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Oscars 2015 – Hollywood’s Woman Problem

Despite my reputation online, in the Oscar race and on message boards around the internet, I didn’t start my site to be a “feminist” blogger or a “civil rights” blogger. It just turned out that way. I use quotes because nothing riles people up more than these two topics vis-à-vis the Oscar race.  Or any subject really. You want to see any angry mob anywhere on the internet, bring up these two topics in a piece. Thing is, sixteen years at my job and I started to notice things that disturbed me. Where Hollywood movies are concerned, Oscar movies, the ones critics pay attention to, there seems to be a bizarre kind of obsession with male-driven, sexless, PG-13 dramas that are rarely about women or other minorities. I don’t know the reason why but as I watch this go down every year I find myself unable to hold my tongue, for better or worse, usually worse.

While we have a record number of women behind the camera – Ava DuVernay’s wild breakout film, Selma, and Angelina Jolie’s upcoming Unbroken, not to mention Gillian Flynn making history as the first female novelist who adapted her own work headed for the Adapted Screenplay race.  But.

Now that the Oscar race is coming closer to the end, it’s beginning to dawn on the film community that, indeed, 2014 was a terrible year for lead actresses. Not just regular terrible, like a Blue Jasmine here or a Black Swan there – but terrible terrible, like Silver Linings Playbook terrible where the best alternative to what should have been a supporting part – as Jennifer Lawrence was – turned into the best option for the lead Oscar.  She was great – but it was a supporting part. God help us if that defines leading roles for an actresses.

The global film community doesn’t have a problem telling women’s stories. Poland’s Ida, Canada’s breathtaking Mommy, France’s Two Days, One Night tell unique stories of women – some flattering, some not. These are adult women, of course, who have actual internal lives written about on screen and here’s the kicker – all by male filmmakers. Imagine that.

The documentary and animated branches do not have trouble telling stories about women. Frozen is still a worldwide phenomenon and is helping to change things. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and most of his films, revolve around a female protagonist. The documentary filmmakers this year, like Rory Kennedy and Laura Poitras are women, but there are also plenty of real life stories about women -because yeah, we’re kind of here aren’t we? We’re everywhere.

Comedies and action films can have women in them – like Tammy, like Lucy. Sure, critics are harsh but the people love it, box office proves this.

It is only in one area where Oscar matters that women are invisible. The dominant films this year are about male protagonists. Women are there merely to serve the character arc of the male lead.

I was recently approached on Twitter by Guy Lodge who said he thought I advocated for critics to support films merely because they starred or were made by women or other minorities. I told him that wasn’t at all what I said – just that it seems to me overall “taste” is defined by a singular demographic. That appears to be the only explanation when films that are really actually quite good (Eleanor Rigby, for instance) are chewed up and spit out.  If a film is bad, it’s bad. But you see more allowances, excuses and forgiving hearts for Interstellar than you’d ever see for any film starring a woman.  I’m not sure whether anyone is really interested in films about women anymore. I am worried that we are headed in that direction.

First, let’s look at the Best Actress possibilities as decided by the pundits:
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Hilary Swank, The Homesman
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Anne Dorval, Mommy
Shailene Woodley, The Fault in our Stars
Jessica Chastain, Eleanor Rigby
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Juliet Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria

Next, the Best Picture contenders.  *Indicates that it’s most likely to be nominated for Best Picture (supporting actress contenders in bold).
*Whiplash (a girlfriend, fleeting shot of a female musician)
*The Imitation Game (points for a slightly more interesting supporting turn, of course supporting, by Keira Knightley)
*Boyhood (again, strong supporting females, perhaps the best of this year)
*Interstellar (again, props for positive role models in its supporting characters)
*Birdman (great supporting characters but supporting nonetheless)
*Selma – (the women matter and not just vis-à-vis the men but they are supporting).
The Gambler (typical supporting characters, old-fashioned and dated)
A Most Violent Year (the best thing about the movie is the supporting female who is barely in it)
Foxcatcher (hardly any women but great turns by what little remain)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (great supporting characters but supporting nonetheless)
American Sniper (great supporting characters but supporting nonetheless)
Mr. Turner (great supporting characters but supporting nonetheless)

Here are the Best Picture contenders with Best Actress contenders in them:
*The Theory of Everything
*Gone Girl
The Homesman

And to be perfectly frank, only one of these is being SERIOUSLY considered by the majority of pundits. That means, unless Into the Woods becomes a major player, you’re looking at ONE film in the entire race for Best Picture that has a lead actress contender at all (Felicity Jones).

Several bloggers have tried to say that there are plenty of women but that the pundits don’t know where to look. They point to less-buzzed performances, like Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle, Jenny Slate in Obvious Child, Mia Wasikowska in Tracks, Elisabeth Moss in Listen Up, Philip or The One I love, both leads in Laggies, even Angelina Jolie in Maleficent, or Scarlett Johannson in Lucy. But none of these movies have the reviews to push any of these contenders into the race, no matter if they made money or not, no matter if any of the major critics groups gives them a prize or not.  Sure, they can sometimes push forward someone like Emmanuelle Riva in Amour but even that ended up with a Best Picture nomination.  Pushing one singular performance without everything that goes along with it – usually a bravura director like Michael Haneke – is tough.  Women do not have that kind of clout in Hollywood anymore, not for a long time. They don’t get nominated just for bringing a film past $100 million. They have to have given one of the best performances of the year. None of those above mentioned films have any Best Picture heat whatsoever, not even close.

Why does it work that way? I don’t know. It just does. Perhaps because it’s tough to build a giant consensus when there are so many “little” choices. The consensus builds around the big choices and those usually are built around movies people want to watch. One performance from an actress like Jenny Slate isn’t necessarily going to draw many eyeballs, particularly middle-aged white dudes. So think about what builds a consensus because with the Oscar race that’s mostly what we’re talking about.

And indeed, look outside the Hollywood system and you’ll find plenty: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Anne Dorval (Mommy), Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida) to name a few. It’s incredibly difficult to break through as a non-American or British actress but it is not impossible. It just takes a lot of buzz and a lot of publicity.  Right now, I’m not seeing any rallying opinions around any of these because, once again, the critics were “meh” on the Dardennes’ Two Days and they’re even kind of surprisingly, freakishly meh on Mommy. At some point you have to start to wonder — do they just not like stories about women?

I suspect it might have to do with a couple of theories.  They are probably unpopular theories by now but theories nonetheless.

1) Political correctness has shaped how many films about American women are reviewed. Their sex undermines their ability to be judged as human because they are considered an under-served, oppressed minority first and a human last. The Homesman and Gone Girl are two films about women, with women in the leads but women who are not particularly good role models, to say the least. These are flawed women, you know, kind of like human beings? This is also the case with other minorities – gay characters, black and Asian characters. They have to be “good” or else they ripped apart by the collective. That makes storytellers have to think twice about what they decide to focus on. And what does that leave us with, my friends? Say it with me now. You should know this by heart if you follow my site: stories about white straight men because they are unassailable.  They can be old, young, ugly, smart, stupid, mean, evil, kind, romantic, corrupt, sexist, superheroes, victims, murderers, employees, bosses, husbands, fathers, mob bosses, movie moguls, presidents, cowboys, naked, dead, happy, sad, frustrated, oppressed, suicidal, drug addicted…

Women have to be … positive role models and that leads to the most bland portrayals imaginable. Trust me. That was why Gone Girl was — and Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before it, so goddamned refreshing. Give me more than just a good role model. I don’t need movies to tell me what kind of person I need to be. I don’t need movies to define who women are – I need artists to tell stories about women period.

We are ignited by great storytelling like Black Swan, All About Eve, Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, Bonnie and Clyde, Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and other films that feature real people who just so happen to be women. Take a look at your own life – what do you see? Do you see only men doing the things that matter?

2) Critics, bloggers and industry voters have to give a shit. Here’s the dirty little secret I’ve come to discover after watching films roll out and the way people I know who cover movies respond to those films. For every Devin Faraci who really does give a shit there are dozens more who don’t. Not only don’t they care but they it isn’t even a consideration. Women and men both respond similarly. We’ve been conditioned to respond to the best films whether they star women or men and the best films right now are films about men. No one really cares much if stories of women are being told. It isn’t a consideration. Moreover, I suspect that there’s a low hum of people who would really prefer to not have to see stories about women – that’s why they’re ghettoized as “chick flicks.” When a movie starring a woman does well at the box office that’s because certain demographics responded. With The Hunger Games, Twilight and Divergent it was the tweener girls.  With Gone Girl it’s the sad airport moms who like to read “trash” because they have nothing better to do with their time.   It’s never just taken as an unqualified success.

I grew up in the 1970s when women demanded to be treated equally, at the very least, where people complained of stereotypical women as supporting characters. What I see now are filmmakers who think that a spunky, spicy supporting girlfriend who tells it like it is counts as a good female character. It doesn’t.  I’m not saying they have to be good characters or positive role models, or that they should always be stereotypes – I’m saying they should count as people and not just tools to help the protagonist evolve. Hell, they should BE protagonists.

Alfonso Cuaron did it with Gravity and Christopher Nolan did it with Interstellar – swapped out male roles for female. I’m gonna bet that Gravity would have made more money if it starred a man and that Interstellar would not be criticized as much for all that “emotion” if that part were a boy crying. Hell, did anyone complain when Elliot balled his eyes out in E.T.? The status quo wants the men in the leading roles. But these filmmakers made a conscious choice to take a big risk to TELL A BETTER STORY. It adds dimension and depth simply by choosing a different kind of player.

In the great film Casting By there is the story of how Danny Glover got cast in Lethal Weapon. The studio wanted a white male but Marion Dougherty was thinking outside the box. Not only did it bring success to the film overall but added unexpected dimension to the film. Why do more filmmakers not think this why?

We have to ask ourselves the harder questions now about whether women really matter or not, whether anyone cares about them or their stories in film. There is no problem with women on television it is only where the raising of money is concerned, the collateral, that this kind of rigid thinking takes hold.

Recently, as I mentioned in an earlier column today, I was watching Olive Kitteridge with fascination at Frances McDormand’s brilliant performance. I was thinking, here I am about to enter middle age and I have no stories that are being told in American film about where I’m headed. Worse, actresses are shamed into making themselves look younger because younger is all Hollywood wants now. The economics have dictated that biology rules – men of all ages desire younger women and thus, in order to ensure maximum ticket revenue women have to be young or else sidelined. But women like me – what choice do we have? We can watch TV. We can move out of the country. We can give up on Hollywood. Here’s the even darker truth: we’re the majority of the ticket buyers. 52% of ticket buyers are women, presumably buying tickets for their dumb adolescents who will cut their teeth on movies that have obliterated all traces of older women except in supporting parts as mothers or teachers or judges.

Hollywood has written itself into a corner.  And it’s only getting worse.

Bravo to those who try anyway, even if they fail. Jason Reitman’s Young Adult featured a fantastic, bizarre, mean lead character. Maybe it was a failure overall but what a risk he took.

There, I ranted and now I can enjoy the rest of my day. Goodnight, thanks for playing.