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Chastain, “Roles for Women Have Taken a Step Back”

It’s refreshing to read a quote from an actress working today willing to criticize the kinds of roles offered to women now in Hollywood. Sure, it’s easy to get attention if you put on a bikini or a talk about sex. But women as actual people in film now? RARE. Said Chastain:

When I look at today’s roles, it seems to me sometimes as if we had taken three steps back. Therefore I search for other images of women. I will never be comfortable as an actress.

She’s right. Anyone paying attention would have to notice the dramatic drop in prominent female characters in Hollywood overall, but especially in the genre you’d expect them to still exist – the Oscar genre. They no longer do. Sure, you had 2010 with Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. But 2011? 2012? Once the Academy stopped forcing members to put down ten Best Picture nominees, they went back to filling out only five slots and everyone assumed that would solve “the problem.”

Jessica Chastain

“The problem,” though, wasn’t a lack of diversity, or of interesting female leads, it was “how do we rope in the younger generation who only like super hero movies and sequels?” Driving Miss Daisy and Argo proved that it isn’t always about the director – with Daisy, it was about the actress – Jessica Tandy, and probably the producers, the Zanucks. With Argo it was about the actor/director.

I don’t know who Tiffany was as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence. I don’t know how come so many women I know liked her character and her part. I didn’t. It isn’t as though young women in roles like that have never won the Oscar. They have. But usually there is more to the person. Cher in Moonstruck was the lead performance. The plot turned on her inner world, her choices, her growth. Diane Keaton as Annie Hall, do we even need to go there? Compare those two — just those two — to Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook. Even Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side had more going on.

Lawrence was great in the part. She always is. The Oscar was hers because of her likability in the industry at the moment, her past work, and the overall love for that film – and lest we forget the kick-ass publicity Team TWC. But it should never be mistaken for a strong female lead. Let’s at least agree on that point.

I’m not saying all art should reflect the best sides of us, or paint women, or African Americans, as always good or always positive and strong. But the empty cores of many of the females we see in film reflects back to us, defines us, cuts women in half.

The reason people like Blake Lively, Rachel McAdams, Scarlett Johansson are hot one minute and not the next isn’t because we don’t respect stars like we used to, and it isn’t because there’s a new flavor of the month coming right around the corner (there is). It’s because even the younger actresses don’t have anywhere to go. One lead role in a movie that doesn’t do well and they’re mostly done. So they turn to the genres that are guarantees – wedding movies for women, super hero movies for the target demo. They have nowhere to go because those roles aren’t being written. Evolution has mostly stopped. There are roles for 22 year-olds and it mostly stops there. Very few of them can make it past that point. The jury is still out on whether Lawrence can do that or not.

No one is going to change Hollywood from the inside out. Like always, filmmakers, actors and writers are always just looking for a foot in the door, their little piece of the pie. Whatever makes money, whatever flies, whatever audiences want to see. It is up to the nags and the bigmouths to keep bringing this up.

I notice that my 15 year-old daughter and her generation are up to the task, a lot more than my generation and the ones that emerged under the rise of Fanboy Nation. My daughter and her friends take to Tumblr on a regular basis and speak out against sexism and racism and gender discrimination. They call them “social justice bloggers” and they’re everywhere. They will eventually grow up and I hope their voices remain strong. I believe they are the future and screenwriters, filmmakers and studios would be wise to take note.

Maybe you only care about “good movies” and you don’t care what makes them good. But you see, for people like me, a movie with a poorly written female lead — one that is 1/4 of a person — amounts, mostly, to a bad movie. If it’s deliberate, a choice to reflect the world of the characters – like Glengarry Glen Ross or The Social Network — that’s one thing. Even The Godfather, which is a sausage fest, has richly drawn female characters. If you are good, you don’t give women the short shrift.

Most actresses are too hungry to say anything for fear of losing work. Many don’t even notice nor care. Many don’t want to be a drag so they never say anything for fear of the kinds of comments you’re about to see in 3, 2, 1…and many say nothing because they don’t want to be defined as a “feminist.” But just to say, Chastain noticed. And she apparently cares. Hats off to her.

30 Comments on this Post

  1. From what I read, Chastain’s reps nearly had her miss the opportunity for the ZDT role. They told Megan Ellison and Annapurna that she had a busy schedule (signed up in supporting roles for mainstream, male-driven Oblivion and Iron Man 3). Megan Ellison actually personally called Chastain to tell her about the script and Kathryn Bigelow was directing, that the VF hit piece on Ellison tried to paint as some odd negative against Ellison for overstepping agents or something. Chastain, of course, dropped both roles (Rebecca Hall took her role and is nowhere in the marketing and the lady roles in Oblivion are secondary to Cruise and Freeman). Regardless of how much more money those movies make over ZDT, I think we can say it was the better career decision of her in a lead role in a major prestige movie over continuing supporting roles but this time in franchise movies that unless Joss Whedon is writing for you (I give you ScarJo in Iron Man 2 vs. ScarJo in Avengers) is not giving you much to stretch.

    In general, I yearn to see better female roles out there for the various actresses I like. I don’t necessarily want the Lisbeth Salander kind either. I want original roles. I felt like I appreciated the Maya character for the fact she was not about sex, she was married to her work, and the negative aspect of that reflected more on herself than whether or not guys in the office were pining for her. I don’t feel like we see that many characters like that who are female, but I wish it just happened more if just because in ZDT it was purely incidental that one of the driving forces in that manhunt was female.

    Also, Chastain is currently filming Miss Julie with Liv Ullmann as we speak. So she, not unlike Rachel Weisz, is going back to period set stuff for a good female part from adapted work. She is an actress who does not want to be boxed in and actually made it a point to mention after Tree of Lfe and Take Shelter she was offered the ‘supporting wife’ parts in unnamed projects that she promptly rejected.

  2. She’s such a smart bitch. I like her more and more every time she opens her mouth. And no-one can accuse her of being a whine – she’s had several terrific roles in just a few years, so her perspective is objective.

  3. Sasha, the reality is that the future for actresses is on television/internet/the new media paradigm. The industry is changing. The quality of film put out is decreasing, because there isn’t a lot of money to be made on that front. It’s all about 3D, spectacle, franchise, and tent-poles now. Adult dramas and smart comedies are dying on the big screen. Do we have to accept it? No. But, if you can’t even recognize a recent commercially successful female role (because she wasn’t the lead, she didn’t drive the story, she was promiscuous, or whatever else you want to use to rip it down) as a positive, then I really can’t empathize with your doomsday approach to reality.

    And, Jennifer Lawrence is here to stay. I know you have trouble recognizing this, but she isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    Also please note that four of the Best Picture nominees featured Best Actress nominees.

  4. steve50

    Funny that you mentioned Liv Ullmann. I’ve watched Zero Dark Thirty a couple of times in the past week and I kept thinking how much Chastain reminded me of her. Brilliant, under-the-surface performance that is easily missed with just one viewing.

    Just like they did with Liv Ullmann before, Oscar got it wrong – again – this past year.

  5. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: One of the biggest problems is that when a dating or married couple go to the movies, they either go to the “compromise” choice or the male-centric movie. The men won’t go to the female-centric movie, and the women don’t protest. It’s weird how women have come a long way in asserting themselves in many things, but not this.

  6. I invite everyone to go back to the 1940s, 1950s and watch those movies starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and even Marilyn Monroe. Now those were STARS. They outshone the men. They dominated the screen. I saw the Orig. Mildred Pierce a few days ago, and boy was I knocked out by Joan’s acting. And the character? Ohmygod….can someone name me one modern day female actress who has played a “business owner”? Besides Streep as Childs, I don’t remember seeing a business woman. However, there are stronger roles for women on TV, specifically cable. Isn’t that ironic? It’s no wonder fem actresses are running to cable. It’s more interesting. the characters are deeper and more complex.

    Hollywood writers have ceded to the fan boy. I’ll wait it out until September when the adult movies are released.

    Oh, by the way, if you get a chance, see the movie the Sapphires. What an inspirational movie! About women!

  7. Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in Big Business. Melanie Griffith’s Tess I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin” McGill. Baby Boom.

    But, yeah, I get your point.

  8. If actresses today want consistently meaty material… cable TV is where it’s at. That is where female roles are given the depth they deserve.

  9. I got over Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar win the second she fell up the stairs to accept the awards. Should she have won? No, but she’s a talented actress who was one best things about Silver Linings Playbook (along with Jacki Weaver), and in that context her win makes some sense.

    I firmly believe that any actor, filmmaker, or artist’s legacy will be comprised of work that did or didn’t get the public recognition upon release, but how that work will simmer in the annals of history. Sure, Jessica Chastain and Zero Dark Thirty didn’t have their time in the limelight (or at least not the televised/non-controversial limelight) this year, but their efforts will stand the test of time and be viewed years from now with “what were they thinking?!” level disbelief.

    Compared to most of her peers, Chastain has positioned herself as a consummately professional actress, one more interested in continuing to create fine work rather than purveying tidbits US! Weekly might want to clamp onto. And while I think many of the actresses you cited are of the chew-em-up and spit-em-out ilk, these actresses probably have to stoop to Kardashian-shallow depths in order to placate to a culture that values hot babes over Jane Craig-types (Rachel McAdams’ performance in Red Eye is actually in my top five performances from 2005).

  10. And I thought I couldn’t love her anymore <3
    I'm still waiting for 1996 to happen all over again:

    McDormand (Fargo)
    Watson (Breaking the Waves)
    Scott Thomas (English Patient)
    Blethyn (Secrets and Lies)
    Keaton (Marvin's Room)

    That's the year that I started to become interested in films.

  11. The Help. Bridesmaids. The Hunger Games. Just a few with large, well-written female roles. And all of them were huge hits. So no…it’s bad out there, but it’s not doomsday.

  12. brenda lee

    Jennifer Lawrence is an actress that got lucky. She was mediocre in Silver Linings Playbook. Her laughably bad accent and her horrendous line deliveries were too much for me. What keeps hurting Lawrence is her very visible lack of training, and she has little film experience ( that is why her film presence is not strong ) . I saw this poor girl struggling in SLP. Plus, Jennifer brought no real depth to her role in The Hunger Games.

    Sasha, please , stop pushing Blake Lively. Their is nothing their. Lively is just a vapid female with a severely limited acting style. Sometimes it seems she is struggling to speak her lines.

  13. brenda lee

    I am very surprised about the major drop in Rachel McAdams’ career, because she had great potential ( she still hasn’t recovered ) . She displayed major talent in Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers, Red Eye, and The Notebook. She was definitely on a role with comedic and dramatic roles. But, what has hurt her, are her bad film choices. And, now, McAdams has to deal with too much competition ( Portman, Hathaway, Adams, Stone, Lawrence, Kunis, Rooney Mara, etc.. ) . I read that Rachel screen tested for Silver Linings Playbook, she would have been a much better choice than Jennifer Lawrence. McAdams had good chemistry with Bradley Cooper in The Wedding Crashers, and she has had gift for comedy and drama.

  14. The Help came from a book, The Hunger Games is a YA series and Katniss is a child who in the end settles down, and Bridesmaids underwrote a lot of its female ensemble and still felt the need for Annie to settle down with a guy in the end which is a far cry from the Cukor womens pictures if decades ago that were much more progressive. Original parts for women are in a dry spell. It’s why Lars Von Trier gets all of these major actresses. Regardless of the accusations of misogyny and sadism against his female characters, Lars does write fascinating, complicated women.

  15. The roles are there in theater. The majority of theater-goers, interestingly, are WOMEN! They control the box-office, so my producer friends keep telling me.

    Television has lonnnnnnng been the refuge for talented actresses looking for meaty role with even meatier-money attached. IOW, a career.

    And European films! You can check back on my recent artcile here on the Rendez-vous with French Cinema, which had soooo
    many great roles for actresses that I could barely include them all.

    It’s just the American film business where there’s this unforgiveable dirth.

    Recently I saw a 1920’s silent movie doc on MGM and it’s backstage doings during the silent film era. and as they panned across the lined up directors ~ ALL OF THEM WERE MEN!

    It started out that way and it stays that way. I miss films that are female centric. I vere away from films that aren’t. Can’t relate. Don’t care.

    If there’s a woman at the center of the story, it’s always going to be more emotion-driven, about characters, about people. Not BOYS WITH TOYS, which is what mainly is out there today.

    What to do? Well, Sasha’s doing the right thing. KEEP WRITING ABOUT IT!. And imagine if you’re an African-American woman in this equation! Yikes!

  16. Sure, Jessica Chastain and Zero Dark Thirty didn’t have their time in the limelight
    ^^ I saw ZDT and was shocked at how little depth Chastain’s role was. She just stared at the computer and followed men around from base to base. Nothing there.
    As for Lawrence, she doesn’t impress me as an actress. As an interviewee, yes, she’s great conversation and natural. I’d like to see what she can do with a comedy. “A” real comedy.

  17. I really see nothing wrong with the lack of depth in her personal life (it would have been superfluous to the story) and frankly found her interactions with others and showing her process to show what a real character does in that setting and job. Nobody else in the movie got really in-depth treatment and if anything Boal was walking a thin line in not trying to make one character more heroic or important than the others. There were some people who already declared Maya a problematic lone-wolf when I would say the movie does a good job showing the reasoning why the manhunt had to be done so cautiously when they found the compound. In one sense Maya is incidental to the story whose gender is not a definitive trait as anybody could have been that defining thread and in another sense, yes, her obsession clearly defines her character and you have to acknowledge that facet of her as why she was there the whole time in the story.

    And ‘following men’? In what sense? Kyle Chandler’s character changes his mind about her and starts to listen to her ideas until he unceremoniously exits and Jason Clarke’s Dan asks her to be his sidekick in Langley and she says no, clearly showing a switch in roles from when they first met. One thing to be simplistic in that he character just stares at screens (well duh, she finds a name and needs to look into the importance of that name already in the system) but it is another thing to be pretty dishonest on who the character was.

  18. Oh, Lars, what a magnificent list. I love, love, love Watson in “Breaking The Waves”. That is an amazing role beautifully played.

  19. Bryce Forestieri

    Wait that is the Oscar line-up ain’t it? That’s actually amazing for a category usually devoid of truly great movies. That’s 3 great films (BREAKING THE WAVES, FARGO, SECRETS & LIES) 1 very good movie (MARVIN’S ROOM) and I want those 4 hours of my life back (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) If you want a borefest I’d replace that with a more interesting one like Nicole Kidman (THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY) also better were Lily Taylor (I SHOT ANDY WARHOL), Claire Danes (ROMEO + JULIET), Catherine Deneuve (THIEVES) Kelly Macdonald (TRAINSPOTTING), not lead? Who cares she was great.

  20. I’m as surprised as you are:) Not only did it feature 3 great performances, but yes, they belong to three great movies! I didn’t understand why McDormand won the Oscar (I was a HUGE Emily Watson fan back then), but now that I saw Fargo a few months ago, it’s the best Coen Bros film, a masterpiece fusing great script, acting, and cinematography together (and I bought the DVD right away, for 5 bucks!) Have to rewatch the English Patient and Breaking the Waves when I have free time….

  21. Bryce Forestieri

    Just want to say it’s a gorgeous day in North Carolina but instead of going out, this thread inspired me to re-watch ARMY OF SHADOWS because of Mathilde. Holy shit, talk about a great female role matched by a titanic performance in a masterpiece.

  22. Paddy uses the b-word in non-derisive terms and people still vote the comment down when it is clearly not derisive but supportive of the story.

  23. I dont tend to agree wholeheartedly with Chastain’s sentiment. Each year there are still a dozen fantastic female roles.

    But I do agree that an actresses career can be more vulnerable than an actors. Abbie Cornish is one of my favourite current actresses, and never sucks, but she keeps getting thankless mainstream roles (think Limitless, Seven Psychopaths, even Sucker Punch). Her early Australian performances and Bright Star show a truly talented young actress. Upcoming she has Robocop, which hopefully will give her some exposure, but part of me expects she’ll be given another thankless role. She also has a physicality that some actresses dont have, which has been utilised in some films. I could see her doing a great tough female role.

  24. kailor

    The problem is also that most actresses once they get to a certain point then makes the transition to make films more to just get the easy paycheck rather choose projects that has actual substance (Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, Scarlett Johanson, etc). If you look at the career trajectory of Meryl Streep and think of actresses today that follows a similar trajectory like her actreses that comes to mind are those like Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Amy Adams, Michelle Williams, etc.

  25. kailor

    Look at the choices of Michelle Williams. If you look at the roles she has taken on aside from Oz she really consciously shys from high budgeted films and choosing smaller pictures. If more actresses were smarter about their choices like Michelle Williams perhaps there would be more stronger and varied type of female roles out there in films. At the moment the best female roles are in television and on the stage while film roles for females in film has definitely declined especially compared to roles in the 80s and even 90s.

  26. Robert Schwarz

    I mostly agree with the premise that women’s roles should improve, but lest we go teary eyed over the “poor” actresses mentioned, let us remember that they are ALL multimillionaires.

  27. One of the potential movies supposedly being offerred to Chastain is another version of TARZAN where she’ll be playing Jane….and an example like that right there imo is the problem. We have an entire generation of leading ladies who, in order to work, are continually being offerred parts that ultimately do little for them. Imagine Meryl Streep in the 80s being given no other choices but a constant stream of love interest parts in whatever male driven blockbuster surfaced back then.

  28. Also regarding Sasha’s dislike Tiffany in SLP…I suspect the issue there is that by casting someone with Jen’s looks and age in the part the character ends up looking like a male fantasy however well acted and THAT is a step back. That’s one thing the studio movies of the 70s had going for them in that if SLP had been made back then that role could have been played by the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Sissy Spacek or even Streisand…actresses whose appeal had nothing to do with ‘hotness’.

  29. Only if the guy is a dick, I don’t do that and neither does my father.

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