In her new column on the Oscar race for Women and Hollywood at Indiewire, Susan Wloszczyna celebrates the longevity of Sandra Bullock’s career arc. When you look at where she started and now, where she’s landed with Gravity you can’t help but marvel at the ways she’s redefining not only her career but the potential trajectory for actresses over 40 in Hollywood.
Last year’s Zero Dark Thirty made $95 million, and eventually took the number one spot at the box office when it opened wide and was headed straight for the Oscar race before it was hit with controversy. But to understand the kind of tiny revolution happening here one must set aside that controversy for the moment and look only at the success of that film. Let’s also forget it was directed by a woman because that, too, is beside the point.
What is to the point with Zero Dark Thirty is that a film with a woman in the lead, making the decisions, having the whole plot turn around her character is the kind of thing Hollywood has to be talked into. Maybe it seemed like a one-off last year. You could say that the subject matter — killing Bin Laden — was enough to drive the box office. But either way, the facts are the facts: a film with a woman in the lead who wasn’t naked, having sex, someone’s mother, wife or girlfriend was kicking ass and taking names.
Cut to 2013. Here comes another film with a female in the lead — not naked, not having sex, not someone’s mother, wife or girlfriend headlining the film. Not only that, but Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity turns on her inner world. It isn’t just that she’s the one saving herself — it’s that she’s also allowed to be a woman in the part; she doesn’t have to suck it all up and deal, or act like a man. She cries! Her tears float forward in stunning 3D so vividly they might splash on your own face. She’s very much a woman’s woman in Gravity — she’s a mother, but that’s a part of her life she’s long since had to give up on. She even maybe sees herself as helpless until the very moment she realizes she isn’t. The subject itself — gravity — is very much a woman’s worst enemy in a way, always dragging down parts of our bodies. And yet, here it is, the best thing imaginable to Dr. Ryan Stone who is out there in space, completely alone.
In Short Term 12, somehow Daniel Deston Cretton decided to write a whole film about a female character. Listen, it used to happen all of the time. Somehow, right around the mid-90s, films driven by female characters stopped doing well with critics and at the box office. Before you knew it it was a “thing.” Now, the majority of films revolve around a central male character. Sure, you have your Hunger Games and Twilight franchises, which are all women really have left that is any kind of power grab. But Short Term 12 harkens back to a time when women were actually people, when they actually mattered to audiences so that the five white guys in suits that run Hollywood would feel it beneficial to greenlight films about them.
In Short Term 12, the brilliant Brie Larson heads up a foster home where most of the kids are aging out. She mentors another young teen girl and mostly holds the place together even while she’s falling apart. Sure, these movies do get made now and again — but most of the time they are stuffed into the ghetto of “indie film.” Middle of Nowhere was a film about a woman — a black woman — and it was like pulling teeth getting anyone to see it, to write about it, to vote on it for any awards. As it happened, Ava DuVernay had a great year and is now a voting member of the Academy, a formidable force who seems to care about the future of film.
This is a distinctly American phenomenon. Here, actresses get younger and younger every year. Our biggest and most powerful star is Jennifer Lawrence, all of 22 years old. But actresses 25 and up now have to fight for the very few good roles that come out every year for women and here, actresses have to be beautiful and sexy on top of that. If you go to the Cannes film festival and see what other filmmakers are doing all over the world you will see women viewed very differently.
No one knows for sure what caused the shift. But now it is time for the five white guys in suits who run Hollywood to take a good long look at Gravity — Sandra Bullock opened that film at number one, with $55 million. It isn’t a romantic comedy, nor a rescue fantasy, nor a pulpy cinematic lapdance. It’s a solid drama, starring — gasp — a woman.
Jessica Chastain had two number one movies last year — Zero Dark Thirty and Mama. These examples disprove the notion that movies starring women don’t open, don’t make money or aren’t awards bait. They can be. They are. Originally, the studio that had Gravity wanted a man to star in it, not a woman. But Cuaron stuck to the idea that it had to star a woman and look! It was actually successful! Imagine that.
So people will say, oh, it only did well because it was an effects-driven film with rave reviews. And they’ll also say George Clooney was one of the bigger draws as well. But none of that matters. All that matters is that Sandra Bullock opened the fucker. She opened it. At almost 50 years old.
It’s also time to talk about Meryl Streep’s continual success at the box office. That is also counter to the myth that movies about (older) women don’t do well, or that audiences won’t come out to see them. August: Osage County is going to make money. Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson, is going to make money.
Perhaps we are entering a new era with fresh minds. How can anyone now say Gravity would have been better cast with a man? It’s 2013 – we’re maybe on the brink of having a woman president for the first time ever. How can the films being made still reinforce the notion that only a guy can do it? Just a thought.