Women As People in Film (Part II)

Grace Kelly

This is “Part II,” which is the sequel to “Part I.”

Historical Point

Speaking of actresses, why don’t I give you my Top 10. Katharine HepburnGrace KellyAudrey HepburnElizabeth TaylorBette DavisCate BlanchettMeryl StreepEmma ThompsonMyrna Loy, and Jodie Foster.  When we’re talking “all-time”, you’re bound to have a large number of dead folks on the list, but the competition wasn’t really close.  That says something.

The irony, or is it paradox, is that in an age of institutionalized sexism, the great films of the age were about strong, independent women.  Even Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, not the epitome of independence, performed with a self-assuredness in their characters that made them more than objects.

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is both smokin’ hot and a person.  Is that Taylor or is that Tennessee Williams?  I don’t know, but I have no pangs watching that movie, but I burn with rage when I see Natalie Portman undress to mole-skin underwear in the trailer for the dumbest comedy of the year.  Maybe it’s a phase, but 2011 put her on notice.  We will not accept one of our greatest talents to slum it.

There will always be dreck.  The kind of junk that appeals to knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers and their female counterparts is profitable and easy to make.  The nature of time is that what is good remains available more readily than what was bad.  Further, the taboos were such that sexual relationships could hardly be described.  That limits the field of subject matter.

My sister came up with an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of.  What distinguishes America in the 40’s from America thereafter?  World War II, obviously, and its considerable lack of gentleman callers during and slightly after the war.  That has the ring of truth to it.  Some of my favorites listed above came out in the 30’s and shined through the 40’s and 50’s.

Myrna Loy

From then until now, we’ve had very few figures or films of that caliber.  There are exceptions, absolutely.  However, I have seen 65 of the 255 Best Actress nominated performances from 1960, many of those years seeing none of them, while I’ve seen 131 of the Best Actor nominated performances since 1960, with very very few years where I’d seen none.  That suggests that movies with acclaimed female performances are twice as out of the mainstream as acclaimed male performances (or else I’d have seen them).  That’s tenuous logic, but I think it holds up.

It’s hard to make the historical point stick with respect to action movies.  You’ve got The African Queen (1951), I suppose, but that’s hardly an action movie.  I think the best you can say is there are only a few true action heroines before the 1980’s.  Even so, looking over lists, there’s something quite different in the way Hitchcock dealt with his females in the movies (however he treated them in reality) than Michael Bay has.

Good Signs

There’s something happening here.  What it is ain’t exactly cl–Stop that!  Sorry.  But honestly, I think we might be at the beginning of something and Natalie Portman in 2011 may be a sign.  To be so disappointed in an actress’s choices–and I believe that disappointment to be wide-spread–tells us something about the tastes of viewers with respect to women.

If Portman is in a movie, then by God, it better be a decent movie.  It’s not unlike our response to Robert De Niro movies that have been consistently disappointing for the last dozen or so years.  The expectations, then, are higher for certain actresses.  There’s a desire there–the desire for good movies with good acting from everyone involved.

There are also a number of movies that have come out that look like we’re going in the right direction.  Their chronological proximity leads me to believe that we’ve reached a tipping point.  Confirmation bias, anyone?  Examples:

Mean Girls (2004), Juno (2007), Easy A (2010), How Do You Know (2010), Bridesmaids (2011), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Just Go with It (2011), Young Adult (2011), Haywire (2012), The Hunger Games (2012) and–forgive me–Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).  Most of these has a believable female who, while preoccupied with men, have lives that suck enough that they’re actually figuring out their place in the world rather than assuming it’s next to that guy, the one, the only.

Easy A, which I saw again just recently, is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.  It isn’t a dream movie, but there’s a compromise of sorts.  The character in the movie, Olive (Emma Stone), says the following

Whatever happened to chivalry? Does it only exist in 80’s movies? I want John Cusack holding a boombox outside my window. I wanna ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. I want Jake from Sixteen Candles waiting outside the church for me. I want Judd Nelson thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me. Just once I want my life to be like an 80’s movie, preferably one with a really awesome musical number for no apparent reason. But no, no, John Hughes did not direct my life.

I’m probably going to come back to this quotation again (and again), but for now I’ll limit myself to what it says about the movie itself.  On first glance, it’s just another man-obsessed female character wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’–Dusty throwing you ladies under the patriarchal bus, there–but then gets a reprieve in the last sentence.  John Hughes didn’t direct because you live a real life, not a movie.

Instead, Olive dreams about the fantasy, but lives in the world where getting asked out would be real nice, but wit and humor are always there to laugh the pain away.  If you’re on the same page as I am, then her waiting to get asked out is an annoying acceptance of imagined inferiority–no alliteration intended–but the film is still about humans, so cake-eating-and-having remains the premise.

The quotation is paradoxical for my purposes as Olive wishes for the 80’s which I would put near the bottom of my favorite film decades.  Perhaps Olive would rethink her wishes in light of the fact that she’d never get her movie made in the 80’s.  She may think she’s Molly Ringwald, but she’ll find she has far more female friends than Molly ever had.

Another upcoming movie in this vein that I’m rather excited about is Brave (2012)–link to trailer.  It’s like an Irish Mulan (1998), but a billion times better.

Tomorrow I’ll get into what I think the causes of the phenomena (and their retreat) may be.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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6 Responses to Women As People in Film (Part II)

  1. Angela says:

    You are hitting your stride with this type of post! Keep going!

  2. Will Li says:

    Your last sentence, about Brave, raises a question: to what extent do Disney’s films, particularly the ones that make up their pantheon of “Princess” films (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Aladdin, Pocahontas – surprisingly no Alice in Wonderland) deserve a role in this conversation? I think by creating a “franchise” as they did, Disney did something rather poor here.

    But if we’re including animated films, especially Pixar films, I think this issue becomes more complex. Pixar especially has shown signs of being able to write good characters, male and female, which has led to some good female roles – Jessie the Cowgirl from Toy Story, Collete from Ratatouille and EVE from Wall-E come to mind. I have very high expectations for their first foray with a leading female character in Brave.

    • Absolutely. I didn’t touch on any of those in the next two parts. I’m inclined to rationalize them out in some way, but I shouldn’t. These are the formative films for (I imagine) most Americans. They’re typically self-assured women either looking for or finding a prince. But not Alice, like you said, who is really just a child and could be male or female.

      The Pixar thing is also an excellent point. The Incredibles is a great, well-rounded movie and that’s Disney/Pixar.

      But comics and literature are pretty much way ahead of movies when it comes to strong females and I wonder if animated films, perhaps paradoxically, fit better into this tradition.

      As to Pixar, my question is whether animation is somehow different or it has come along at a time when a larger movement was happening around them.

      The answer will be in the video games.

  3. Pingback: Women As People in Film (Part III) | Prof. Ratigan

  4. Pingback: Women As People in Film (Part IV) | Prof. Ratigan

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