Lynne Murray says:
I have been thinking about women in movies recently. Well, really thinking about how few there are, and how similar they all are. I have a friend whose view of current movie actresses is similar to Ulysses S. Grant’s view of music. Grant was so musically challenged that he could recognize only two songs, one was Yankee Doodle, and the other was not. My friend is like that about the past decade of so of motion picture leading ladies, they fall into two categories — one is Meg Ryan, and the other is not.
Then I ran across a 2002 documentary entitled Searching for Debra Winger directed by Rosanna Arquette.
Arquette interviewed “older” actresses, who are essentially an endangered species in Hollywood.
Seeing so many blonde actresses in groups discussing the motion picture industry made the visual point of their disconcerting visual similarity. Meg Ryan was interviewed (so as to provide a contrast with not-Meg-Ryan other blondes). But it was startling how many of these excellent, award-winning actresses share certain generic qualities–quite thin, of course, and overwhelming blonde, with the notable exceptions of Whoopi Goldberg, Alfre Woodard, Selma Hayek and Julianna Margulies. (There probably were other brunettes, but I returned the DVD before I thought to make a head count.)
One of the women in Searching points out that movie actresses by definition don’t look like 95 percent of normal people. Yes, I realize that actors often are professional chameleons whose outward appearance can change with the role. But why would so many “present themselves as blonde” in between roles? These actresses are demonstrating the most “saleable” look, and it’s scarily standardized.
What they are going for, indeed what they must go for, is not exactly “SALEable.” I backed up the Searching DVD to write down one significant interchange between Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy about the main quality an actress needs to get cast in a movie:
Plimpton: “Humor, intelligence, talent, imagination, bravery, skill–when you eliminate all of those things, what have you got?”
As the actresses in Searching point out in amusing, though crazy-making examples, getting a part or not getting a part will often depend on whether the male decision maker deems them as “fuckable.”
Daryl Hannah came close to the issue when she talked about how, when she played the mother of a teenager, she was required to wear an ugly brown wig and flour-sack-style, shapeless dress. Her question was, why can’t mothers of teenagers look like the beautiful, blondes at the table? Well, yeah, some do. But the deeper question is why is only blonde and thin is deemed desirable at any age? Whoopi Goldberg addressed this question with total candor. “Aunts are cool. Aunts fuck,” she said. “Grandmas fuck.” To quote Jan and Dean, “Go Granny, go!” It was well worth watching the DVD just to hear Whoopi Goldberg’s comments.
From decades of working in the film industry, the women in Arquette’s documentary all agreed who makes the decisions about what movies get made and why. Telling a gripping story about interesting people is often rather far down the list. On the subject of who gets cast and what roles women play in films their insights echo Goldie Hawn’s quote in The First Wives’ Club: “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” Things have gotten much worse in the 12 years since The First Wives Club became a cult classic among middle-aged women).
If that sounds bad –wait, it gets worse. While I was still absorbing the many insights from that film, I happened to read a May 4th New York Times article by Manohla Dargison, “Is There a Real Woman in This Multiplex?”
IRON MAN, Batman, Big Angry Green Man – to judge from the new popcorn season it seems as if Hollywood has realized that the best way to deal with its female troubles is to not have any, women, that is.
In Searching, Roger Ebert was interviewed and he discussed how women seem to have vanished from movies. So this phenomenon was well under way by 2002.
Salma Hayek made a very sensible suggestion that women need to get behind the camera and create good dramas with solid female characters. However, it is a massive understatement to say that getting such films made is easier said than done.
The problem is that films by and about women have committed the cardinal sin in Hollywood — unprofitability. After the box office failure of titles with female leads such as Nicole Kidman’s The Invasion, Jodie Foster’s The Brave One:
…the online chatter was that the [Warner Brothers] president for production, Jeff Robinov, had vowed it would no longer make movies with female leads. A studio representative denied he made the comments. And, frankly, it is hard to believe that anyone in a position of Hollywood power would be so stupid as to actually say what many in that town think: Women can’t direct. Women can’t open movies. Women are a niche.
Nobody likes to admit the worst, even when it’s right up there on the screen, particularly women in the industry who clutch at every pitiful short straw, insisting that there are, for instance, more female executives in Hollywood than ever before. As if itís done the rest of us any good. All you have to do is look at the movies themselves – at the decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame – to see just how irrelevant we have become.
(New York Times, Manohla Dargison, “Is There a Real Woman in This Multiplex?” – May 4th, 2008)
I like to end on a hopeful note whenever I can — otherwise it’s just venting, and sometimes one can do more. The only possible thing I can think of to encourage women who pursue the labor of love that is writing, directing and acting in films is Steve Martin’s advice to all struggling artists: “Be too good to ignore.”