Hilary Swank's latest film, Amelia, is currently taking quite a critical drubbing, bad news for the film, and, as Ann Hornaday explores in today's Washington Post, for the increasingly small pool of strong female roles for women in Hollywood.
Hornaday argues that Amelia's box office results will essentially be a failure either way: "If 'Amelia' earns respectable receipts," Hornaday writes, "chances are it will be dismissed as a lucky break. If it fails, it will be cited as yet more proof that strong female protagonists are box office poison."
That's right, to have a strong heroine, not only does she have to be old and dead...
From the NY Times:
For actresses, it is no longer enough to be young and beautiful onscreen, they have to be dead and famous, too — one of history’s immortals. Filmmakers have long resurrected the dearly and notably departed with actors and actresses who flatter their memories, of course, partly because Academy members like to reward other success stories. Last year, Marion Cotillard warbled her way to the awards podium for her turn as Édith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” Since 2000, six of the best actress awards were for biographical performances, most of dead women. This year, Julia Child, Coco Chanel, Queen Victoria, Keats’s great love, Fanny Brawne, and now Amelia Earhart are all making a run for it.
You can’t blame filmmakers (or actresses) for raiding crypts. It’s rarely been more difficult to be a woman in the movies than now, particularly in the United States, where for the past few decades most blockbusters and microbudgeted D.I.Y. enterprises have been overwhelmingly male. Last year, only one movie about a woman — “Twilight,” the vampire romance about a living teenager and her undead but supercute boyfriend — squeezed into the ranks of the Top 10 grossing titles, a chart dominated by superheroes and male cartoon characters. Another two female-centric stories climbed into the Top 20. That sounds shocking except that only three such stories made it to the Top 20 in each of the previous two years.
...if you want to watch a movie about a powerful, interesting, difficult, believable, remotely recognizable woman these days she should certainly be famous and probably dead... Female stories have become so marginalized on American movie screens, we should be grateful filmmakers are raiding the history books.
... but even if the film is successful it will be dismissed as a fluke.
From the Washington Post:
It is symptomatic of a production emphasis away from dramas in general:
Swank -- who also executive produced "Amelia" -- was optimistic. "I think things ebb and flow, and someone out there who crunches numbers probably affects that," she said regarding studios' reluctance to make films about strong women ("Amelia" was produced and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, a subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox). "Then I think art has to override it, and the numbers people say, 'Oh right, that works.' It comes in and out."
Strong women, for now anyway, are out. Two years ago, when the Jodie Foster vigilante thriller "The Brave One" failed at the box office, industry blogger Nikki Finke reported that a Warner Brothers production executive announced to staffers that the studio would no longer produce movies featuring female leads. This past summer, actress and writer Nia Vardalos blogged on the Huffington Post that when she was pitching a project to a studio executive, he asked that she change the female lead to a man. Why? Because "women don't go to movies," he told her. "When I pointed out the box office successes of 'Sex and The City,' 'Mamma Mia!,' and 'Obsessed,' he called them 'flukes,' " she wrote.
"Dramas are dead," says producer Lynda Obst ("Contact," "The Invention of Lying"). "Some of the greatest parts for women -- the Academy Award parts for women -- are often in dramas, and this is the worst time for dramas since I've been in the business for the last 10,000 years." More than ever, Obst adds, the movie business is geared toward the young men who go to movies most frequently. "And by and large that's a comedy audience and an action audience. To get a project greenlit now, studios are requiring more and more what we call 'unaided awareness,' which is where you get this addiction to toys and comics and old titles. And dramas don't live there."
... One reason why we see fewer strong female leads these days is a changing business model, notes Silverstein. In the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s -- years when stars like Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Sally Field and Goldie Hawn were making movies in a diverse number of genres -- studios were not, as they are now, subsidiaries of multi-corporations, responsible for contributing to quarterly bottom lines. With economic pressures greater than ever, studios are looking for movies that are guaranteed to make $100 million their first weekend out. The result: More Paul Blarts, fewer Erin Brockoviches.
The upshot, Obst says, is that "it's easier for male executives to get jobs now, because they want to develop male-oriented material. Girls don't grow up reading comic books or playing video games, or with Transformer or G.I. Joe toys. So the material they're looking for isn't necessarily as familiar to female executives who read books, which is becoming practically a liability. That's a real problem. That's how it becomes systemic."
I worry that the dialogue about the greater issue of women as an underserved market is that EVERY SINGLE MOVIE that stars a women becomes the life or death of women in the entertainment industry.
I'm glad Amelia is prompting people to write about these issues, I obviously think they're important ones, but one bad video game movie (let's say Doom) didn't stop people from making video game movies, one low-grossing action movie starring Nick Cage (let's say Bangkok Dangerous) isn't going to stop Nick Cage making movies, or people from making action movies.
Let's take a step back from the cliff, not all movies starring strong female characters will be great, nor will all movies staring strong female characters will be ludicrously successful. Let's stop acting as though an individual failure, or even one film's success is the end all and be all of women in Hollywood. In the words of Amelia Earhart herself:
"Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others. "
So regardless of the whether not Amelia succeeds at the box office, male executives are getting better opportunities in the studio system, or what stories feature female characters or their quality; there is only one mentality that will ever get women into Hollywood, and female characters the same screen time as male counterparts...
"The most effective way to do it, is to do it."