Peter Bart: Oscar Race Shows How Female Filmmakers Still Face Uphill Battle

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The Oscar show this year will be led by two women with strong producing credentials, sending us this message: There’s a new generation of self-styled “badass” women filmmakers out there, ready to leave their mark on the film culture.

The arrival of awards season, however, may carry a different portent: The possibility that women directors may again be under-represented on the list of serious contenders.

“No industry has given women a bigger opportunity than motion pictures,” noted Clara Beranger, a leading screenwriter and producer. But she declared this in 1919, when women occupied a near-dominant position creatively in the industry (see below). Many believe her perspective has yet to be fulfilled.

The newly named Oscar producers, Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain, should have high hopes in the kudos prospects of Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Kasi Lemmons (Harriet). A vigorous campaign may be launched in the International Feature category for The Farewell from Lulu Wang. But the boys club still wields maximum promotion muscle among the most widely released contenders.

It isn’t as if women characters were being ignored – witness movies like Judy, Harriet and, of course, Bombshell (Charlize Theron), plus, on TV, the arrival of a genre of “flawed women” — Fleabag and Back to Life (created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Daisy Haggard, respectively). Click-baity lists abound carrying titles like “Badass Women of Hollywood.” Further, Scarlett Johansson keeps turning up in widely admired but polar opposite roles — Marriage Story or Jojo Rabbit or Black Widow.

Ann Sarnoff HBO Max
Ann Sarnoff at WarnerMedia’s investor day last month Presley Ann/WarnerMedia

On another front, women are winning corporate power wars – witness the rise of Ann Sarnoff of WarnerMedia and Jennifer Salke of Amazon. Lesser gigs, too, are being awarded on the grounds of what HR operatives call “gender muscle.”

Still, a study reported in the Nov 4 New Yorker reminds us that the dominant creative role played by women in the early days of the film industry has not as yet been revisited. According to writer Margaret Talbot, at least half of all film scenarios of the Silent Era were written by women. Director Alice Blache (also known as Alice Guy-Blache) was responsible for literally hundreds of films through the ‘20s. “There is nothing connected with staging a motion picture that a woman cannot do,” she proclaimed.

Research done by the Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia tells us that “women occupied an outsized role in the origins of filmmaking.” Early studio chiefs quietly initiated training programs to encourage women filmmakers. Some of Walt Disney’s grizzled employees, who grumbled about his focus on training female animators, would be nettled by the new book titled The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History.

Why did this once dominant role slip away? Various theories abound: The takeover of Hollywood by corporate monoliths has favored a “bro sensibility.” Franchise films largely embody the values and testosterone levels of the men’s club.

Then there’s the issue of male panic — the need to protect one’s turf. A manifestation can be found in the fading fortunes of so-called “bro bibles” – male magazines like GQ, Esquire and Playboy that have witnessed a turnover of editors reflecting drops in advertising and circulation. GQ recently published a “gender fluid” issue themed to “The New Masculinity,” and Playboy has re-titled its bunnies as “brand ambassadors.”

Will the recalibrated Oscar membership reward its newly motivated female nominees? One third of Academy voters are recruits from the last four years. Of the 56 new members of the Actors Branch, only three reportedly are white American men.

While films with strong female characters – Roma and The Favourite – led the nominations parade last year, the big promotional guns this year are aimed at Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and Ford v Ferrari – serious bro pictures.

Hence 2020 may not harken back to the early days of Hollywood in terms of girl power, but hopeful portents still abound. The new world of streaming represents vast opportunity, it is argued, with the newly arrived Disney+. Streaming subscribers worldwide total 613 million, surpassing the number of cable subscribers (556 million) for the first time. A new generation of showrunners is seizing control, taking aim at this vast audience.

The great success of the “flawed women” genre surely will give hope to the less flawed women waiting in the wings.

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