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Original, Adapted Screenplay Too Packed for Obvious Child and Beyond the Lights?

Two more films by women filmmakers have broken through this year. Their best hope for Oscar nods would be the screenplay categories. It is near impossible to crack any major category with good intentions. The buzz machine starts early and snowballs – or perhaps more appropriately, it’s like the Titanic, gaining speed and momentum as it barrels towards the iceberg and by the time you want to turn it around it is already too late.

Still, with a little push there could be SOME movement in these categories. Let it be known that both Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights and Jenny Slate in Obvious Child delivered strong leading performances this year. With a little help from the crisis, ANY CRITIC, they could have been launched into the race – though even then, Best Actress is already too full, with most slots reserved early by high-profile roles and veteran performers.

Not saying it’s impossible – it’s just unlikely, as these contenders are being pushed hardcore early in year by powerful publicity companies that know how to get nominations. That’s WHY they get the big bucks. I’m not going to address whether they are deserving or not – Mark Harris already plugged them in his column a while back. My own feeling that is actresses get the short shrift in Hollywood after the age of 30. When Julia Roberts came along in the 1980s, that became the model for a successful actress in Hollywood: versatile, breathlessly beautiful, charismatic. We wouldn’t really see another Julia Roberts until Jennifer Lawrence. But aiming at someone that young and fresh-faced resulted in older actresses being sidelined, continually and tragically, resulting in one of the worst years for actresses since I’ve been blogging. Do I think these vets should be sidelined for the youngers? No, I don’t. Does that mean we’re talking about better performances? I’m talking about how hard it is to find good roles if you’re over the age of 35. They just aren’t offered up in mainstream film. Getting awards for them backs the notion that women don’t expire after the age of 35. All of them will get there – all of the young ones will be used up and spit out by the time they get there – wouldn’t they rather empower career success later rather than earlier?

It’s up for debate, I know. I’m not saying definitely one way or the other – I’m just examining the tragic state of how women are treated in Hollywood, black women especially.

The original screenplay category is once again packed with men. If Gillian Flynn represents the sole female in either of the writing categories, original looks to be 5/5 men. Flynn might be joined in Adapted by Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, Karen Maine for Obvious Child. It isn’t as packed as Original and there could be some wiggle room there.

Gina Prince Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights is original and that category is already too crowded. Sure, Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child are filled with woman-y stuff, icky love story stuff, not taken seriously stuff – usually that isn’t sexy enough, or enough at all, to get Oscar attention. As we know from the treatment of Gone Girl by both genders in the media, it’s a tall order to satisfy the requirements of male audiences and critics, female audiences and critics. The list is too long, the requirements too hard to fill. Or to put it another way, not even Mean Girls, arguably one of the best screenplays of the last two decades, couldn’t even manage an Oscar nod and it wasn’t even about romance, as Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child kind of are, with other important elements threaded throughout.

The synopsis for Beyond the Lights is, as follows:

The pressures of fame have superstar singer Noni on the edge, until she meets Kaz, a young cop who works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be.

I have not yet seen the film but I am going to seek it out in the coming days on the recommendation of Dargis and Kris Tapley and others. I’m sure it’s a lot better than that synopsis suggests. But I’m also sure that “relationship movies” can’t build the same kind of steam or gravitas than “important” stories, usually about Great Men. If the gender balance in the guilds ever equalizes, there might be some wiggle room in that area. But mostly “relationship movies” suffer, unless they’re made by men, about men, like Silver Linings Playbook (another Dargis favorite, where the female lead is really just there to enforce the male protagonist). The more critics talk about Beyond the Lights, the better.

In taking another swipe at Gone Girl, the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis made a big thing about Beyond the Lights in her Best of list:

The movie’s writer and director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, is defiantly sincere about its romantic tropes, a rarity in American mainstream cinema. That sincerity may be too alien for audiences or perhaps years of Katherine Heigl flicks have made them skittish about heterosexual romance. That’s too bad, because watching people fall in love is surely as interesting as watching them kill one another. As of early December, though, the only title in the Top 20 grossing movies featuring a straight couple is “Gone Girl,” a nihilistic cartoon in which a woman gets away with murder by crying rape. As edgy metaphors for modern relationships go, I prefer “Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Emily Blunt’s character keeps killing Tom Cruise’s, à la “Groundhog Day,” as he struggles to become the hero he’s meant to be.

I’m not sure why “Beyond the Lights” hasn’t found its audience. I like to think it isn’t racism. In typical fashion, the trailers reduce the movie to its most obvious terms, including a frolic on a beach and images of a male torso so sculptured it would make Michelangelo sigh. Yet that body and beach are crucial to the movie’s method and meaning, and its exploration of a woman’s right to pleasure and self-determination. It doesn’t broadcast those ideas, but folds them into a story that’s also a maternal melodrama about a poor white mother (Minnie Driver) and a black daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who’s as talented as she is haunted by her place in the world. It squeezes tears as cannily as that old Hollywood weepie “Stella Dallas,” except that here Mommy Dearest exploits her daughter.

So, Dargis likes Edge of Tomorrow where Tom Cruise is the lead and Blunt, while great, is yet again sidelined. She also likes Beyond the Lights because it offers traditional romance. But can’t bring herself to support, and feels the need to again criticize, the one movie that lets women out of those traditional cages of “backseat babe” and someone to whom love matters more than anything. I think there is room for all of these kinds of stories, not just the ones that paint women in a positive light. It’s important to allow for us to continue to be dark and dirty, to explore the myths about women, to upend stereotypes.Sadly, because Dargis can’t see past her own inherent bias about what women should be, she’s unable to celebrate Gillian Flynn’s success. The more freedom women have as writers and storytellers the more stories there will be about women, not just ONE KIND of woman. This is not criticize Beyond the Lights in any way – it ought to be championed as hard. I just don’t get why, to do that, Dargis felt the need to harpoon – yet again – Gone Girl.

I’m not thinking Beyond the Lights has a shot at screenplay, not with a 73 over at Metacritic. Then again, Theory of Everything also has that a score just as low and it is “in the conversation.” But that’s because it’s “important” as it’s about Stephen Hawking. Still, why shouldn’t Beyond the Lights be considered a contender? At least for writing. Gina Prince-Bythewood has been an established filmmaker for years now. What she needs, what all women in the field need, are strong advocates.

The brilliant writing by Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, Karen Maine for Obvious Child, if nominated in the less-crowded adapted category, would put two Gillians in the adapted screenplay race, for a total of FOUR women writers. That, along with the addition of history-making Ava DuVernay, potentially in the Best Picture/Best Director race? Now you’re talking about “movement.”

Obvious Child is really funny throughout – with vulgarity woven through likable and admirable young women who face wrenching dilemmas like having an abortion. It is handled very well, and indeed, the lead character Jenny Slate does not find her strength through a male character but rather with women like her mother and her best friend. The women I know out there in the world who aren’t plugged into the 90% male-driven Oscar narrative would find enriching value in both Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child. They would see themselves in their stories. Still, how many men can relate?

When you’re talking Oscar that’s what you’re talking about. The sad evolution of film critics has resulted in a similar dynamic. Movies that get into the race have to have the male stamp of approval. Where women are concerned, if the story is more about men then women they can roll with it. But if it’s about women, written by women, driven by what women care about? Forget it. We see in film a reflection of ourselves. And in this case “ourselves” is majority male, majority straight white male.

I’m going to put both of these on the contender tracker with my fingers crossed. After 16 years of this, though, I know that rave reviews drive these awards. Neither of these films got the kind of raves a contender really needs, despite Dargis’ push. As an Oscar blogger, I know what can and can’t be done. I know that sometimes no amount of advocacy can push a contender in. At best, you can put them in front of the thing to watch it. That doesn’t mean it will get their vote when they’re deciding what is best.

They’re on the radar. They’re definitely on the radar.