Girls on Film: The Iron Curtain of the 2011 Awards Season

Girls on Film: The Iron Curtain of the 2011 Awards Season

Dec 01, 2011

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.


Shame still

People like to talk about the glass ceiling, but this year, there might as well be an iron curtain obscuring 2011’s talented female filmmakers. Last week I discussed why discourse matters, and it’s no more apparent than the awards season that’s just starting to come to a simmer.

It all started in November when The Hollywood Reporter kicked off their annual awards roundtables, where the who’s who of 2011 directors, screenwriters, actresses, and actors (only the first three published thus far) sit down for an informal discussion of their craft. Per usual, the directorial and screenwriting roundtables were completely filled with male voices, but this year it went a lot farther than just an uneven and poorly representative collection of top talent.

Sites like Melissa Silverstein’s Women and Hollywood quickly noted the turn of events when Stephen Galloway, THR’s “executive editor, features,” decided to finally discuss women and minorities in Hollywood at the one-hour mark in a one hour, seven minute roundtable. Superficially, it sounds great – Galloway was bringing up a valid discussion of women! Rock on! And then he dug a hole.


Galloway: “You’re all men. Only one of you, Steve, is a minority. Why is that?”

Steve McQueen: “I must be in America! Jesus Christ.”

Galloway: “Why? I mean, why is there so few women directors?”

McQueen: “Why aren’t they all black men?”

Mike Mills: “Yeah, why are there no women here?”

*chatter*

Galloway: “Name one woman director who’s made a major film this year.”

Names given: Miranda July [offered by Mills, her husband], Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold

Galloway: “Okay, but you’re talking about small, independent films that have been very little seen in America.”

McQueen raises his eyebrows, Mills shrugs.

Galloway: “And you’re also talking about three or four people out of hundreds of films made each year. Why.”


Normally, I’d say that it was unfortunate that McQueen then turned it to race before these highly respected directors could respond to the issue, but perhaps it was for the best. Galloway obviously doesn’t want a real answer, because instead of waiting for the men to discuss it, he’s on a mission to prove that they practically don’t exist.

Ridiculous Point #1: Unlike the men present, July, Ramsay, Arnold are filmmakers for “small, independent films” no one has seen.

Steve McQueen and Jason Reitman were part of the roundtable, for two films that haven’t been released yet, so no one has seen them (Shame, Young Adult).  McQueen’s low-budget offering, however, has been reviewed extensively through festivals and has the lowest Tomato rating of the group at 80%. Furthermore, as much as I respect and admire Mike Mills’ work, in the context of this debate, he was included for Beginners, a film that cost $3.2 million and made less than $6 million domestically. His film received an 84% rating. That’s two directors with films in the low 80s, one of which is very low budget and was pretty ignored until awards season came about and the film popped up on a number of lists. Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, is starting a limited run in December, and it’s already amassed $3,700,000 in the foreign box office alone. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, meanwhile, has a solid 81% fresh rating amongst critics.

Ridiculous Point #2: There are only 3-4 female directors in the hundreds of films made each year.

Just using some of the more recognizable names, 2011’s slate included Jennifer Yuh, Catherine Hardwicke, Lone Scherfig, Jodie Foster, Vera Farmiga, Madonna, Larysa Kondracki, and Angelina Jolie whose debut arrives in December. And let’s not forget festival sensation Dee Rees, Phyllida Lloyd’s upcoming The Iron Lady, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, and the rest of the yet-to-be-released films by women in the festival circuit (if Arnold’s makes it into discussion, they’re fair game), like Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria, Lynne Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, Mary Harron’s The Moth Diaries, Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids, and Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz.

Higher Ground still

One would imagine that researching for the awards season would mean that you’d be aware of these names, and not have the audacity to downplay their numbers and their achievements as “too indie” when you’ve sitting next to two male indie filmmakers. Galloway becomes passively defensive, giving his own ignorant rationale after asking the question instead of letting his interviewees speak. It seems more like he’s asking while hoping for a defense of the male system, or because he was pressured to ask and thinks it’s irrelevant, rather than truthfully seeming interested in what these directors have to say about the underrepresented.

Not that they would say a word, anyway. After Mills asked why they were no women there, Bennett Miller I believe, said: “I think you [THR] did the invite,” but otherwise, Galloway looked into a half-circle of generally uncomfortable men, one of which even said: “I’m not stepping into that.” And generally, the male filmmakers in Hollywood don’t want to speak about it, to question the system that helps them out so much even though they’re the ones who have the power to enact real change. These men have strong opinions about everything else, and then look like scared schoolchildren when a very timely question is brought to the table.

Galloway’s underlying interviewer bias continues into the actress roundtable with Glenn Close, Charlize Theron, Octavia Spencer, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis, and Carey Mulligan. I wish I could compare it to the questions he asks the male actors, whenever that gets published, but chances are that it will look nothing like this:

THE FULL-ON NUDITY: DID IT MAKE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE? WHAT IS YOUR MOST UNCOMFORTABLE PERFORMANCE AS AN ACTRESS? DO YOU WORRY THAT PEOPLE MIGHT NOT FIND YOU SYMPATHETIC? DO YOU HAVE TO HAVE SOME [NASTY QUALITIES] TO PLAY [A NASTY PERSON]? WHAT IF YOU PLAYED HITLER? WOULD THERE BE A DANGER IN MAKING HIM SEEM LIKE SOMEONE YOU CAN EMPATHIZE WITH? WHAT SCARES YOU? DO YOU HAVE STAGE FRIGHT? *ANECDOTE ABOUT SHERRY LANSING ONCE STALKING SOMEONE SHE LIKED* ARE YOU COMFORTABLE AS A STAR? HOW HAS IT CHANGED YOUR LIFE?

Some you can begin to imagine popping up in a male-dominated discussion, but overall, Galloway’s questions continue to hit upon a traditional mindset – social comforts, nudity, sympatheticness, fear, etc. Over and over he tries to bare vulnerabilities rather than strengths. It’s a testament to the intelligence of each actress that she makes the most of these juvenile questions and infuses them with the information that Galloway isn’t willing to ask, and definitely isn’t interested asking follow-up questions about.


 Viola Davis, The Help“I don’t like sympathy. I like empathy … I don’t want to be a victim … to have people feel sorry.”

“We are all trying to be human. … Not neat little packaged boxes.”

“People are so concerned that if you look at a monster, you might find a human being.”

“Vanity has no place in what we do.”

On feeling discomfort looking at monitor between takes: Is it “the male gaze? Do we feel this responsibility to be likeable, nice, attractive? The way things are set up, that I’m not really allowed to get past that kind of superficial concern?”

Desire to play “a person, not a prop.”


From here, we move onto the screenwriters. A full video seems to be missing from the site, but once again – it’s a man’s domain. Discussing writers is a little different than the film overall, but when your roster includes Dustin Lance Black for J. Edgar (41% fresh), Oren Moverman for Rampart (76% fresh), and Pedro Almodovar for The Skin I Live In (79%), there’s certainly enough room to add a little humor with Kristen Wiig for her work on Bridesmaids, and if a super-successful comedy is too unseemly, Lynne Ramsay’s Kevin is built off her quite intricate script. No? Okay then. Brit Marling, a completely new female scribe and star who wrote two films at Sundance this year, one of which is Another Earth. No? Then Abi Morgan. She co-wrote both Shame and The Iron Lady, and if Carey Mulligan and Steve McQueen are both involved, there is no reason for her to not be there. I hate to pit film against film, but there’s simply no reason for failing to involve women when they’re work is just as successful, if not more so, than the men present.  

I’d be inclined to think that a woman would have to be better than Citizen Kane to get noticed by THR, but having thought it, I’m sure it will become reality and THR will still keep their head in the clouds.

Normally I also hate to comment on variables like this with unknowns. Did they ask women? Were they unavailable? (Ramsay was in Los Angeles earlier this month.) If that’s the case, the paper can include women unable to make the discussion. But when Galloway cannot name a single female director, and thinks that less than a handful have made films this year, that screams oversight. Furthermore, they’re dictating relevancy and popularity well before films screen. If you’re going to diminish a female director’s impact based on how many people have seen the film, McQueen, Reitman, and Theron, to name a few, shouldn’t be there.

Lynne RamsaySo now we move to the Independent Spirit nominations for 2012. Best Film, Director, and Screenplay are all men. Brit Marling sneaks in with some nods for Another Earth. Dee Rees gets some recognition for Pariah with a Cassavettes nod. Best International Film includes two UK films, one of which is Shame, and the other is … Tyrannosaur – even though Ramsay’s was better received by critics with much higher praise (“stunning, visceral, magnetic, remarkable, impressive”). (Kevin wasn’t eligible for the other categories due to location.) At the same time, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards came out, and not one woman was present outside of the acting categories. In this case, THR has a leg up as Jessica Chastain was picked over the two performances in The Help that transcended all negative buzz – Davis and Spencer.

Getting crusty and bitchy about the state of things doesn’t help matters, but it’s an inevitable feeling when you actually bother to pay attention to all of this. This column entry isn’t talking about including women no one has heard of and no one is raving about. There are female filmmakers from 2011 who have made killer strides in their fields. They’ve won the box office and critic’s hearts. They’ve created stellar, thought-provoking, and skilled work that cinephiles and everyday movie fiends have appreciated. But if you don’t actively search for it, you’d never know, because as Galloway says:

“You’re talking about three or four people out of hundreds of films made each year.”

The naïve optimist in me can still hope for the awards tide to swing, but the realist says: Fat chance.

Categories: Awards, Features
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