Women’s rights made a major impact on Hollywood in the 1970s. Feminism, now a dirty word, was such a force to be reckoned with that you didn’t dare depict a woman in a film who didn’t have, at the very least, her own identity. It was a hard fought war. But like most things go in Hollywood, economy drives the movement. Thus, once Julia Roberts became the $100 million dollar baby in the 1980s with Pretty Woman, the strong female characters began to slowly disappear. At the same time, the rise of the blockbuster drove the cost of movies higher. Roberts was one of the few women who could command the same salary as Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. That’s what made her so powerful back then. But those high salaries demanded high box office returns and sadly, at least according to Hollywood, those would shrink because what sells at the box office are films starring men, made by men.
If you’d like to see how dramatically things shifted away from films featuring strong female characters, I already researched it once, trying to track Best Picture nominees and to see how many were in the top twenty at the box office that year. But a curious detail emerged and that was after movies started making upwards of $100 million, strong female characters all but vanished in the highest grossing films of the year. That leads us to today, to ask why so few of the Best Picture contenders feature strong female leads.
To a degree, the box office since Jaws and Star Wars forever changed the landscape of American film, and big box office has always been driven by movies about men.
In the 1960s, the top earners that centered around a female character were: The Sound of Music (which was the highest grossing film of the decade), Dr. Zhivago, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Cleopatra, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (debatable), Bonnie and Clyde (debatable), Let’s Make Love, West Side Story.
In the 1970s, the top box office earners that were female driven included The Exorcist, Love Story, Kramer vs. Kramer, Electric Horseman, Alien, A Star is Born, What’s Up Doc?, King Kong.
The 1980s had a scant few films that were female-driven. Notable exceptions were An Officer and a Gentleman (although, really, that’s about Gere’s character), On Golden Pond, Little Mermaid, Fatal Attraction, Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy, 9 to 5, The Color Purple, When Harry Met Sally. It’s a fairly amazing decade of strong female films at the box office but during this decade something dramatically shifted.
Moving into the 1990s, you have Titanic, which arguably featured a strong female lead; Jim Cameron also gave us Aliens. Beauty and the Beast has a central female character and Julia Roberts made Pretty Woman a lot of money as its central character — although it’s really about the two of them. Roberts made Runaway Bride, which again, made Hollywood a lot of money, though arguably, it’s about both of them, ditto As Good as it Gets.
Moving into the 2000s, you have Twilight, The Blind Side, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
One of the reasons for the sharp decline is how much money movies are expected to make now. At the end of the 1990s, the highest grossing film of the decade was Titanic and the second highest was The Phantom Menace. It doesn’t really matter to Hollywood executives that Titanic made that kind of money with a female lead because, let’s face it, the Titanic itself was the real star. But the second highest film made $473,307. The previous decade, the 1980s, the highest grossing film was $434,975. And in the 1970s, Star Wars with $460.998. But in the 1960s, our best decade for female-driven films, the highest grosser was Sound of Music with $158.671.
So you can see how the blockbuster, namely Jaws and Star Wars really changed things in Hollywood, and really changed things for women.
But, cut to 2012 and a peculiar thing has happened. So far, the box office is suddenly once again dominated by female-driven films. Sure, you still have the Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers as the top two, but The Hunger Games, led by Jennifer Lawrence (with no obligatory sex scenes or nudity) came in at number 3 so far and made $400 million.
Then you have Pixar’s first movie with a female heroine, Brave, which made a whopping $235 million. At number 11 you have Snow White and the Huntsman, which made $155 million.
The impact of these successes should not be overlooked nor diminished. This is huge. What it’s impact, ultimately, on the Oscar race is still yet untold. But last year’s box office success of The Help pushed it into the Best Picture race. Still to come this year, Zero Dark Thirty is a film with a strong female central character, and Les Mis is one, arguably, though I have to see it first. Other than that, this year’s Oscar lineup looks to be, once again, male centric.
Let’s look at the cross data:
*denotes top box office of the decade
bold if it won Best Picture
#denotes top of the box office that year
1960s Best Picture contenders that were either centered on a strong female lead or else co-starred one
West Side Story*
My Fair Lady*
The Sound of Music*
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Bonnie and Clyde*
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner*
The Lion in Winter
Romeo and Juliet
Anne of a Thousand Days
Nicholas and Alexandra
The Last Picture Show (debatable)
Cries and Whispers
A Touch of Class
The Goodbye Girl#
The Turning Point
An Ummarried Woman
Kramer vs. Kramer#
Coal Miner’s Daughter#
On Golden Pond*
Terms of Endearment*
The Big Chill#
A Passage to India
Places in the Heart
—-NOTED – Barbra Streisand’s Yentl was one of the top grossers of the year, directing by and starring a woman. Not nominated for Best Picture.
Out of Africa#
The Color Purple*
Children of a Lesser God
Hannah and Her Sisters#
A Room with a View
The Accidental Tourist
Driving Miss Daisy*
Silence of the Lambs#
Beauty and the Beast*
The Prince of Tides #
The Remains of the Day
Sense and Sensibility
The English Patient#
Secrets & Lies
As Good as it Gets#
Shakesepare in Love#
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon#
In the Bedroom
Lost in Translation
Million Dollar Baby#
Little Miss Sunshine#
The Blind Side*
The Kids Are All Right
What you can take away from this is the following:
1. Female driven films used to drive the box office, and those films, in turn, often showed up in the Best Picture race.
2. After the rise of the blockbuster, female-driven films that did well at the box office did not cross over into Oscar because the better, more respectable roles were in smaller, independent films. That means movies like Bridesmaids or The First Wives Club or any of the films that draw a healthy box office tend to be too genre-y for the Academy, not Best Picture material.
3. As the number of nominations increased from 5 to 10, more films made by women, about women managed to get into the Best Picture race. Now that they’ve increased it to an unspecified number of films, the jury is out as to what that will ultimately do to films that aren’t big box office successes but are awards-worthy.
Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart’s brand of heroine alters what we’ve seen over the last few decades where women are concerned. Most of the time, female charaters need to be defined against a male figure, the person on whom the story turns. The Graduate is a good example of this. Benjamin is the lead but it still has two strong female characters. The English Patient is about Ralph Fiennes but it is also about Juliet Binoche and Kristen Scott-Thomas but they are still females framed around males, though their characters are essential and strong. Binoche’s role is somewhat debatable. She is probably the lead and one could argue the plot turns on her. But what makes Stewart in Snow White and Lawrence in Hunger Games is that their character arcs do not depend on the male figure, even if there is a love interest. Conversely, Stewart’s work in Twilight is exactly the opposite; she is nothing without the man in her life.
To that end, neither The Hunger Games, nor Snow White, nor Twilight will get anywhere near the Oscar race. But this year has proved that women can dominate the box-office charts just as well as men and that might eventually result in real change. Moreover, these success help these actresses who then turn to smaller movies like Silver Linings Playbook for Jennifer Lawrence and On the Road for Kristen Stewart.
To my mind, both of these actresses deserve major props this year and perhaps an Oscar nomination is the way to honor them.