Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
With only a couple days left in 2011, it’s time for reflection. It’s been a rocky road for women in Hollywood this year. There have been some big box-office steps forward, and some rather painful steps back. What follows are ten notable moments (five hits and five misses) that not only framed 2011, but are sure to impact how Hollywood evolves in the next few years. Read on, and as always, be sure to add your own choices in the comments.
Brit Marling Makes Waves at Sundance
In one chilly week in January of 2011, newcomer Brit Marling re-framed how the public sees youthful female talent. She hit Sundance with two films – Sound of My Voice and Another Earth – not only as the blonde-haired, blue-eyed star, but also as the writer and producer of both films. It immediately reframed the idea of breakout female star as more than just a woman with acting talents, but one who is a powerhouse in front of and behind the camera. And just to make it sweeter, her characters were atypical: in the former, she played a cult leader from the future, and in the latter, an aspiring scientist.
In her short career, Marling has accomplished what many actresses have failed to over decades. She’s worked as a second-unit DOP on Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man; she wrote, shot, and edited the documentary Boxers and Ballerinas; she’s appearing in new films by Robert Redford and Nicholas Jarecki; and she’s already working on her next actress/writer/producer triple-punch, The East.
Kirsten Dunst in ‘Melancholia’
Kirsten Dunst started her career beautifully, playing Claudia in Interview with the Vampire. Tasked with playing an old, cunning vampire trapped in a child’s body, the preteen brought such poise, maturity, and talent to her first major film role that further success seemed inevitable. What followed, unfortunately, was a mixture of highs (Virgin Suicides), shlock (Dick), lows (Elizabethtown), and fanatic disappointment (Spider-Man).
Then she teamed up with Lars von Trier for Melancholia. The odd choice couldn’t have been more perfect for Dunst, and for her career. Her portrayal of the depression-plagued Justine immediately wiped away any memory of her professional misses. In her hands, Justine was able to easily embody all manner of moods from the lightly mirthful, to the darkly catatonic, to the strangely (and inspiringly) poised and strong.
Dee Rees’ ‘Pariah’
Dee Rees’ feature directorial debut (based on her 2007 short) wasn’t a mainstream whirlwind. It didn’t beat the box office, and the filmmaker and her team had to have a fundraising campaign to get the film ready for Sundance. But Pariah became the silent, balancing, African-American force of 2011. As masses oohed, ahhed, and argued over the aged viewpoint of The Help and Tyler Perry continued to be the most recognized (and problematic) black filmmaker, Pariah gave all film fans – regardless of race – a wonderful film to get behind.
What really stands out in Rees’ coming-of-age drama is how well it merges minority experiences into an easily relatable whole. The story of a black, gay Brooklyn teen didn’t fall down the Finding Forrester rabbit hole. It didn’t seem like an alien Madea being that much of the masses can’t understand. Alike is simply a gay girl in Brooklyn trying to come to terms with her identity, and what she experiences is no different than any other teen experience full of parental expectations, student turmoil, and desires to leave the nest.
Melissa Rosenberg Becomes the Highest-Grossing Female Screenwriter
With just five scripts, four of which were from the same series (The Twilight Saga), and all within a 5-year span, Melissa Rosenberg became the highest-grossing female screenwriter this fall when The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One raked in over $650 million. With a worldwide box office boasting more than $2.5 billion, Rosenberg de-throned Linda Woolverton, whose films had earned an impressive total of almost $2.4 billion.
Where Woolverton took 20 years, Rosenberg took a fraction of that. Granted, it’s all due to the rabid fanbase of one series, but that’s just like the top male screenwriter Steve Kloves, who earned almost $7 billion for the whirlwind known as Harry Potter. Rosenberg’s success might inspire you to unleash the anti-Twilight rants many hold in their front pockets, or deny her achievement based on the source material, but this isn’t a question of story, just money. Keep in mind: Mr. Image-Trumps-Story Cameron has the second-place spot with over $6 billion, and he’s far from God’s gift to screenwriting.
‘Bridesmaids’ Becomes Judd Apatow’s Biggest Money-Maker
For some reason, Hollywood has been convinced that women aren’t funny. No business and comedic domination by Lucille Ball, no perfect Madeline Khan comedy, nor any of Tina Fey’s writerly and starring efforts have convinced the mainstream machine that women are not only funny, but that they can dominate and command the big screen. Some of the Hollywood elite have even been known to think that female box office success is a fluke.
Yet right on the heels of Sex and the City success, Bridesmaids became Judd Apatow’s most successful comedy. The sweetness of this success was not really the box office take – but that this film trumped everything in Judd Apatow’s producer/director wheelhouse. The man responsible for the most successful comedic output in recent years saw a female ensemble piece soar beyond each and every one of his past efforts. Time, however, will tell if Hollywood has gotten the message yet, or if they’ll just continue to think the funniest women are cross-dressing men desperate for cheap laughs (Tyler Perry, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, or James Franco at the Oscars).
THR Forgets Female Directors Exist
It hasn’t been a good year for women in the awards circuit. Stellar films like Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin have been all but ignored, as have Abi Morgan’s double screenwriting efforts with Shame and The Iron Lady. But no gaffe is more disappointing than Stephen Galloway’s mediation of THR’s 2011 Director’s Roundtable.
Failing to include any female filmmakers was bad enough, but then Galloway decided to up the ante by marginalizing the achievements and films that female directors have made. It’s really too bad that not one of the men was willing to call the moderator on his just-plain-wrong commentary, or the ridiculousness of blowing off talents like Lynne Ramsay as “indie” while he sat next to Steve McQueen and Mike Mills.
To make the whole thing worse, THR then whipped up commentary about women in the industry without their involvement in femme-free discussions. Instead of being a timely inclusion, the whole idea reeked of affirmative action or marginalizing women into a neat, separate but so very not equal minority box.
Patty Jenkins is Fired from ‘Thor 2’
It was Brave all over again this December when Patty Jenkins was fired from Thor 2, killing the excitement that a woman was finally getting to get her fan on for a mainstream superhero movie. In a statement, the director has said the split was on “very good terms” (most likely to not blacklist her future work), but the creative differences seemed to pop up rather quickly; only days before Marvel sent her packing, she was chatting with THR about the project.
Star Natalie Portman is also reportedly pissed about the turn of events, having strongly pushed for Jenkins’ involvement from the beginning. The entire affair is a whirlwind of anonymous sources ranging from Jenkins’ vision making the studio uncomfortable, to Marvel blaming her and calling her “indecisive.”
Sarah Jessica Parker
The new millennium brought a new Sarah Jessica Parker, one poised to dominate the female entertainment landscape, ushering in new manifestations of female success. She staved off career decline by starring as Carrie Bradshaw in the Sex and the City television series, and her character ushered in a new generation of successful females. Carrie was trendy, but professionally successful, man-crazy, but with a supportive network of female friends. She was in charge of her sexuality and embraced alternative lifestyles.
But that Carrie died the minute the Sex and the City movie premiered. By the time the sequel hit, the group of ladies we knew and loved had become money-hungry, bling-obsessed caricatures of their former selves. Adding insult to injury, she followed up her newly framed Carrie with two of 2011’s most embarrassing films: I Don’t Know How She Does It, where a woman struggled with love, work, and children with the help of a nanny and loving husband, and New Year’s Eve, the Garry Marshall cinematic landscape where talented actresses go to die. With every questionable film she does, it leads one to wonder if every bit of progressiveness in SatC’s early days is nothing more than coincidence.
It sounded great, at first. Zack Snyder wanted to make a film of female asskickers – one that would not only feature a group of tough women, but also speak against misogynist jerks, pimps, and other oppressive men. The result, however, was anything but empowering; anything but enlightened.
Snyder’s Sucker Punch was a parade of revealing clothing and problematic, vacant messages wearing the wolf’s clothing of sexual empowerment. His heroines are women of failure – failing themselves, their friends and family, their patients, their dragon children. Snyder not only rips apart any and all female connections, but also layers his tale with repeatedly problematic imagery, nothing quite so chilling as the continual image of a young woman going into a dream world when she’s forced to cater to men’s pleasures. Really, it’s an emblem of the movie on a whole, a treatise that speaks more to grinning and bearing oversexualized characterizations of women than any push for empowerment.
Fincher and Mara Say Lisbeth Salander Isn’t Feminist
Last week I laid out why David Fincher and Rooney Mara’s take on Lisbeth Salander was a problematic re-framing of Stieg Larsson’s iconic character. But that was nothing compared to the opinions boiling underneath. While doing press for the film, the filmmaker told Charlie Rose that the story didn’t have a “real feminist tract to it all,” and Mara not only insisted that Salander wasn’t a feminist, but that feminism was a “subculture” and her character isn’t “fighting for any feminist cause.”
We’re all familiar with Hollywood’s tendency to gather things up, boil them down to their most basic and obvious essence, make it sexy and sleek, and spit it back out, but there’s something especially chilling about Fincher and Mara trying to defuse Lisbeth (and creator Stieg Larsson’s) feminist power. Quite simply, this is the story of a woman (as written by a male feminist) fighting against misogyny, against male oppression and domination, against any notion that she is not equal, and that’s the definition of feminist. She most certainly is “an advocate” for “social, political, legal, and economic rights” that are “equal to those of men.” Lisbeth Salander is moved out of apathy and into action by the opportunity to hunt down men who hate, marginalize, and murder women. She continually fights to maintain her own sense of agency, struggling to gain her legal and economic rights.
Naturally Mara couldn’t get Salander quite right if she thinks female equality is a subculture, if she doesn’t recognize that equality and agency are feminist causes, and Fincher can’t really understand the power of the story if he doesn’t recognize that the text is oozing Larsson’s feminist mindset.
Nothing misses the mark in 2011 more than the director and star of a feminist film rejecting its inherent feminism and reducing the quest for equality to a subculture cause.
Thanks to everyone for coming to Movies.com and continuing to follow Girls on Film. Tweet at me any comments/suggestions you have for, or about, the column, and see you in the New Year! In the meantime, I leave you with a few column highlights from 2011:
Faux Feminism in ‘Sucker Punch’
Why ‘The Help’ Controversy Matters
‘Friends with Benefits’ and a Sea of Postmodern Pastiche
Softening and Sexualizing Lisbeth Salander