Women in Film: Some thoughts about Maureen Dowd’s article

4 Dec

In a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine article on women directors in Hollywood (“Waiting for the Green Light,” November 22, 2015), Maureen Dowd discusses the difficulties women directors have in getting hired by the major studios and manages to interview an impressive range of women film and TV industry personnel, including directors, writers, producers, show runners and studio executives. It covers quite a bit of ground and should be read by anyone interested in the state of the industry today. Here’s the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/magazine/the-women-of-hollywood-speak-out.html

I had questions about some of the assumptions made in the article, but my intention is not to dispute them but to simply examine them from a different perspective.

First off, in the course of the article, Dowd refers to a study that had some alarming statistics:

Female directors are in what ‘‘Girls’’ creator Lena Dunham calls ‘‘a dark loop.’’ If they don’t have experience, they can’t get hired, and if they can’t get hired, they can’t get experience. ‘‘Without the benefit of Google,’’ [Leslye] Headland said, ‘‘ask anybody to name more than five female filmmakers that have made more than three films. It’s shockingly hard.’’

The problem is so glaring that in 2005, the actress Geena Davis, who would go on to start her own gender institute, commissioned Stacy Smith, a researcher at the University of Southern California, to study the issue and help push the studios beyond Dude World. From 2007 through 2014, according to Smith’s research, women made up only 30.2 percent of speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films.

But the most wildly lopsided numbers have to do with who is behind the lens. In both 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9 percent of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films. Excluding their art-house divisions, the six major studios released only three movies last year with a female director. It’s hard to believe the number could drop to zero, but the statistics suggest female directors are slipping backward.

What jumps out at me here is that the study used the “100 top-grossing fictional films” as a benchmark and I’m not entirely sure that, ultimately, that’s how we should be judging these issues. Given that films have a long life outside of their initial boxoffice runs—on cable, streaming, home video, television, etc.—they can reach a significant number of audience members whether they’re in the top 100 or not. Also, how many serious film buffs and students of film limit their movie-watching to the top 100 grossers of the year? If you check the New York film critics’ end-of-year ten-best lists every December you’ll see a remarkable number of films that few people outside of New York have even heard of, let alone seen. I live in New York, yet I’ve never heard of half the films on these lists. I might have read or glanced at their reviews when they came out, but, for some reason or other, they just didn’t register. Even the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences routinely ignore the top-grossing films when they pick their nominees for various Oscar categories. The Academy has, in fact, grown increasingly concerned as their five annual Best Picture nominees veered further and further from popular tastes in the course of the 21st century. Realizing how much this was costing them viewers for the annual Oscar telecast, they sought to remedy this disconnect from the boxoffice by announcing, in 2009, that they would increase the number of Best Picture nominees to as many as ten, in order for popular favorites to make the list, thus enabling the nomination of films like AVATAR, INCEPTION and GRAVITY (pictured below). On my own lists of films seen in any given year, there are usually very few that make the top-grossing 100. How many people who write about films on a regular basis restrict their musings to the top 100? I’m sure there are quite a few, but they’re the least curious and I probably don’t read them.

Also, much of the article seems premised on the notion that women directors want to be offered the opportunity to direct Hollywood blockbusters, including superhero films and James Bond movies. There’s even a quote from one Leslye Headland:

Leslye Headland is a 34-year-old writer and director who was in the same 2012 Sundance class as [Colin] Trevorrow [director of JURASSIC WORLD], with the movie version of her scorching Off Broadway play, ‘‘Bachelorette.’’ She bristles with ambition to do everything he is doing. Sitting in a red leather banquette at the Monkey Bar in New York, Headland told me she wants to be a Martin Scorsese, and ‘‘not just the female Martin Scorsese.’’ She wants to direct a James Bond movie, ‘‘even if I have to marry someone to get British citizenship.’’ She wants to make films in which women behave badly and are not held to a higher moral standard or seen as ‘‘less than.’’ She wants to look cool in magazine pictures so that ‘‘little girls will put female filmmakers on their Pinterest boards.’’

Given that I’ve never seen any of Headland’s work, I can’t judge whether she even has the talent to be “a Martin Scorsese,” although it seems pretty obvious that in all these years there’s been only one Martin Scorsese and if there’d been anyone—male or female—with the talent, drive, hunger and ferocity to “be” him, we’d have known it by now. But the main question that quote raises for me is whether Scorsese himself ever wanted to direct a James Bond movie or a superhero movie, for that matter. I certainly hope not. (I feel bad enough that he wanted to direct Leonardo DiCaprio movies!) Granted, major directors today are perfectly satisfied directing Bond movies and superhero movies, as evidenced by the fact that Sam Mendes, an Academy Award winner for AMERICAN BEAUTY, has directed the last two James Bond movies, and the fact that Christopher Nolan, one of the more acclaimed directors working today, directed three hugely successful Batman movies. So I guess I can’t blame women directors for wanting to make such movies, even if I kind of wish they’d set their sights a little higher. (I’m not a fan of recent superhero franchises nor have I truly liked a Bond film since 1989.) And I doubt I’ll ever be convinced that Mendes and Nolan belong in the same class as Scorsese, but that’s another story.

Another quote sets the sights even more narrowly:

Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm, told me: ‘‘Until I waved the flag at the Fortune women’s conference recently, I had not had one single phone call from a woman telling me that she really, really wants to direct a ‘Star Wars’ movie. They need to be the ones picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, let me tell you what ‘Star Wars’ means to me and how much I could do with it.’ ’’

Again, as someone who’s vowed never to see anything STAR WARS-related ever again, I don’t have much sympathy with that goal, which seems very limited to me. Of course, in Kathleen Kennedy’s world, it’s all-consuming, since that’s her job. I just hope that most women directors don’t make it the be-all and end-all of their careers to make a STAR WARS, James Bond or superhero movie, just as I hope the same of any male director, Hollywood or foreign, whose work I like. Although, frankly, I’d make an exception if either Quentin Tarantino or John Woo wanted to direct a Bond movie.

Indie director Leigh Janiak, also quoted in the article, asks the question in a different way, which makes a little more sense, to me at least:

Fixing the gender problem in Hollywood is important for women like Janiak. But it’s also important for women and girls everywhere. ‘‘We are influencing culture, which is why it’s so dangerous, I think, not to have more women making movies,’’ she said. ‘‘Why can’t I direct ‘Superman’?’’

Since Superman, and Lois Lane, for that matter, are much more ingrained in my cultural DNA than STAR WARS, I can relate a little more. And, no, I wouldn’t want Tarantino or Woo making a Superman movie. I don’t mind auteurs taking a whack at Bond, but Superman is more sacrosanct.

Still, I must say that my favorite comic book movie of the 21st century was directed by a woman: PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, directed by Lexi Alexander, a former World Karate and Kickboxing Champion from Germany. It had a stylized grittiness that recalled Walter Hill’s THE WARRIORS; two formidable villains, Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim, played by Dominic West and Doug Hutchison, who acted up a storm and dominated the proceedings; and it was filled with the kind of dark humor I enjoy in films like this. Also, it wasn’t a big-budget film and didn’t rely on CGI for much of its action. Sadly, it didn’t do well at the boxoffice and Ms. Alexander has done only one straight-to-video feature since. If she’d made something more crowd-pleasing, she would have gotten more jobs, but the film would have been less interesting and I wouldn’t be writing about it now.

In any event, one good thing about women directors clamoring to direct blockbusters is that there sure are a lot of them! I counted 63 women in the cover photos accompanying Ms. Dowd’s article, seen at the top of this entry. (Okay, so they’re not all directors—some are actresses, writers, producers, show runners, etc.—but there are still a lot of them.) That’s a far cry from the 1950s and ’60s, when there was just one woman director working in Hollywood—former film star Ida Lupino. So, simply by odds alone, a number are going to break out of the pack. But, the fact remains that many women directors make independent movies which don’t break the top 100 for any number of reasons and not every independent director—male or female–is necessarily interested in major studio careers. Nor should they be.

The other statistic given in that quote involved the presence of female characters in films:

women made up only 30.2 percent of speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films.”

I’m quite certain that most film buffs with any deep and abiding curiosity about world cinema see films with a much higher percentage than that. If you spend any time watching independent or foreign films, chances are you’re regularly seeing films that not only have a high number of female characters, but often feature central female protagonists. I went through the list of films I’ve seen in theaters this year—Hollywood, foreign, indie, and documentary–and picked out only those in which the central protagonist was female and I counted eleven out of 33 films. If there was a significant male co-star, I left those films out unless the action revolved entirely around the female protagonist (e.g. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD).

Carey Mulligan in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

Here are the titles, in the order in which I saw them:

WELCOME TO ME

THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (Japan)

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (U.K.)

INSIDE OUT

THE PERFECT GUY

COMING HOME (Taiwan-China-Hong Kong-France)

DANCIN’ IT’S ON

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT

THE ASSASSIN (China)

CAROL

Two of them were directed by women:

WELCOME TO ME:

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT

One of the films is Japanese, one is English, and two are Chinese. Two are animated. Two are documentaries. Five are indies. I daresay only one was a major studio Hollywood film (INSIDE OUT) and it was the least satisfying. THE PERFECT GUY was released by Sony, but it might have been an indie pickup and its budget was only $12 million.

Four of these films are on my five-best-of-the-year list so far:

WELCOME TO ME

THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE

CAROL

(The fifth would be the Jackie Chan historical epic, DRAGON BLADE. I haven’t seen enough other good ones to make up a ten-best list yet.)

I left out all five films I saw in the Japan Society series in March that showcased the wartime films of Shirley Yamaguchi and Setsuko Hara, because some of those films had significant male co-stars who may have had an equal role in the proceedings and I don’t recall them well enough to distinguish which ones, but it’s certainly possible that one or more of these films belong on my list: CHINA NIGHTS, THE NEW EARTH, SONG OF THE WHITE ORCHID, BELL OF SAYON, and TOWARD THE DECISIVE BATTLE IN THE SKY. (Ms. Hara died on Sept. 5 at the age of 95, but her death wasn’t announced to the public until November 25. Ms. Yamaguchi died a year earlier, in September 2014.)

The many faces of Setsuko Hara on display in the Japan Society series

I get an even longer list of films with central female protagonists when I go through all the films I saw on TV and home video so far this year. Again, I left out films with significant male co-stars (e.g. RANDOM HARVEST with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson and SARATOGA TRUNK with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper) unless the female protagonist dominated the action (e.g. THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, with Gene Tierney as Mrs. Muir). The list came to 50 films, spanning the 81-year period from 1932 to 2013, with 16 each from the U.S. and Japan, 14 from Hong Kong and/or Taiwan, and four from Europe. 18 were action films, including five westerns and eleven Asian martial arts films. Fifteen had the female character in the title, either by name or description. First, here are those fifteen, listed alphabetically. Those from foreign countries are indicated. Links are provided to those I’ve reviewed on IMDB and those I’ve covered here:

…AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (1956/France)

AZUMI (2003/Japan)

BELLE STARR (1941):

THE EMPRESS DOWAGER (1975/Hong Kong)

FAIRY, GHOST, VIXEN (1965/Hong Kong)

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

THE GORGEOUS HUSSY (1936):

IRON ANGELS (1987/Hong Kong)

JANE EYRE (1943)

JANKEN MUSUME (1955/Japan)

JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR (1933/Japan)

JENNIFER’S BODY (2009)

KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (aka THE LAST PRINCESS OF MANCHURIA, 1990/Hong Kong):

THE LADY CONSTABLES (1978/Taiwan)

LADY KARATE (1976/Taiwan)

THE WOMAN AVENGER (1980/Hong Kong-Taiwan)

WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (1953):

And here are the rest:

BLACK SWAN (2010)

THE CAVALIER (1978/Taiwan)

THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

EARLY SUMMER (1951/Japan)

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (1967/U.K.)

THE FURIES (1950):

GRAVITY (2013)

IMPERIAL SWORD (1977/Taiwan)

IN THE LINE OF DUTY 2 (1985/Hong Kong)

THE INHERITANCE (1962/Japan)

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002/Japan)

KURONEKO (1968/Japan)

LATE AUTUMN (1960/Japan, with Setsuko Hara):

THE LIVING SKELETON (1968/Japan)

THE MAGIC CRANE (1993/Hong Kong)

NORTHWEST STAMPEDE (1948):

ON WINGS OF LOVE (1957/Japan)

ORNAMENTAL HAIRPIN (1941/Japan)

PEKING OPERA BLUES (1986/Hong Kong):

PULSE (2001/Japan)

PULSE (2006/U.S. remake)

REBIRTH OF MOTHRA (1996/Japan)

ROUGE (1987/Hong Kong)

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013):

THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (1951)

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)

SILENT MOBIUS (1991/Japan)

 

SILENT MOBIUS 2 (1992/Japan)

SO CLOSE (2002/Hong Kong)

TOO MANY GIRLS (1940)

WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD (1932)

WITHOUT PITY (1948/Italy):

WIZARD OF DARKNESS (1995/Japan)

As you can see, there’s a pretty wide range of female characters represented, probably wider than you get in the top 100 grossing films at the U.S. boxoffice today, although that might not have been true of such a list in the 1930s and ’40s. However, only two films from this list had credited female directors: IRON ANGELS (co-director Teresa Woo) and JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama).

I watch a lot of kung fu films and westerns, yet even in these male-dominated genres, I saw quite a few with female protagonists.

So, I guess my point is that one can see tons of worthwhile films with female protagonists if you just expand your viewing horizons beyond the multiplex.

This other quote from Dowd’s piece raised another issue close to my heart:

When my older brother took me to the American Film Institute to see old movies with Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ida Lupino — the first actor to write, produce and direct her own films — my imagination was fired by smart, powerful women. Carole Lombard made me dream of being funny and glamorous.

‘‘I’ve gotten into watching old movies on TCM,’’ Jennifer Lee, co-director of ‘‘Frozen,’’ told me. ‘‘And what kills me is the female characters are fantastic, complicated, messy, and they aren’t oversexualized, and I love them.’’ Actresses were second-class citizens then too, but at least they had juicy parts. The dictatorial and crass Hollywood moguls actually cared about art. They would take all the literary best sellers, throw starlets into them and make prestige movies.

I would love to see medium-budget dramas and melodramas of the type that once starred Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck and Lupino. It’s always pained me that no one was making movies quite like that in the 1980s and ’90s with the likes of Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Sigourney Weaver, or black actresses like Angela Bassett. If only the makers of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA had modeled it on a Crawford or Davis drama and slanted it more in the direction of Streep’s character and made Anne Hathaway’s character much less sympathetic, a la Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in ALL ABOUT EVE.

This year’s CAROL, with the formidable duo of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, is a high-toned period melodrama that gets this kind of thing right, but with a provocative spin that would never have made it past censors in the 1950s.

And if you look at the current TV show, “Empire,” with Taraji P. Henson doing her own take on the kind of thing Stanwyck did 70 and 80 years ago, you can understand why the show appeals to older viewers who remember the classic melodramas as TV staples from our youth. In a recent episode, the best parts involved Henson and, in the role of her sister, Vivica A. Fox, two mature ladies, dripping-with-attitude, who prowl the streets of Philadelphia living out old rivalries while searching for a wayward sister who’s had a drug relapse. The men in the episode were all involved in backroom media business deals that just bored viewers silly. Give us more Henson and Fox. One of the reasons I went to see THE PERFECT GUY, was that it promised to be an old-school melodrama with a predominantly black cast. I didn’t mind it being cheap and trashy, I just wish the script had been a little more imaginative, particularly the telegraphed ending. But the three lead actors, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy, and Morris Chestnut, all played it dead serious and gave it some gravitas that a similarly-themed Lifetime Movie might not have had. Why can’t black actors make more movies like this?

While we’re at it, now seems a good time to push once again for a Hollywood remake of the Hong Kong masterpiece, SO CLOSE (2002), with Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence in the roles of the two high-tech sisters played by Shu Qi and Vicki Zhao Wei, and Rooney Mara as the determined and persistent police detective played by Karen Mok.

(L-R: Shu Qi, Zhao Wei, Song Seung Hun, Karen Mok)

And why not have a woman direct it? I wouldn’t expect the American remake to have the intricate action scenes that distinguished the original, but would prefer it to be more of a cat-and-mouse thriller dominated by strong characters.

Of course, all these proposed films would likely need Hollywood studio backing and as long as Hollywood studio heads are resistant to women leads and women-dominated movies, they’re unlikely to provide it. So we’re back to the original problem outlined in the article. Maybe if more blockbusters were directed by women, there would be less resistance. Just what Dowd’s interview subjects were implying all along.

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