is impossible to glaze over because of how striking it is.

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O’Connell and his team lose all their equipment at the start of their journey to the ancient city of Hamunaptra to find the Book of Amun-Ra. Their barge goes up in flames as it is invaded by the Maji, who want to prevent the Westerners from awakening the ancient curse of Imhotep. Evy has lost all her clothes, so the women in a village they stop at to stock up on supplies dress her. As O’Connell buys camels, Evy steps out of a throng of women in burkas wearing a black, gauzy outfit with a jeweled lace veil draped across the bottom of her face, her hazel eyes heavily kohled. Weisz is smiling that smile Evy has on whenever she is proud of herself for knowing something no one else does. She knows she looks stunning in her flowing garb held tight around her waist by a belt of shiny coins like the ones worn by Middle Eastern belly dancers — an orientalized dream. “She’s changed into a gorgeous, tightly fitted, Bedouin dress,” the script says. Fraser as O’Connell blushes — she is a sight to behold.

It’s a scene that’s only rivaled in sexiness and accompanying daring by the one wherein Evy kisses Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep to keep him from hurting O’Connell and her brother Jonathan. She uses her body, her femininity (as opposed to her mind, which she flexes in every other scene), in a way reminiscent eerily of Jasmine in 1992’s Aladdin, when she slinks along hopelessly near the film’s end, dressed scantily in a blood-red outfit trying to seduce Jafar. These two scenes are worth interrogating because, in both, Evy cuts a figure with a layered history: a negative image of an orientalized “jew” (a fictional image that lumps all “others,” that is, non-white, non-Christian peoples, be they Middle Eastern or North African, into the category of “the jew”) integral to the way stories are told in the Western world. These two scenes aren’t accidental in The Mummy.

When certain characters are recurring through literature and film, when they captivate our imaginations so thoroughly, it’s incumbent upon us, as the audience, to understand why they exist and how we might subvert, reinterpret, or recreate them responsibly. Evy occupies a liminal space within an archetype whose roots reach back thousands of years in the Western imagination, and it is Weisz alone with her masterful performance who saves Evy from being maligned by detractors, or worse, forgotten. It is Weisz alone who keeps the character from becoming a racist trope. Here is the history that made Hollywood comfortable in giving us the image of an orientalized Evelyn, an Evelyn who uses her sexuality to a certain end, and how Weisz ultimately protects the character from the patriarchy.

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The male Christian imagination is responsible for how the world looks today under patriarchy — it steers the flow of much of the Western world’s major narratives. This imagination feeds the male gaze in cinema, assigning meaning to women under its purview based on their relation to the subject: the white, Christian man. Guiding archetypes are learned from various foundational texts, such as the Bible, which means that if we want to understand some of our beloved characters, we must turn to Jesus.

In the stories we tell, there are archetypes that are personified by specific characters and that determine characters’ fates. Think Harry Potter or Star Wars, classic stories of good versus evil with good characters always accompanied by a bad corollary or foil. According to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, society’s collective imagination comes pre-furnished with archetypes (inherited from and informed by ancestral experience), and a single archetype will always have a positive and a negative aspect. What this means is that the stories we hear in society help us learn extant archetypes, which we then use in the stories we create. A story that an overwhelming portion of Western society hears is the Christian narrative. This narrative, by putting archetypes such as the Self (Hero), the Helper, the Wise Old Man, etc., in action, facilitates understanding of the types’ function and provides a framework through which people can understand the world around them, meaning that it becomes possible for people to use these types in their own stories. But the Christian narrative has contextual biases: Jesus is a man, though he personifies the archetype of the Self, the male mind is valued above all in this narrative. The negative of the Self, its Shadow, is the antagonist.

When a female character personifies the archetype of the Self when she is the hero of a tale, she is (in the male Christian imagination, Christian narratives, and in Christian mythology) Mary-like, and her Shadow, or negative, is Eve. Here is where things get grim. In his book The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination, scholar Leonid Livak talks about how Western narratives (theology, philosophy, fiction) increasingly came to rely on the figure of “the jew” as an Other, one who serves as an ideological scapegoat (receptacle of displaced guilt, anxieties, and fears), and also a historical scapegoat (for example, in apostolic writings, “the jews” became increasingly blamed for wanting Jesus to be crucified because the Romans couldn’t be faulted as they were in power; Christianity, being the young religion it was, wanted on the good side of the rulers), along with serving as proof of Christianity’s existential need and veracity. This figure of “the jew” is wholly made up — hence why Livak puts the term in quotations — and has nothing to do with Jewish peoples, though it certainly had and continues to have real-world, racist consequences. It is because of the role of “the jews” in Christian mythology that Eve is Mary’s Shadow. Another iteration of this duality is the Madonna/Whore dichotomy dictating the roles women can occupy in most Western narratives.

It’s easy to understand why, by Christian logic, Eve is a negative figure. In the Bible, Eve eats the apple and brings on the loss of paradise — she is, by association, carnal, sensual, and selfish. She is fallen from grace and therefore earthly (as opposed to lofty/heavenly), and so allied with “the jews,” who according to the Christian narrative, want to destroy Christendom and are responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. According to Christian ideology, Judaism is the “old” religion, meaning that “the jews” are depicted in narratives through a language of obsolescence. Livak says they are depicted as “undead among the living,” distinguishable by physical characteristics, such as yellow/pale skin or diseases (leprosy, tuberculosis), which serve as a physical marker for the mythological/ideological role they played in Jesus’ crucifixion and as practitioners of an “old” religion. As Christian peoples came to interact with the Islamic world, the language of difference expanded to make sense of this new Other, it began encompassing Muslim peoples within the character of “the jews.” “The jews” increasingly came to wear “Oriental” dress (this image reaches its apotheosis in the nineteenth century), such as turbans, and came to look like Middle Easterners. In the nineteenth century, Eve figures came to have dark hair and wear gauzy clothes covering their pale, tubercular skin. The Eve figure becomes a vampire, sapping metaphorically or literally the virility of good, productive Christian men. As with all misogynistic and racist characters, this vampy woman is a threat to the state, to Christendom, because she owns her sexuality, wresting it from the control of Christian men who are vulnerable because they want to have sex with her.

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HOW EVY FITS THE TROPE AND HOW RACHEL WEISZ ESCAPES IT

Evy’s fictional adventure in The Mummy follows on the heels of silent film star Theda Bara’s (1885-1955) historical success. The Cincinnati-born, Jewish Bara was presented to American audiences by the head of Fox Film Company William Fox and his press agents as an “exotic” femme fatale, she portrayed vampiric characters who seduced virile men. The persona Fox created for Bara came with a backstory that told audiences her name was an anagram for “Arab Death,” and that she was born in the “shadow of the Sphinx” to a French artist’s Arabian mistress.

In The Mummy, Evy is the daughter of a famed explorer (her last name is a reference to George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who backed the excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1907, and who had a daughter named Evelyn) and an Egyptian mother who was an adventurer, whom Evy’s father married because he loved Egypt so much. It’s difficult not to draw the comparison between Evy’s birth and Bara’s publicized origin story — both born in the shadow of the Sphinx. Evy contains both the Madonna and the Eve types within her — this is what makes her relatable, what makes her such an intriguing and powerful character. Aspects of the Eve type within Evy that are most conspicuous are her otherworldly knowledge, her sexual forwardness, and her physical appearance.

Evy’s knowledge is galling in the best way. She is constantly challenging herself as she racks her brain to solve the curse and delights in showing off her intellect — she calls Beni an idiot when he makes a mistake in translating the O’Connell party’s doomed fate. Time and again, Evy shows us not only that she is to be trusted when it comes to knowledge of Ancient Egyptian history, but also that the Bembridge scholars made a grave mistake in declining her application due simply to a lack of field experience. Accordingly, the movie has her gaining earthly experience. Her introduction to the world of her contemporary brutish men, which is facilitated first by O’Connell and then by the Americans and Imhotep, leads to a kind of powerful savviness that we see when Evy kisses Imhotep. The knowledge she possesses is reminiscent of the biblical Eve, in that Evy’s mind is what awakens the curse that is meant to doom mankind, but the experience she gains is what helps her to save the world. Her knowledge is simultaneously lofty and very much of this earth.

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Her sexual forwardness is also refreshing, despite being mired as it is in the negative Eve archetype. Evy knows what she wants, sexually, evident when she drunkenly says to O’Connell that she is going to kiss him. But the most intriguing aspect of her control over her own sexuality is certainly the Imhotep kiss. In an earlier version of the script, Sommers had Imhotep kissing Evy after causing O’Connell’s plane to crash in the sandstorm. But in the movie, we get Evy kissing Imhotep in such a determined and forward way that it’s shocking, but also in line with her development: Evy knows the hold she has over Imhotep, in the way that Jasmine knew the hold she had over Jafar. Certainly, Evy kisses Imhotep as a means to a morally good end, but the fact that the movie even has her kissing the bad guy, using her body to gain something, is certainly an example of the femme fatale who is an instantiation of the Eve type. In 1999, Evy’s sexual confidence could have been symptomatic of ‘90s feminism, but seeing it transplanted to the 1920s, enacted by a character who is introduced to us as a “prudish nightmare” is telling, a testament to the ideology-soaked minds of the people who produced this movie. It is not the English side of Evy who kisses Imhotep, it is the Egyptian side, the femme fatale, which is also the side that wears the sexy, orientalized outfit with confidence.

When Evy emerges from the throng of veiled women, she looks like a Charles Landelle painting. No other Egyptian woman on screen around her is dressed in an outfit like hers, except for the women at the bar in Cairo who would be sex workers or escorts, dressed in the West’s orientalized wet dream of the Middle East. The reason why Evy’s character interests me is that she is half-Egyptian and half-English, but the filmmakers never put her in clothes an Egyptian woman in a village would wear — the clothes she wears at the beginning of the movie are more in line with what Egyptian women in cities would have worn. Weisz herself is of Jewish descent, making her portrayal of the half-Egyptian Evy all the more complex, all the more mired in the image of “the jew” because of how the capitalist system that is Hollywood is comfortable in portraying Weisz as Evy.

Sommers describes Evy as a “meek librarian” who ends up becoming a dashing adventuress by the film’s end, but he doesn’t seem to fully understand the character he wrote, perhaps because of how much Weisz added to it because of her heritage but also by virtue of her prowess as an actress, which is ultimately why Evy is so beloved. In other words, we can still love the Evy that Hollywood gives us, the Evy painted in the image of Theda Bara, in Eve. Nothing about Evy, from the moment we’re introduced to her, is meek. Recall the way she stands tall as she lists her accomplishments to the library’s curator. “You put up with me because I can read and write Ancient Egyptian, decipher hieroglyphics and hieratic, and I’m the only person within a thousand miles who knows how to properly code and catalogue this library,” she says with immense confidence and pride, which is evident when near the movie’s end she exclaims, “Take that, Bembridge scholars!” From beginning to end, every one of her actions is self-assured. Critic MaryAnn Johanson was correct when she said “Evelyn and Rick are basically Indiana Jones split down the middle — she’s the brains, he’s the brawn.” If O’Connell is determined when it comes to doing whatever it takes to satisfy what he has been contracted to do, then Evy is steadfast in doing whatever it takes to acquire whatever artifact or bit of knowledge she needs to satisfy her historian’s brain and ultimately save humankind. She does become more brazen and strong as she learns new physical skills, but her kind heart and her love for learning are an integral part of the Evy we are initially introduced to.

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Though Evy’s character development is written in the script, there is much that Weisz gives to Evy that’s all her own. Evy’s curiosity, which has her running her hands over the ammunition that O’Connell rolls out before her, and how she beams when she talks about the Book of Amun-Ra — this is all Weisz. The upturn of her lips, the arch of her brows, the way she narrows her eyes when she knows that whatever bit of history she’s teaching O’Connell and Jonathan is delicious; the way she isn’t afraid to get in the sand and scurry about on her hands and knees as she opens the Book of the Dead — this is all added by Weisz. This is Weisz’s gutsy and endearing screen presence, the charm that had her initially cast. Weisz gives Evy pluck, but she also gives her a jaw-dropping beauty.

Evy is saved by the English blood in her, that of her explorer father, who would have given her access to the education that saves everyone else in the movie. The reason why Evy’s fate is not that of a femme fatale is that she has scholastic knowledge first, and worldly knowledge second. She escapes becoming Anck-Su-Namun, in other words. Though Evy is the main character audiences are meant to love, she has all the dressings of a femme fatale who traditionally meets a tragic end, who traditionally owns her sexuality, is pale, and has dark hair. The paradox of Weisz’s Evy is that no blonde actress could have ever played Evy; not before 1999 and not after. Weisz is responsible for the exuberant Evy we get on screen. This is a character who is confident as any femme fatale, knows her purpose, but is also clumsy, endearing, indelible, adorable, and stunning. Weisz makes Evy hers entirely. It’s small touches: the smirks, the joy she takes in hurting bad men and in knowing she is smarter than all the men around her, in knowing that she has sexual power over these men.

At the end of the day, what we love Evy stems from Weisz’s amazing performance. The sexist and racist history that informs much of the Evy Carnahan we see on screen has, paradoxically, given many women a kind of women to look up to — not for the weird fetishistic reasons that determine her dress, but rather because she is the most textured female character in all of The Mummy. And who doesn’t love a mummy-killing femme fatale?

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