This has been a banner year for women at the box office – Hunger Games ($361 million, #2 for the whole year so far), Gravity ($253 million), two starring Melissa McCarthy made it into the top twenty (The Heat—$159 million and Identity Thief—$139 million), and Frozen ($170 million) — but all of them, with the exception of Frozen, were directed by men. There are also a few key films about women that are on the fringes of the Best Picture race: Saving Mr. Banks and August: Osage County, both excellent films, both also directed by men.
Not that anyone should complain about films about women doing so well just because they were directed by men. But it begs the question as to why women aren’t given those jobs. The answer to that is bankability. Women directors have not often proven bring in the big bucks with the exception of Kathryn Bigelow, whose Zero Dark Thirty made bank, swept the critics and was headed squarely for the Oscar race when shit happened.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how that consensus is built; the majority of critics and bloggers on the beat are male, with a scant few exceptions here or there. All this means is that our consensus, ultimately, is shaped not by opposing points of view but by those in general agreement. The one major female critic at the New York Times is Manohla Dargis, whose taste — other than her brief protestation towards Blue is the Warmest Colour — is so ambiguous you’d never know she was a woman if you didn’t know she was a woman. That is the highest achievement for any critic — or writer, filmmaker, artist, etc. You don’t want anyone to define you by your sex, especially if you’re a woman, because you will be immediately written off.
But in so doing, a powerful lobbying voice is missing from the Oscar race. The obligation to stand up for women is then left up to those who choose to be put into that category of annoying nag or harpie. Melissa Silverstein, over at Women in Hollywood, is a saint for doing it day in and day out. Most of us women on the beat have to play in the sandbox with the big boys — we can’t let our sex color our impressions of films or on the Oscar race because our opinions, our voices, our validity will be marginalized into that area of activist, not critic, not journalist. And so many of us choose our words carefully — we let it rest because this is the way things are.
Take, for example, the way the films that focused on women this year have fallen away. Two strong films about strong women started out the year with much promise. August: Osage County and Saving Mr. Banks. Like Zero Dark Thirty, Saving Mr. Banks is dwelling in the hysteria zone right about now. August: Osage County is being selected out probably because fans of the stage play are still butt hurt over a minor alteration of the film’s ending. So let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater. August: Osage County is not only one of the best films of the year — best written, best acted — but it’s also one of the few that is entirely about the inner lives of its strong female characters. No one is taking up this film as the best of the year, and no one is touching Banks, at least not the critics. The consensus forming, as usual, around stories of great and flawed men.
August: Osage County is that rare female ensemble piece that is actually good. It isn’t even wholly about the men in these women’s lives, although that is part of it. The primary subject of the film is a family — more to the point, a dysfunctional family — that has carried on the tradition of cruelty through the generations and how one character, played by Julia Roberts, tries to break the pattern. It features many bravura performances by both men and women but let’s face it, the women own the film. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are magnificent as mother and daughter who are too much alike for their own good. Streep has outdone herself here, not just in the scenes where she’s meant to be cruel — where she takes down each member of her family with a few well selected words — but in a flashback retelling of a childhood memory. How she tells that story, where she takes you before she delivers the punchline, is what acting is all about.
August: Osage County is written by Tracy Letts, a male perspective on his own family. If, like me, you’ve never seen the play, you’re likely to be mesmerized by the writing. If you’ve seen the play you’re likely to nitpick the movie. That’s unfortunate for those of us who love the movie because it has meant that the movie has been excluded from the Oscar race for Best Picture, at least it looks that way. Strike one against the women.
Saving Mr. Banks is admittedly a story told from Disney’s point of view while P.L. Travers is made out to be a bit of a harpy — if only she’d loosen up and enjoy life a little we could have a little Mary Poppins. I’m sure a different, much darker movie could be made that told the real story of P.L. Travers, one that delves into her ambiguous sexuality, for instance, and makes a good case that her sticking to her guns about the adaptation was the right and noble thing to do. But this isn’t that movie. This is a movie movie, meant to entertain, meant to make you laugh. People who could have given two shits about P.L. Travers now hold her up as some of kind of artistic, exploited martyr for the cause of writers everywhere.
It’s a fantasy, this film, with several great performances. It takes you right into the heart of what Disney is all about. Can’t we live in a world where this movie exists and so does the truth and they don’t necessarily have to coincide? It’s a movie, after all. And an enjoyable one at that. Or are we so worried that people are too ignorant to look at Wikipedia to discover an alternative to the truth the movie provides? I don’t know about you but I don’t need movies to teach me history. I don’t need them to point my moral compass in the right direction. I don’t need them to do the thinking for me — I prefer to do that on my own. But movies are more than welcome to entertain, move, enlighten, enthrall. Saving Mr. Banks did that.
People just have too much time on their hands since the Obama election and Occupy Wall Street. Trust me, in a year no one will remember the brouhaha about this film, just as no one remembers Zero Dark Thirty’s or Lincoln’s from last year. Smoke and mirrors, my friends.
And so we are once again facing a consensus that has selected out several of the stories of women so that only one remains: Gravity. Philomena seems to be making a strong rally as ballots are in hand.
Many of the films vying for Best Picture have very strong female characters in them — June Squibb in Nebraska steals the show. Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle gives maybe her best performance to date. Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis, Margot Robie in Wolf of Wall Street, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye and Sarah Paulson are all fantastic in 12 Years a Slave, the internet’s idea of the perfect woman was embodied by Scarlett Johansson in Her but Amy Adams and Rooney Mara also provide interesting supporting characters.
They are all supporting characters who support the male characters through their inward journeys. This is something absent from August: Osage County and Saving Mr. Banks, where the subject of the film is what happens to the female characters.
Much has changed in Hollywood — a lot of that has to do with how film criticism itself has changed. Fanboys turned movie bloggers turned critics are a male-dominated genre. How we relate to movies often is defined by whether we see ourselves in them or not, whether we can relate to them or not.
Could this be why things have changed? The demographics in the Academy have only gotten more favorable towards women and minorities. The gatekeepers — critics, bloggers, industry voters are the ones who cull the herd before the Academy even gets to them. Some might simply say, well, the best movies every year are about and made by men. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t.
One thing I do know is that If I were teaching women graduates in film that would be the first thing I would tell female filmmakers is to stop making “relationship movies.” Men can and do make relationship movies. Women never should. Of course, most production companies are going to trust women in that genre. But the simple fact is that relationship movies, by and large, only appeal to a key demographic and that demographic helps a little with box office but it usually doesn’t do much for awards attention.
The awards race is a man’s world. The only way to break in is to make movies that are universal enough for that demographic to dive in. There was mild support this year for Frances Ha (which should have been DIRECTED by Greta Gerwig, in addition to being co-written by), and most notably Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. Neither of these were about relationships — they were about self-discovery and that is something everyone can relate to.
The problem with relationship movies is that they tend to favor the female point of view. Relationship movies by men tend to work better for the broader audiences because they are from the male’s point of view, clearly. Women and men sit on opposing sides. Women tend to want Mr. Perfect to come along and rescue them. Men tend to chase after the manic pixie dream girls and want to rescue them. I’m aware these are ridiculously broad statements I’m making here. There are always going to be exceptions to the rules. But does anyone honestly think if Blue is the Warmest Color had been directed by a woman it would have been as popular with the critics? That male point of view is key to the success of that film because those writing about film are almost exclusively men. Therefore, films that express a female’s point of view are forever going to be marginalized, as they were this year.
However, just telling universal stories isn’t necessarily going to earn the praise of the critics. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring wasn’t about relationships — in fact, it depicted a realistic portrait of young women scammers — women who have bought the line sold to them by the TMZ drenched culture that what they see the celebrities doing on television really is the good life. The Bling Ring was DOA in Cannes. Stick a fork in it. It deserved so much more attention, not just because a woman directed it, but because it is every bit an indictment of our culture as Wolf of Wall Street is. And yet, somehow it was dismissed and never revived.
Critics preferred and latched onto Spring Breakers, which made a joke of that culture while also satisfying a sweet tooth by showing very young women strutting around in bikinis. Lake Bell’s In a World seemed to get the same kind of reaction many films by women get — a polite smile and pat one the back. But there is no awe, there is no enthusiasm, there certainly isn’t a quirky win at any of the critics groups.
There are female filmmakers who put the shock and awe in the critics without any struggle – Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola (much of the time), Claire Denis, Clio Bernard’s whose film, The Selfish Giant, has earned much praise (just somehow not quiet enough). These directors, I believe, have managed to tell stories that don’t just appeal to the singular demographic of other women. They tell universal stories — often even male-centric stories. In other words, if you can’t bring Mohammad to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammad. If women are capable of giving birth, by god, they are capable of making kick-ass films that test the boundaries of what is expected of them. Nicole Holofcener is a wonderful writer/director but all too often her films have been dismissed because people see them as “relationship movies.” They’re great relationship movies, probably the best ever by any female filmmaker, but look — Bigelow and Holofcener both came out of Columbia. They took two different paths. One has won Best Picture and Director and the other is maybe looking at a first original screenplay win.
The same way Manohla Dargis and Anne Thompson have trained themselves to not use their gender in forming their opinions in regard to film or the Oscar race, so many women directors stop defining themselves by their sex. They can be more than just “woman filmmakers.” They can be just plain filmmakers. Of course, this sounds like blaming the victim. It sounds like it’s the fault of women and minorities that their movies are ignored. The answer is obvious. It’s about the demographics of critics, bloggers, ticket buyers and awards voters. Do the math.
Watching films about women, even when they’re directed by men, be routinely ignored — with the two exceptions so far being Gravity and Philomena, the great Philomena — is an annual exercise in frustration. I don’t feel comfortable settling on the generality that men must just really resent successful women — or that men are bored by stories of women — or that men can’t watch a woman in a movie unless he can fantasize about fucking her. Those are too easy and some would say insulting. And yet, the numbers don’t lie. What then must we do?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a revolution.