Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Year the Women Went

The docu-drama show The Week the Women Went airs tonight on CBC, taken from a BBC show of the same title. It will look at what happens when all the women in a town abandon their posts and it's only the men left to run things. While the results of this experiment remain to be seen, a similar trend is playing out on the big screen right now.

I first noticed it in No Country for Old Men and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, seen over the course of a single weekend. Although Devil includes a woman who comes between the brothers, she appears in only a few of the bloody testosterone-driven scenes. I thought No Country was barren of women, but that was before I saw There Will Be Blood this weekend, where females of any age are on the screen for maybe 10 of its 158 minutes. (A sharp contrast to Elizabeth Taylor's role in an oil epic from 50 years ago, Giant).

No Country and Blood are considered near-locks for Best Picture and Best Director in tomorrow's Oscar nominations, and Devil's Lumet will likely get a nod for director. Other Best Picture/Director nom favourites are Atonement, Michael Clayton and one of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, Sweeney Todd, Into the Wild, and American Gangster.

Of course, male-dominated story lines are not a new phenom. As recently as 2005, ensemble piece Crash had to beat Capote, Brokeback, Munich and Good Night/Good Luck. But consider 2000, where SFLs like activist Erin Brockovich and the flying fighters of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were front-and-centre, along with the softer heroine of Chocolat.

The biggest female this year is of course strong female teen Juno, but even the perceived "period chick flick" Atonement spends at least half of the film in a men-only war zone.

So what else is out there right now?
American Gangster = male cop vs. patriarchal mafia head
I am Legend = I am Will Smith for about 85% of the film.
National Treasure = Man on a Mission with a bit of help from the ex-girlfriend and ex-wife
Bucket List = Old Men Bonding
Into the Wild = One Man vs Nature
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly = Man Alone in His Head, and Overcoming Odds
Lars and the Real Girl = Man who can't handle real women, so romances a blow-up doll

One film I wouldn't place in this category is Eastern Promises. Although the focus is definitely on the male world of a crime family, it is Anna, the midwife, who is the catalyst for the story, who pieces together the tragedy of what happened to the mother of an abandoned baby girl, and what is happening to other women like her, lured from Eastern European countries. One clue that Anna is significant is that she appears on the poster.

There are a few other films with one woman with decent screen time (i.e. eligible for supporting actress):
Michael Clayton = Man out to avenge the death of another man has to take on female Bad Gal (Tilda Swinton)
Sweeney Todd = Singing Vengeful Murderer with a daughter (Helena Bonham Carter)
Charlie Wilson's War = Man who colludes with men to support men's wars - abetted and abedded by wealthy Texas woman (Julia Roberts)
I'm Not There = Experimental bio-pic of Man with inspired choice to use Cate Blanchett in one of the iterations of Dylan

As discussed in my coverage of awards season, there are foreign films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Persepolis that tell the stories of women. And smaller films like The Savages, Across the Universe, Away from Her or The Great Debaters, and at the other end of the spectrum, thrillers like Cloverfield, have balanced casts.

And then of course there are "chick flicks" like 27 Dresses, P.S. I Love You, or even the more elevated Broken English, which aren't usually about chicks achieving or even bonding, but about chicks on the path to get over one man and on to another.

So what's a female lead to do? Take a part in something like Mad Money and hope it doesn't suck? Act in and hope someone goes to see it? Go over to television? Write and direct your own film and hope that someone doesn't kill you because he's "having a bad day"?

I'll take a look at what roles are out there for women to play, after the nominations for best actress are reported.

3 comments:

Dave said...

"As recently as 2005, ensemble piece Crash had to beat Capote, Brokeback, Munich and Good Night/Good Luck."

I think you're stretching to include Capote. The most tender relationship in the movie is between Capote and Harper Lee.

"The biggest female this year is of course strong female teen Juno, but even the perceived "period chick flick" Atonement spends at least half of the film in a men-only war zone."

Again, I think you're stretching to prove a point. There are maybe four scenes in the war zone, and the bulk of the movie is taken up by the early scenes on the estate, which is the emotional crux of the movie. It's the performances of Keira Knightley and the Saoirse Ronan that people remember.

"Sweeney Todd = Singing Vengeful Murderer with a daughter (Helena Bonham Carter)"

Actually, Bonham Carter plays his partner in crime.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly = Man Alone in His Head, and Overcoming Odds"

...with mostly the help of some very strong women who take no crap from him. I would see this before you comment.

Polly said...

Me, stretch to prove a point?

Agree that Keener's Harper Lee is one of the best parts of Capote, but my point is Capote's centre as a bio-pic is clearly him (and his fascination with Smith). As for this year's male bio-pic, will see Diving Bell soon...

You're right, I mis-stated the key female role in Sweeney Todd. But if Bonham Carter is a true partner, shouldn't she be on the poster?

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

I think there is still a long way to go but when I think there were some really strong female characters in film this year, including as you stated '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' as well as 'Persepolis'. I would actually add to that 'The Golden Compass' as Lara is very strong indeed.

Films like Mad Money just get me so miffed. Feels like such a waste of talent.