The Wednesday Five: Sylvia Blogs, Why Hollywood Men Prefer War, and Giving Up Life As a Blonde

March 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers

Our spring-is-coming highlights include a list of snazzy-but-appropriate workout gear, a meditation on life after blonde, and a final post-Oscar howl about misogyny in the film industry.

  • At Amid Privilege, Sky Peale is Giving Up Blonde, Or…. and trying to decide what kind of post-blonde to be. Now that she’s grown past her youthful blonde stage, Peale finds multiple role models in her blog-peers: “I may go gray, like Ms. Givens of Trend Wisely, Donna of Rock the Silver, and Madame La Streep……. Join the ranks of Alice Bradley at finslippy, and Anne Kreamer, who wrote Going Gray. Rock the Silver is, of course, a blog often about going gray.” We suspect she’ll rule, no matter what she chooses.
  • “In our culture, there is… just a weird anxiety around women.” Last week, as we were all shaking off our Oscar hangover,  Melissa Silverstein found these refreshingly frank words from this NPR chat with The Kids Are Alright director Lisa Cholodenko. Without rancor, Cholodenko suggests why Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker might have had an easier time in the award: “It’s just easier to uphold, like, male heroes and men things. And that’s just kind of how it is. I think we’re getting better, but I think it’s just deeply rooted…Because when you talk about the Kathryn Bigelow film, I mean, I think something that was tremendous was that she really did get into male psychology and sort of the male experience in such an authentic way.”
  • Last fall, we caught up on the travails of Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy. Last month, however Guernica tracked her down and ran this detailed, wide-ranging interview with the intriguing title “The Un-Victim.” Her life, says Roy, doesn’t really include a typical day: ” I don’t have a regular day (or night!). It has been so for years, and has nothing to do with the sedition tamasha [spectacle]. I’m not sure how I feel about this—but that’s how it is. I move around a lot. I don’t always sleep in the same place. I live a very unsettled but not un-calm life. But sometimes I feel as though I lack a skin—something that separates me from the world I live in. That absence of skin is dangerous.”
  • OK, spring has made us all swear we’ll work out. But we know we should be careful about workout clothes. Luckily, Fab Over Fifty’s Linda Cohen has come up with workout wardrobe suggestions, answering concerns like “I need workout pants that are comfortable, but aren’t ratty college sweatpants” and ” I need a yoga pant that won’t highlight my lumps and bumps during downward dog.” Click over for selections and prices that won’t break the bank.
  • We all knew about Nicole Hollander’s Bad Girl Chats, but did you know that her character Sylvia has her own blog? Asked for her favorite books, she at first demurs: “It’s true I get everything I need from television. Do you have a pen? Here’s my list. Mystery (Inspector Lewis, Sargeant Hathaway, the new Sherlock Holmes); International Mystery: Wallander in English, Wallander in Swedish. The Mentalist,  Justified, The Good Wife…” but goes on to explore the latest gender-gap news, this one in literature and pointing to a Laura Miller piece in Salon: “ It suggests that women are underrepresented in the literary world because men don’t care what they write about. Is this true?”  Sylvia asks, however, that our comments on the subject go to Nicole’s site and not her blog: “I hear she likes to read them …. I, however, am too busy watching television.”

2011 Oscar Nominations – Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

January 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I was recently reminded that progress rarely travels in a straight line. Indeed, Gloria Steinem has noted that progress and backlash tend to travel together.  She suggested that we learn to embrace backlash, as it affirms that we’ve made some significant progress.

This year’s Oscar nominations may not represent a deliberate backlash, per se.  But for those of us who noticed and welcomed the diversity of recent years, it is disheartening.  Not only are women conspicuously absent from the Best Director nominations (despite the inclusion of two films directed and written by women in the Best Picture category), but the entire awards evening threatens to be a celebration of white people making movies with, for, and about white people.

Last year, feminist Hollywood watchers rejoiced as Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, an historic first for a woman director. The same evening, the industry celebrated Precious, a powerful film about a distinctly disenfranchised young woman: poor, black, illiterate, pregnant. And within the last decade, we’ve seen actors of color win Best Actress (Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball) and Best Actor (Denzel Washington for Training Day, Jamie Foxx for Ray, and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland).

This week’s Oscar nominations seem to be announcing that Hollywood is back to old-fashioned business as usual. I don’t think the issue is prejudice in the Academy’s award nomination process. Rather, it’s a more systemic problem with regard to the movies and directors that are greenlighted and bankrolled by Hollywood’s movie machine. That machine is about making money as much as – arguably more than – making movies. And clearly there remains a perception that movies about white men (with or without superhero costumes) blowing things up equal box office gold. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Throw enough star power, special effects, and promotional budget against a property and it can’t help but attract attention. And that makes it harder for smaller movies – many proposed by women, African-American, Latino, or Asian-American filmmakers – to be made. And so it goes.

I don’t mean to sound bitter and humorless. I really do love the movies, and I appreciate the people who make them.  There are some wonderful films nominated this year, and some powerful performances being recognized.

For the second year in a row, the Best Picture category includes ten rather than five nominated films. I have mixed feelings about this trend. It reminds me of a debate I’m often engaged in as a mother. Should everyone get a medal? Should all the soccer teams walk away with a trophy? Or do we need to get a little tougher and say, “There are winners and losers. Deal with it.”

Surely, expanding the list was a business decision; I doubt the Academy did so to avoid hurt feelings. But it brings up some interesting issues. What is the prospect for a movie nominated for Best Picture but not Best Director? (Not very good, I’m afraid.) On the positive side, it has broadened the field and improved the odds for nominations of smaller or independent films. Two examples this year include Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right – both directed by women.

The complete list of Best Picture nominations also includes Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and True Grit. It is a remarkable list of movie genres, if not a model of diversity in terms of moviemakers. We’ve covered animation, Westerns, and triumph of the human spirit, as well as horror, history, and high tech. Well done.

Notably absent from the Best Director category are Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right and Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone. These talented and visionary women may, however, be awarded for their original and adapted screenplays respectively. Despite Kathryn Bigelow’s beating the odds last year, the Best Director category continues to elude Hollywood’s top women.

In the acting categories, Annette Bening was nominated but her The Kids Are All Right costar Julianne Moore was not. Helen Mirren was passed over for The Tempest. Another surprising omission was Mila Kunis for her role as Natalie Portman’s sensuous alter ego in Black Swan. Newcomers and critics’ darlings Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) made the cut, but it’s doubtful they will win. At ages 20 and 14, they will have many more opportunities. Two contenders for Best Supporting Actress, Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) attest to the Academy’s appreciation for fine performances from “working actors,” as opposed to “movie stars.”

The 83rd annual Academy Awards ceremony will take place on February 27. Co-hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco, it will no doubt provide us with entertainment, glamour, and plenty of water cooler buzz for the next day. But it will not be an historic event; there will not be any exceptions. This is unfortunate, but not the core of the problem for Hollywood’s marginalized women and minority filmmakers.

Exceptions tend to muddy the waters. If a person complains about the lack of diversity at the Oscars or in any situation, exceptions enable the establishment to discount their discontent: “You can’t say that women aren’t recognized for Best Director – look at Kathryn Bigelow.”

When Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actress to win the statuette for Gone With the Wind, it took another 24 years before another actor of color was recognized (Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field). And it was over 50 years before we saw another black actress winner, Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost.

Let’s hope that Granik, Cholodenko, and thousands of other women directors don’t have to wait that long.

The DGA Awards: Still a Thick Glass Ceiling Over That Hollywood Sign

January 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers

This year, the University of Southern California’s renowned School of Cinematic Arts, alma mater of legendary directors George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and dozens of others, has exactly as many women enrolled as men.

 Perhaps someone should let these aspiring female filmmakers know that they are trying to get into a very exclusive – and exclusionary – men’s club.

The recent announcement of nominees for the Directors Guild of America Awards underscores how little has changed in Hollywood. DGA Nominees for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film include Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), David Fincher (The Social Network), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Christopher Nolan (Inception), and David Russell (The Fighter).

The list represents some variety of genres – psychosexual thriller, big budget action, three period dramas based on true stories.  But all of these movies have something obvious in common.  They were all directed by men.

This is particularly disappointing, because last year marked real progress for women directors.  Kathryn Bigelow not only became the first woman to win the DGA Feature Film Director prize, she went on to win Best Director (another first) and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And The Hurt Locker wasn’t the only Best Picture nominee to be directed by an over-40 woman, either. 

It would be one thing if the inequity was only apparent in the DGA Awards (or the Academy Awards, for that matter). Unfortunately, it runs much deeper than that.  Directors often win for big-budget epics. Directors are also often recognized for a body of work as well as a single title. Women directors are at a distinct disadvantage in both of these areas. They receive far less budget to work with and it takes them much longer to get a project through the system; consequently, their resumes are considerably shorter.

Even Bigelow – while truly deserving of her laurels – didn’t represent a win for the average woman director. Her movie, a tense drama focusing on an elite bomb squad in Iraq, isn’t your typical woman’s movie. She did wonders with a moderate budget ($12 million, compared to some $90 million for Black Hawk Down eight years earlier). And with Hollywood gossip always a factor, there are those who may have used a vote for her as a vote against her ex-husband and his Avatar.

One woman I would have liked to see honored this year by the DGA (and who I hope will still make the Oscars list) is Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone.  Her movie is more typical than Bigelow’s, although hardly a “chick flick.” It’s a remarkable, slow-burning drama. It has desperate, gritty characters and a brave young heroine willing to risk her life, quite literally, to protect her two younger siblings. The story is haunting; the performances outstanding. It sheds light on an impoverished underbelly of this country that has been virtually invisible in the media until now.

To date, Winter’s Bone has won major awards at Cannes and Sundance (Grand Jury Prizes at both), many smaller film festival awards, and has appeared on countless critics’ lists of the best films of 2010. By anyone’s estimation, Debra Granik has had great success with Winter’s Bone. Yet she had to fight to get the movie made and finally did so for just $2 million. No mean feat. If her sets look real, it’s because they are the actual Ozark homes of her supporting cast.

Granik is an exceptional director and her story is, like Bigelow’s, an exception rather than the rule. But one can hope that she will have more (and bigger budget) opportunities after this breakout success. And that other women directors will walk in with greater credibility for their interesting ideas. The problem really isn’t the DGA. If women are to be nominated for – and win – more directing awards, they have to get more opportunities to direct. If Hollywood can’t see this yet, perhaps they will in time for the young women studying film at USC to play an equal role in their industry.

The Bigelow Backlash: Should She Win?

March 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

As Kathryn Bigelow and her fellow Best Director nominees roll through the final week before Sunday’s Oscar broadcast, the pleasantly speculative question in many minds—Will she win?—is in some quarters overshadowed by another, darker query: Should she win?

In the past few weeks, Bigelow has become something of a feminist football (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), tossed around by those who, on the one hand, see a Best Director win as a much-needed advancement for women in the film industry, and those who consider her too one-of-the-boys to represent women in Hollywood (admittedly not a gig she’s been angling for). Others wish gender weren’t quite such an issue. Calling it “the question that no one dares ask,” The Daily Beast’s Nicole LaPorte asks anyway: “If she wins, will it be because she’s a woman?” Still others, male and female, wish everyone would stop talking about her legs already. And her ex.

That’s not likely to happen, given the last-minute landmines that have been exploding around The Hurt Locker. The gender issue isn’t going away, either, and it’s taking some interesting twists. Earlier this winter, Indiewire writer Matthew Hammett Knott asked, “Is Kathryn Bigelow a Female Director?” (Then promptly answered, “What a stupid question.”) And just last week, Martha P. Nochimson kicked things up with a Salon article titled “Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist pioneer or tough guy in drag?” Tackling the director for out-macho-ing the competition, Nochimson called her a transvestite “masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an academy still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.”

It’s hard to argue with the notion that the film industry favors a masculine filmmaking style, or that it will keep right on favoring it until box office grosses persuade it otherwise. (Which, with The Proposal, Julie and Julia, Twilight Saga: New Moon, Dear John, The Blind Side, and last month’s Valentine’s Day—all strong female-audience draws—the grosses have started to do.) The question is: What does that mean, or should it mean, for Kathryn Bigelow?

The answer, one would hope, is: Nothing. It’s true, Bigelow is a problematic poster girl for Women Directors Everywhere. But then, why should she have to be? She has a distinctive directorial style and makes a certain type of film very well. So did John Ford, and no one complained about him—in fact, he was a four-time Oscar winner. Should Bigelow be judged on different terms?

The heart of the matter is this: We haven’t yet had enough women directors in the industry mainstream, or major movies by women directors, to even begin to comprehend the full range of women’s expressive power in film. Or to help us define what—if anything—gives a film a uniquely female perspective. (Absence of explosives? I doubt it.)

In industry terms, Bigelow’s gender may be the least of Hollywood’s interest in The Hurt Locker. Iraq war movies have a way of flopping at the box office, and Bigelow’s film isn’t really an exception—even with solid reviews and astronomical Oscar buzz, it’s earned less than $20 million to date worldwide. But a few days after the awards broadcast, Hollywood will be taking a $100 million gamble on another one: Green Zone, made by the star-and-director team behind the Bourne Supremacy franchise, which opens nationwide on March 12. With that kind of investment riding on it, Green Zone will be looking to catch whatever slipstream Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker can create.

For New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, “Something like a woman winning best director for directing an action movie and not a romantic comedy is symbolically important.” Speaking with Jezebel’s Irin Carmon last December, Dargis said, “Whether it then leads to a lot of women doing things outside of the pathetic comfort zone of romantic comedy—and I say that as someone who loves romantic comedy—we’ll see.”

Let’s hope we do, and soon. But first: The envelope, please.