Film & Television

Designing Women: ‘The Dropout’ and ‘Inventing Anna’

March is Women’s History Month, and, for the most part, we’re celebrating extraordinary women and their — legitimate, if oft-unacknowledged — accomplishments in science, politics, economics, and the arts. 

However, right now, the streaming services Hulu and Netflix are showcasing two extraordinary women, whose accomplishments included totally reimagining themselves and wildly succeeding in a man’s world — oh, and committing felonies, multiple felonies, along the way. The word “legitimate” does not apply.

Back in 2014, Elizabeth Holmes’s net worth was 4.5 billion dollars, earning her, at age 31, the number one spot on the Forbes list of the richest self-made women. Theranos, the biotech startup she founded after dropping out of Stanford, was supposed to revolutionize health care with a machine that would deliver hundreds of test results from a single drop of blood. At various times, she was in partnership with drugstore chain Walgreens and supermarket chain Safeway. She had an agreement with the Department of Defense. She was hailed as the female Steve Jobs, and her Board of Directors boasted such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz, retired CEOs, senators, and high-ranking military leaders. There was just one problem.

The technology didn’t work. And Holmes knew it.

Early this year, she was convicted of four counts of wire fraud (but, interestingly, acquitted of four counts of defrauding patients). She awaits sentencing, which could result in as many as 80 years in prison but will more likely be less than 10. She also plans to appeal the verdict.

Of course, in between founding a company at 19, becoming Silicon Valley’s darling in her twenties, and a convicted felon by 37, Elizabeth has had enough ups and downs, triumphs and failures, intrigue and romance to make a compelling miniseries. And that’s exactly what Hulu has done with The Dropout. 

Created by writer and producer Elizabeth Meriwether, The Dropout follows Holmes’s journey from oddball middle-schooler to determined entrepreneur, from starry-eyed idealist to corporate con artist. The series is being released in weekly installments and attempts to accurately portray Theranos’s short-lived but notorious history. Consequently, there are countless scenes in labs and endless discussions about “assays” and “nanotainers.” And, the series relies on an enormous (and accomplished) cast that includes Laurie Metcalf, Anne Archer, Elizabeth Marvel, William H. Macy, Naveen Andrews, Stephen Fry, Bill Irwin, Sam Waterston, and many others. At times, it’s hard to quite keep track of who’s who, and I had to laugh when the third episode was titled “Old White Men.”

But, just as the true story of Theranos must center around Elizabeth Holmes, The Dropout revolves around Amanda Seyfried. The role was originally meant for Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon, but she left the project due to scheduling conflicts (she’s currently taking on a different real-life character: Carole Baskin in Joe vs. Carole). While I’m a huge fan of the multitalented McKinnon, it’s hard now, even after just three episodes, to imagine anyone other than Seyfried in the role. 

Seyfried is close to Holmes’s age, but surprisingly believable as a high school senior early on. As an adult, she captures Holmes’s deep voice and intense, wide-eyed look, and, with a signature black turtleneck and deliberately messy ponytail, could easily take her place on the cover of one of the many magazines that celebrated the determined entrepreneur. As Holmes, Seyfried is relentlessly passionate about her business, but a bit awkward and removed from her family and staff. “I’m not like other people,” she tells her mentor, and soon-to-be COO and lover, Sunny Balwani (Andrews). In today’s handy pop psychology vernacular, we might say she’s “on the spectrum.”

Seyfried, who was nominated for an Oscar for her turn as Marion Davies in 2020’s acclaimed Hollywood biopic Mank, is better known for lighter fare, including teen cult classic Mean Girls and the Mamma Mia! musicals. There is nothing light about The Dropout, and Seyfried’s work is riveting.

If Holmes was delusional about Theranos’s technology, another renowned (and convicted) fraudster, Anna “Delvey” Sorokin, was delusional about herself. The so-called “Soho Scammer” pretended to be a German heiress and lived a luxe life of top-shelf champagne, designer clothes, exclusive hotels, and exotic vacations. She couch-surfed on some of the most expensive Chesterfields on the Upper East Side and came “dangerously close” to defrauding multiple major banks of tens of millions of dollars, using a faux $60 million euro trust fund as collateral.

In Netflix’s deliciously bingeable series Inventing Anna, Sorokin’s story is pieced together by Manhattan magazine’s very pregnant investigative journalist Vivian Kent. In real life, the story was published by New York magazine’s also pregnant Jessica Prescott. Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes’s production company, reached out to Prescott soon after her story went to press.

Rhimes, as a woman, and specifically a woman of color, has defied the Hollywood odds and built a production empire whose properties range from Grey’s Anatomy, primetime’s longest-running scripted show, to Bridgerton, Netflix’s color-blind bodice-ripper, which set viewership records until it was recently displaced by South Korean dystopia Squid Game. Inventing Anna is the first property she has written herself since her Emmy-winning Scandal, and she deliberately divided the nine episodes into narratives of the different people closest to Sorokin. “Everybody who got involved with Anna got swept up in her wake and in her life. There was no one version of Anna. To me, the best way to find that was to watch the reporter talk to all of these different people and hear their version of what Anna was to them.”

Anna Chlumsky, who despite plenty of work as an adult actor may always be known best for her tear-jerking performance as Vada in 1991’s My Girl, does a fine job as the reporter. And Julia Garner, two-time Emmy winner for Ozark, disappears into the enigma wrapped in a riddle (wrapped in Chanel) that is Anna. The two actresses play off each other brilliantly in scenes at Rikers Island and during Sorokin’s trial.

Like The Dropout, Inventing Anna is a detailed account of a complex woman and her protracted crime spree. But, between the sets and costumes and the story’s sheer audacity, it’s much more fun to watch. Anna, who allegedly was born in Russia but raised in Germany, has distinct (and distinctly odd) accented English, and Garner visited the real Sorokin in prison to perfect it. While most of Seyfried’s scenes are between her and male costars (including the aforementioned “Old White Men”), Garner is often accompanied by a posse of girlfriends, including Alexis Floyd as aspiring filmmaker Neff, Laverne Cox as celebrity trainer Kacy, and Shondaland alumna Katie Lowes as the duped climber Rachel.

Meanwhile, I’d like to believe that ambitious young women can be — or build — whatever they set out to. Hopefully, without committing a felony.

The Dropout is available on Hulu with new episodes through April 7. Inventing Anna is available in its entirety on Netflix.

And if you enjoy The Dropout and Inventing Anna, this season promises more dramatizations of notorious women to look forward to. Renée Zellweger stars as best-friend-turned-murderer Pam Hupp in the dark comedy The Thing About Pam. And Elle Fanning will portray girlfriend-turned-texting-suicide-enabler Michelle Carter in the upcoming The Girl from Plainville.

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