DESPERATELY SEEKING BIRDWOMAN AND GIRLHOOD
This week’s Oscars exemplified the male domination of Hollywood, an industry where actresses still get lower pay, less meaty roles and fewer big-budget films than actors
By Anna MM Vetticad
“We’re more than just our dresses. We are so happy to be here and talk about the work that we’ve done. It’s hard being a woman in Hollywood, or any industry.” The words came from Oscar 2015’s Best Actress nominee Reese Witherspoon on the red carpet earlier this week as she elaborated on the #askhermore campaign in conversation with a television reporter.
#Askhermore is an online hashtag movement initiated by the US-based non-profit organisation, The Representation Project, which calls out journalists for persistently asking women on red carpets only — or at least primarily — about their gowns, while quizzing the men almost entirely about their work. The demand: ask her more.
Accepting her Best Supporting Actress Award later that evening, Patricia Arquette received a rousing response when she raised another point of inequality. “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she said, as front-row occupants Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez roared their approval.
For Indian viewers, it was important to witness Streep’s reaction. Drawing-room conversations among film buffs across this country about male-dominated Indian film industries inevitably include comments such as, “Look at the kind of roles Hollywood is still offering Meryl Streep.” In reality, this legendary actress has often spoken about gender discrimination in Hollywood. As for the substantial, well-written roles she steps into year after year, one Streep doth not a feminist summer make.
Look no further than this year’s Oscar nominations for proof of how meaty roles and big-budget mainstream films are usually reserved for men in Hollywood. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, seven were male-led stories with women in supporting roles, some significant, some not even that: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma and Whiplash.
Substance attracts awards juries. And so, four of the eight nominated films yielded Best Actor nominations for their heroes. The eighth film was The Theory of Everything, the story of internationally renowned physicist Stephen Hawking’s relationship with his first wife Jane Wilde. Not surprisingly, this high-profile film with its male and female leads standing shoulder to shoulder, got acting nominations for both its hero and heroine.
This is not a new development at the Oscars or other Hollywood awards. The reasons for these trends are twofold. First, the world’s most widely viewed film industry prefers to tell the stories of men or tell universal stories from a male perspective. Second, producers prefer to invest in male-led films.
The myth that women-centric big-budget action, sci-fi or other mass entertainers do not make big money like films in the same genres helmed by male characters has been repeatedly busted over the years. The Angelina Jolie-starrers Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Salt (2010) both earned more than double their mega budgets. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 starring Uma Thurman collected almost six times their combined budget worldwide. In a vastly different genre, The Devil Wears Prada (2006) with Streep raked in $326 million across the globe, which was almost 10 times its budget. (Figures courtesy boxofficemojo.com)
It is not the contention of this column that the male-centric stories being told by Hollywood are not worthy of being told. The point is that across genres, the stories of women too deserve to be told and have the potential to earn equivalent sums as often as male-focused films do, if Hollywood were to tell such stories consistently over a period of time, market these films as heavily and build up female stars in commercial entertainers in the same way it builds up its male stars.
Sometimes, stories with promise are staring us in the face. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Best Picture Oscar winner this year is the captivating account of a fading movie star who once played the superhero Birdman with great success on screen. Would it have been less enthralling if it had been about a former Birdwoman? Is not the biography of Alan Turing’s colleague in The Imitation Game — the genius cryptographer Joan Clarke — a film begging to be made?
Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated Boyhood is the coming-of-age tale of a little boy from a troubled family, shot over a period of 12 years with the same cast. Interesting though he is, the child at its centre is often overshadowed in the first half of the film by his more dynamic sister Samantha played by the young acting dynamite Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter). As the film progresses though, Samantha is relegated to the background by the script.
It is a wonder — and yet it is not — that it did not occur to the wonderfully inventive Linklater Senior to make a companion film to Boyhood. I am not pointing fingers at him here. It is but natural for people to tell stories that they relate to the most. This then is what happens when more men are making films than women, and more men are getting money to make the films they instinctively want to make. I don’t know about you, but I am dying to see a Girlhood revolving around Samantha over those 12 years with the same cast. Wish Linklater had been keen on it too.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on February 28, 2015)
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boyhood_(film)
Note: This photograph was not published in The Hindu Businessline
Related link: Anna MM Vetticad’s Oscar forecast published in Daily O (February 21, 2015): http://www.dailyo.in/arts/and-the-oscar-2015-goes-to-either-a-boy-or-a-birdman-boyhood-linklater-inarritu-still-alice-jullianne-moore-american-sniper/story/1/2179.html