Imagine as we enter Oscar race 2013 three strong films written and directed by women, with leading women at the forefront, one of which is crowned the early frontrunner to win. Imagine an Oscar race where it didn’t matter anymore. Maybe it’s the same year Kathryn Bigelow, Angelina Jolie and Jane Campion all have Oscar frontrunners. Even though it’s 2013, 86 years after the Oscars began, it seems an impossibility. There are too many obstacles. Most dramas, hell, most films, revolve around a central male character. Even the film that won the first and only woman Best Director and Best Picture was all about men in war. When was the last time a film with a central female character won Best Picture? 2002’s Chicago, over a decade ago.
Although most people are irritated by this conversation, it is a conversation that must be had, given that women represent over half the population. There are so many of us women, in fact, that it is odd we’re still called a minority. To understand why it’s always about the central male figure in the Oscar race, and in Hollywood in general right now (it wasn’t always the case) we need to examine a twofold problem. On the one hand, the majority of industry filmmakers and voters are male — especially within the Academy across the board in most branches, with the possible exception of the Screen Actors Guild. Ticket buyers often tend to be male because movies of all kinds target the male mentality. The other problem is that somewhere along the line women began buying tickets to the few crappy movies aimed at them because there weren’t any other better movies to choose from. Thus, the rom-com genre devolved from being pretty great in the 1970s, 80s and even 90s, into what it is now: regurgitated rescue porn.
Once women stopped being an important demographic for the “important” films they lost much of their power to drive Hollywood film decision-making, I think. Just look at what kind of impact Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart have had at the box office. Both of them have proved they can draw large numbers of female moviegoers and both have been given opportunities to do more than just be a superhero in a tentpole production. Here’s to hoping both of them recognize they have power and use that power wisely.
Twenty years ago the box office and the Oscars were both driven by films that starred women, films about women. Imagine the year when Sally Field won for Places in the Heart — two other movies about women in peril were made that year – The River with Sissy Spacek and Country with Jessica Lange. Each of these were strong women holding together families and farms. Can you imagine those movies being made now? Can you imagine even Thelma and Louise being made now?
Let’s take it one step further, can you imagine the female President of the United States? The Hillary Clinton campaign is just a rumor right now. No one knows if she will run in 2016 but her supporters are rallying the troops.
Harvey Weinstein says this year — with the success of The Butler, Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave — has much to do with The Obama Effect. Is it just a coincidence that we’re living through Obama’s second term and are seeing African American and black filmmakers in the Oscar race like never before?
I am not sure the Obama effect has opened doors for black filmmakers now. But it’s hard to make a case that it hasn’t. Before Obama was leading the race for the presidency most people I knew thought there was no way a black man could ever be elected in a still-very-racist country. Hell, publishers won’t even put black actors on the covers of their magazines with any regularity. The lack of diversity at the Emmys illustrates how prime time television remains a mostly white domain. A black president in America? 10 years ago it was unimaginable. Now it’s a reality.
It once seemed as if Kathryn Bigelow’s win for The Hurt Locker in 2010 meant that doors had been kicked down in one fell swoop, that there would be a Bigelow effect. But there really wasn’t. The only slight movement has been that a few more actresses have decided to try their hand at directing. Angelina Jolie, Sarah Polley, and now, Cate Blanchett are all directing now. Perhaps making films at all is the first step but remember, filmmakers have to run the gauntlet before they ever get to Oscar.
The gauntlet is this: impress mostly white, mostly male bloggers and critics. Then, earn enough at the box office to matter. This is secondary these days but can sometimes mean the difference between utter obscurity and prominence. Then, enjoy the myth-making that comes with worshiping various film directors. You can always tell who has the cred and who doesn’t. Steve McQueen has the cred. Lee Daniels doesn’t. The cool kids rally around McQueen and they doll out snide tweets and comments against Daniels. But The Butler has more going for it than the support of the cool kids — box office and major star power. Hell, practically everyone in SAG is in it.
What female directors have the cool kids cred? Well, it helps to be pretty. Sarah Polley, Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola fit easily into the cool kids myth-making. Jane Campion is one of the best filmmakers in the world and yet she’s never really given the kind of lift-off her male contemporaries have.
This year, Jason Reitman has Labor Day, which is sweetly told from a female perspective. There is Saving Mr. Banks, about the woman who wrote Mary Poppins. There is Cate Blanchett as Blue Jasmine. Maybe there’s Enough Said. Maybe there’s Before Midnight. Maybe there’s August: Osage County (Meryl Streep is practically single-handedly keeping films about women of a certain age alive and well at the box office), and then there’s that utterly rare creature, Gravity.
Interestingly, there is already a wave of grumbling from the usual suspects online that Sandra Bullock’s part in Gravity is a “woman’s journey,” as if that in itself is considered a liability. A woman’s journey is right up there with Eat Pray Love — which means it’s somehow tied in with Oprah which means that anything tied in with Oprah is somehow suspect. Don’t be fooled by this mindless chatter. It is textbook misogyny. Oprah happens to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world. She got there by working hard every day of her life and what does she get for that? She has to suffer the scorn of Jonathan Franzen’s superiority complex and an endless stream of disrespect coming from everyone else. The mere thought that she might win an Oscar for The Butler has white males marinating in misery.
So what would it mean if a woman became president? Even if it wouldn’t necessarily mean more female writer/directors, could it possibly mean that more stories about woman would become interesting, or (gasp) cool again? Last year’s Oscar race had only two stories about women: Zero Dark Thirty and Beasts of the Southern Wild (about a young girl).
Going back ten years we can see there are far more films that feature stories about women than there are stories about any people of color. Even still, you’re really looking at a 90% vs. 10% share here.
Zero Dark Thirty , Beasts of the Southern Wild
Winter’s Bone , The Kids are All Right, Black Swan
The Blind Side , An Education , Precious
2008 1/5: The Reader
2007 1/5: Juno
2006 2/5: Little Miss Sunshine , The Queen
2005 1/5: None but maybe Crash
Million Dollar Baby
2003 1/5: Lost in Translation
While many of these characters are heroic, only a few of them are on Hillary Clinton’s level. That sort of power is more comfortably given over to their male counterparts, at least where the Best Picture race is concerned. The Queen and Zero Dark Thirty are two notable exceptions. Otherwise, they aren’t exactly powerful women being portrayed because these films necessarily reflect the culture. But what might happen if the power dynamic shifts even a little bit?
If an impossibility like that were to occur, what kind of impact would it have on the film industry, if any? No one would have guessed the Obama effect might materialize. It’s quite possible these same films would still be made. But what can’t be denied is the kind of old scabs Obama’s presidency has picked — racism is a hot topic again, in government, on Twitter and in pop culture. Why else would Lee Daniels have been inspired and enabled to make what is the best movie on the Civil Rights era to date?
The days of Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field and Ellen Burstyn ruling the box office and Hollywood are over. In their place are much younger women who seem to get younger every year, their roles more spare. Sandra Bullock talked about this during the press conference for Gravity. She said she noticed something significant had changed since her career began. She looked around and she concluded that movies with women in the lead simply weren’t being made anymore. It was a terrifying epiphany.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what might happen if this country went through yet another transformative election. Will Hollywood execs start to look around and realize that their films aren’t reflecting reality anymore? Will women become more empowered and thus speak up more often when all they’re served at the dinner table is fantasy porn? Will that empowerment cause more resistance, as Obama’s presidency has? Will writers and directors start inventing strong women in cinema again? Will critics find a cool enough female filmmaker to build a myth around — or to see it from their perspective, will women start to make movies that are deserving of their approval?
I don’t know what Hillary Clinton’s presence as a world leader would do to change the minds of the five white guys in suits who run the Hollywood studios. 2016 is three years away with nothing but empty spaces that need to be filled everywhere you look. The American people voted Obama in. Twice. Hollywood had to catch up. But that won’t stop me from imagining what a woman in the White House might do, if, for no other reason, it would give some hope to the young girls growing up who until now have only known the bleak landscape of role models Hollywood offers up.