By Coleman Bandy
Modern ‘superhero cinema’ can be seen as a microcosm of the film industry as a whole, so – tellingly – it took about three million (a rough estimate) comic book movies about men in tights before Hollywood shelled out a big-budget, female-centric offering.
In 2017, Wonder Woman not only filled that cultural void, but turned out to be a much-needed smash hit for DC. Coming after the middling Man of Steel and self-serious Justice League, two misguided would-be blockbusters, Wonder Woman was a fun, funny, lighthearted romp that extolled female empowerment among a sea of similar movies made for and by the boys. It’s not a perfect film, but it was a step in the right direction for not only DC, but Hollywood in general: a non-white female lead was kicking ass and giving young girls a hero of their own, one without that pesky ‘–man’ suffix.
One primary reason for Wonder Woman’s critical and commercial success: it was directed by a woman, the supremely talented Patty Jenkins. Before her foray into mainstream superhero fantasy, Jenkins was best known for writing and directing 2003’s Monster, the Charlize Theron vehicle which earned the actress a well-deserved Oscar for playing real-life mentally impaired serial murderer Aileen Wuornos.
Monster is a wonderful film about a serious subject – something far removed from Wonder Woman at first glance – but both movies greatly benefit from Jenkins’ singular voice. The story is not a crime drama in the vein of Zodiac, but an intimate character study about a woman at the end of her proverbial rope. Monster’s Wuornos is both perpetrator and victim, a sex worker with delusions that every male client wants to kill her, brought on by the fact that more than one nearly had. What happens when a volatile woman is pushed over the edge because of circumstance, poverty, and lack of proper behavioral health care? The movie takes no sides, its camera hovering on the fringes of each scene like a third party observer. What it does do is put its audience inside the mind of a troubled woman who can’t tell reality from fiction. It’s a daring story to tell, a female-centered drama that most men wouldn’t dare make. Most men wouldn’t feel compelled to.
Hollywood is in dire need of female voices, especially those behind – not in front of – the camera. There have been only a handful of profitable critically acclaimed films made by female directors in recent years: Katherine Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, slow-burning thrillers that aren’t as concerned with war as they are with war’s psychological toll. Both movies were up for major awards. The Hurt Locker even won the Academy Award for Best Picture, a rarity among films directed by women.
The Hurt Locker won Best Picture more than 10 years ago, but since that time virtually no movies directed by women have been up for major awards. Greta Gerwig was the subject of much controversy in 2018 when the acclaimed director of Lady Bird, one of the best movies about growing up I’ve ever seen, wasn’t nominated for the Best Director Golden Globe. She was instead supplanted by a litany of well-respected men, all of whom failed to make anything nearly as powerfully resonant as Lady Bird. After public outcry, the Academy duly righted the industry’s course and nominated Gerwig for its Best Director Oscar. She did not win – but would she even have been nominated without the rightful backlash?
Gerwig and Bigelow nonetheless represent two rare success stories, talented female directors honored by the filmmaking industry during awards season. Unfortunately, for every Greta Gerwig, there are legions of women who either can’t break into Hollywood or remain under the radar once they do – regardless of the quality of their work.
Take Lynne Ramsay, a Scottish filmmaker who is one of the best directors alive today. Her rollicking 2011 feature We Need to Talk About Kevin thrust her into the limelight, and she sustained its glow into 2017’s You Were Never Really Here, one of the 21st century’s very best films, and one that garnered virtually no awards season buzz following its release. The Taxi Driver-indebted movie is a bravura take on gonzo filmmaking, a violent and bloody story about a tortured man with a penchant for saving innocent underage girls from lives of prostitution. Had, say, Scorsese or De Palma been in the director’s chair, the film undoubtedly would have been hailed as a legacy-boosting masterwork. Instead, it remains an important but unfound gem relegated to the back alleys of your favorite streaming service.
It’s even tougher for a woman like Ava DuVernay, who is black, to break through in Hollywood. In fact, it took a specific program targeted at black filmmakers to unearth DuVernay’s talent: as part of Showtime’s ‘Black Filmmaker Showcase,’ the writer-director was given $6,000 to produce her first short film in 2007. DuVernay was able to slowly climb the ranks until, in 2014, she was finally able to make her passion project, Selma, a drama about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. By nearly all accounts, the film was a success: rave reviews and solid box office receipts drove the Academy to nominate Selma for Best Picture. Of course, DuVernay wasn’t nominated for Best Director and didn’t even receive a credit for her work on the film’s screenplay.
The lack of female voices in film and television is pervasive. Hollywood has shorted not only female directors, but female writers and producers, too. One of 2019’s best new Netflix shows, the hilarious Tuca and Bertie, seemed like a surefire hit: created by former Bojack Horseman animator and writer Lisa Hanawalt, the brilliant show is told by and for 21st century women. Still sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes months after its initial release, Tuca and Bertie is a prime example of a show perfectly equipped to tell modern, topical stories about what it’s like to be a woman in America today. Naturally, Netflix cancelled it after one season.
Netflix is famously averse to releasing its viewership information. Presumably, just not enough people watched Tuca and Bertie – but the issue is multifaceted. Netflix ran limited advertisements for the program prior to its release, and the few it did run did their best to link the program to Bojack Horseman without promoting its female-centric message. Similarly well-received but unseen shows are often renewed for a second season to let audiences catch up to the critics. Tuca and Bertie was promptly cancelled two months after its premiere with no explanation.
The issue is systematic. Hollywood has championed stories about powerful men for 100 years and left little room for ones about women that don’t involve love or a man’s affection. Now that there are more women behind the camera fighting to get their voices heard, we as an audience have an obligation to support them. Follow your favorite director’s career and each of her films. Watch your favorite writer’s new Netflix show. In Hollywood, money talks louder than anything else. Buy a ticket. Support these women with your wallet when you can.
If, come next February, Greta Gerwig or Lynne Ramsay or Ava DuVernay or Patty Jenkins remain conspicuously absent among various Y-chromosomed Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscar nominees, don’t be afraid to speak out. In order to champion these women, we have to fight for their success. Think of the amazing stories we’re already deprived of just because a talented woman’s script remains unread in the wrong pile on some executive’s desk. Despite Netflix’s mysterious algorithms, art isn’t an equation. It takes active effort to overthrow the status quo. There are talented women whose careers are at stake. Let’s just hope the next Lady Bird isn’t in that pile of abandoned screenplays.