High-calibre biopics about talented women succeeding despite living in the shadow of their male counterparts seem to be everywhere right now. Could this be a reflection of how Hollywood actresses have felt for so long – playing second fiddle to the men?
The Wife, starring Golden Globe-winning Glenn Close, is about a woman who’s written her less talented husband’s novels and stands in his shadow while he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. Similarly, Colette, with Keira Knightley, is about the French Nobel prize winner Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Her work was also published in the name of her husband and her stories were consumed voraciously by female readers making them both rich. Mary Shelley is on Netflix. It is directed by Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour and tells how Shelley’s groundbreaking classic gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, was also published under her husband’s name because her publisher didn’t believe that a woman could have written such a masterpiece.
But why has it taken so long for these films to come along? It’s not just the Me Too movement that has sparked the shift. These films were shot before those women felt safe to speak out about Harvey Weinstein’s inappropriate behaviour.
The answer is simple. For decades producers trying to green-light films have been told by financiers – often middle-aged white men – that there’s no audience for female-driven projects. It was Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that perpetuated a myth that a top, Oscar-winning actress could not attract the same audience as a male star who had a greater chance of a healthy return on their investment. But both Hollywood and many independents now are slowly turning that leviathan around.
Widows, a new film based on the Lynda La Plante series, written by Gillian Flynn and starring Viola Davis, is a bomb-blast of a female empowerment movie made by a black director who has not ruminated on the well-established world of Hollywood heist movies. Instead, Steve McQueen found a story worth re-telling and gave the female protagonists the impetus and agency to take seemingly insurmountable risks to stay alive and protect their families.
William Congreve wrote, “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” But the cliche of the jilted bride or vengeful, spurned wife just plays to a narrow stereotype. Now, thankfully, the tide is turning and a number of successful films have given women the talking stick where for decades plots and casts have been dominated by white, male characters. Now, women are not just background adornments but three-dimensional characters. Modern audiences are increasingly being treated to more films that pass the Bechdel Test.
We’re seeing women’s stories making good box office returns and award-winning cinema. The Help (Viola Davis again) and Hidden Figures showed the struggle of women of colour. Wonder Woman, directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, smashed box office records and made an unknown actress, Gal Gadot, a household name. The sequel has just completed shooting. Watch out for On The Basis Of Sex. A biopic of the supreme court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Disobedience, an LGBT love story set in an Orthodox Jewish community.
But we still have a way to go both in front of and behind the lens. Statistics put together by WomenAndHollywood.com show that of the one hundred top grossing films of last year only 4 per cent of women were directors, 15 per cent were writers and 3 per cent were cinematographers. The playing field still needs to be evened and flooded with storytelling women.
Cinema has the power to show how the world is and how the world could be. These films about women should be essential viewing for young women (and young men) who want to be creators and shape a better tomorrow.
Check out womeninfilm.org for opportunities for female film-makers