Top 5 Movies Most Distorting to Female Psyche & The ‘Isotta Fraschini’ Syndrome

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Ever since Maggie Gyllenhaal went public with the fact that she lost a role, at 37, as a love interest for a 55-year-old leading male because she was “too old,” the internet lit up with shock. But why should we be surprised? MaggieGyllenhaalDisparity in casting leading men and women has been around since the Silent Era. So has a distorted view of the female psyche on film. Not only a distortion as to who and what women represent, but how the props, set dressing, costumes, conspire with the script, even the director, to really hammer the point home.

What Works for the Gander Doesn’t Work for the Goose?

When Edward (Richard Gere) drives up in a 1989 Lotus Esprit to pick up newbie sex worker Vivian (Julia Roberts) in Pretty Woman, his Lotus motor car is a huge selling point. PrettyWomanIn fact, even today, Lotus’ model Evora 400 advertises itself with the hashtag #ItsNotForYou, as it “requires a superior level of hand-eye coordination, reactions times and driver skills.” Now picture Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard) with her exquisite handmade Italian 1929 Isotta Fraschini BA motorcar. These were once the most expensive cars in the world; today only six of these models exist in the US. But Joe Gillis (William Holden), the scribe stranded for car-repossession reasons at her sprawling manse, is quick to point out this vehicle as an object of ridicule, emblematic of Norma’s “plain fact that she was afraid of that world outside,” the present. “She’d sit very close to me, smell of tuberoses…” Call it the Isotta Fraschini Syndrome, when something that enhances a male actor in the movies does just the opposite for female actors, even appears to disempower them. That said, here are the Top 5 Movies Most Distorting to the Female Psyche. In reverse order, with two Billy Wilder classics right in the mix…

5. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), (dir. Billy Wilder, starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden): 

Billy Wilder could be thought of as a serial misogynist as much as a legendary writer/director. Known in Hollywood lore for berating his female actors, he most notably took a toll on Marilyn Monroe. But his movie Some Like It Hot, where Monroe complained bitterly about endless sadistic takes, gives room for the female character to live and breathe in three dimensions. Not so with Sunset Boulevard.NormaDesmond First-ever Movie Star Mary Pickford is said to have been the real-life model of a fading star here. She was also rumored to have buried her pet monkey, a la the Wilder script, with co-writer Charles Becket. Wilder cast retired silent director Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. De Mille, and even name-checked the real Darryl Zanuck, Alan Ladd, and Tyrone Power. He also padded the “waxworks” with the real Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. So, to be fair, Hollywood itself takes a bit of a shellacking here, but nothing like the distortions heaped on the female psyche in the twisted form of Norma Desmond. IsotaaFraschiniA fount of vanity, self-indulgence, aging buffoonery, and inappropriate sexual desires, Desmond at 50 (Swanson was actually 53 in the role), is a laughable shell of a woman. Her Isotta Fraschini Touring car from the Roaring 20’s does not reflect wealth nor power, but holds a mirror to excess and immaturity — an impulse purchase by a feckless Silent Star years ago. The treatment of age, vanity, self-esteem for women is just trodden under foot here by Joe Gillis played by William Holden, the scheming freeloader she financially hosts at her palatial home. At every turn, Norma’s character is undermined by Joe’s voice-over narrative that belittles this woman’s actually vast accomplishments. Her “comeback,” or “return” to the screen as she calls it, is depicted as a ludicrous, pathetic, delusional over-reach. Nobody ever made fun of Rocky’s umpteen attempts to comeback, in fact the Comeback is the uplifting thread of nearly all leading-male epic films. But women aren’t allowed a comeback in the agist scheme of things. As a ‘leading lady,’ you get one shot, and then you’re replaced by a younger model, as is Norma Desmond by Holden’s hidden love-interest Betty Schaefer( Nancy Olson), the ‘script girl.’ And, true to the usual “nuts and sluts” characterization of women on screen, the failed comeback results in a suicide attempt. “Oh wake up, Norma, you’d be killing yourself to an empty house,” Gillis mocks.

4. SHOWGIRLS (1995), (dir. Paul Verhoeven, starring Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon):

Written by Joe Eszterhas, Showgirls is an expected female esteem-minimizer in title alone. Most definitions of the word itself make reference to “physical attributes,” and Eszterhas defined female-gawking movies of 80’s-90’s in also writing Basic Instinct (1992), again Verhoeven-helmed. But Showgirls is the topper of salacious girl-on-girl, cat-fighting cliches. Our leading lady Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), as described by IMDB, “sets about clawing and pushing her way to become the top of Vegas showgirls.” ShowgirlsMeanwhile, her emotional instability is front and center, resulting in a brawl with Gina Gershon, and ultimately tossing away her entire career just when she hits the Big Time. A final scene shows her back in drifter mode, escaping the battles she just won. Male leads almost never throw the towel in when they reach the top. Known as Underdog stories, these are also the purview of male actors, with female actors often shown to cut and run when they reach the pinnacle of success. Again, what works for male actors in movies, a meteoric rise to the top, is typically depicted as of no value when applied to female leads, who give away the keys to the kingdom once they get them. This convention is often written into the script as running away from the responsibility, or marrying themselves out of their ambition. Close-runner up on this list is Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) that underscores this premise. To his credit Marshall actually toned down the sexism, with the help of screenwriters Stephen Metcalfe and Barbara Benedek (The Big Chill). In fact the first title was Three Thousand, referring to the amount Vivian (who was literally a “crack whore” in the first 1987 version by J.F. Lawson) demanded for a week, while complaining that Edward (Richard Gere) wouldn’t let her have “just a little rock to get through the week.”  Even in Adrian Lyne’s era-defining Flashdance (1983), the film depicts a churlish leading lady with personal problems solved by a rich boyfriend in the driver’s seat. And at the end of Showgirls, Nomi even has to hitch a ride out of town when she splits. The message is women can’t handle success, money, or power, or even keep the car.

3. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), (dir. Billy Wilder, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck):

Wilder’s brilliant noir script for Double Indemnity, based on the Raymond Chandler novel, unfortunately lays out the basic premise of men’s biggest fear about women: that they will “outplay” them in a hustle. In this case, an insurance hustle with Insurance Seller Walter Neff’s MacMurray set up to kill the husband of Phyllis Deitrichson (Stanwyck), so she can get rich off the scam. Neff’s voice-over, much like in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, voices the lowdown on women. “Only what I didn’t know then was that I wasn’t playing her. She was playing me — with a deck of marked cards — and the stakes… were dynamite,” lethal for him. The stage directions also underscore this concept. Stanwyck is introduced as “Coming downstairs.DoubleIndemnity First we see her feet, with pom pom slippers and the gold anklet on her left ankle. Camera pulls back slowly as she descends, until we see all of her.” Later on, just before Neff exchanges shots that kill Phyllis, resulting in a mortally wound for him, Neff’s fears take shape. He recalls, “Just like the first time I was here (in her house). We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.” Followed by “she was all set for me. That she had out-smarted me again, first, like she always did.” His scheme was sexual, hers was financial, and although he was setting her up just as much as she was setting him up, she could not be allowed to get the better of him. Stanwyck is forced to mouth her own punishment for being smarter. “No, I never loved you, Walter. Not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me — until about a minute ago (when she couldn’t pull the trigger first). I didn’t think anything like this could ever happen to me.” Love tripped up her girly soft-center, that is. When Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), Neff’s boss figures out the scam, how Walter was played by the wily woman, and sees the wounded Neff stagger out of the office post-confess, he says “you’ll never make it to the border… you’ll never even make it to the elevator.” The subtext is that being played by a woman is almost worse than committing murder. To which Neff replies, “I love you, too.” Neff and Keyes had been like father and son. Which suggests that had Walter Neff not betrayed the bromance with his boss, none of this would have ever happened. (Revered classic Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, is also fairly distorting to the female psyche and shows femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) gunned down, shot in the eye in the last scene, but J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) also gets gutted by the powers-that-be.)

2. SHAME (2011), (dir. Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan):

Directed by Steve McQueen, a very talented newcomer who crossed over from London’s art world, 2011’s Shame was co-written with British playwright Abi Morgan. Known for TV works (Sex Traffic), Morgan as co-writer makes this title even more interesting in terms of female disempowerment and distorted depiction. Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan) plays the “damaged” sister of sex-addict executive Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), who forces herself on his life after she is left nomadic from bad break-ups. SHAMEBrandon’s Lothario boss David Fisher (James Badge Dale) becomes momentarily infatuated with Sissy after they watch her sing “New York, New York” in a super hipster Manhattan nightclub. And here is the throat-grab for women. Sissy imbues the male-anthem lyrics with such pathos that the very words themselves reveal a tragic subtext: “Start spreading the news, I am leaving today… These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray, right through the very heart of it… These little town blues, all melting away, I’m gonna make a brand new start of it, in old New York…” Clinging inappropriately to her sexually addicted brother, the “Top of the List, King of the hill, A number one” false bravado is deeply troubling, ominous. Sissy’s bloody, horrific archetypal women-slits-wrists-alone-in-bathroom suicide attempt closes out the doomed, distorted vision of the gifted female lead here. The late Roger Ebert, although he praised the filmmaker, said “I don’t believe I would be able to see it twice.” Tied in with the sexual prowess, even as an addict, brother Brandon has a high-power job and immaculate flat that indicates untouchable success. Sissy’s homeless, nomadic, artistic life is a contrast. The message here, current to now, is that high-flying men in power can flout society’s taboos, whereas women, no matter how talented, will be disenfranchised, underpaid, preyed upon, and thrown under the bus. Which leads up to Bus Stop, at #1 on the list.

 1. BUS STOP (1956), (dir. Joshua Logan, starring Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray, Arthur O’Connell, Eileen Heckart)

Based on William Inge’s Broadway play of the same name, Bus Stop is where you can find the origin of nearly every sexual stereotype on screen that will influence and define many miles of footage in its wake, movies that will trivialize women as a group. BusstopBeauregard ‘Bo’ Decker (Don Murray) is a rodeo cowboy who falls for Cherie (Marilyn Monroe), a torch singer whom he thinks is an angel. When Bo “abducted” and “kidnapped” this “chanteuse,” as Marilyn’s character self-identifies, he says “you cain’t pay no tension (sic) to what she says, Mister. Wimmenfolk don’t know their own mind and never did.” Monroe made an indelible impression as a ditz in this role with lines like “I used to sing Hill-billy. But now I’m a chanteuse. It’s more high class. Thass (sic) my name — Cherie.” As Cherie, Monroe’s introduced by the MC at the Blue Dragon Cafe as “the girl with the bedroom eyes — she’s got a pillow under each one of them… Doesn’t she look lovely — she just had her face lifted… only thing is they made it too tight — and now every time she raises her eyebrows — she pulls her stockings up… But seriously, this little girl has a wonderful background, and she’s all right in front too.” Born in 1926, Marilyn was turning 30 as this movie was released, and the strain on her over-made face is visible in the footage. Especially when the intentions are written in the script as “Cherie (with great emotion – caused, although she is unaware of it, by tremendous relief),” says, “Look at ‘im! Look at ‘im standin’ and yellin’ at me. Humiliatin’ me in front of ‘bout ten million people! I’m oney just sorry he didn’t break his neck!” She blurts this out as a photographer from LIFE Magazine shoots her from behind, literally her behind, as she leans over the rodeo bleacher rails. Later on, husband Arthur Miller, who penned Death of a Salesman to critical acclaim, will taunt her with these vapid hits for Fox. Asking if she wants to be “laughed at” or taken seriously, this playwright pens an ill-fated attempt, The Misfits, for her. MillerMonroeIn a cruel twist, Arthur Miller will end up leaving her for a photographer who comes to shoot the couple for a profile. And Monroe, in her conflicted view on success-by-bombshell, will admit, “I don’t want to play sex roles anymore. I’m tired of being known as the girl with the shape.” And, “Everybody is always tugging at you. They’d all like to take a chunk out of you. I don’t think they realize it… (seeing a bombshell) gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you — and it won’t hurt your feelings — like it’s happening to your clothing.” Her last director, the late legend John Huston helmed The Misfits (1961, her last film), as well as Asphalt Jungle (1950) where she had a role. Huston summed it up as “Marilyn was one step from oblivion when I directed her… she impressed me more off the screen than on. There was something touching and appealing about her.” Finally Lee Strasberg kind of nailed the female psyche twisted around a plot that was Monroe’s career, and what this list represents, with “I saw that what she looked like was not what she really was, and what was going on inside her was not what was going on outside.” Marilyn’s Isotta Fraschini Syndrome was that white-hot success did not equal power she could control.

So What’s the Good News? Ironically, the nearly-forgotten Gloria Swanson, who had been Paramount’s biggest box office draw in the 1920’s earning $20,000 a week, made a personal and professional resurgence with Sunset Boulevard. She went on to launch the first celebrity Plus Size (read: Not Size Zero) clothing line, “The Gloria Swanson Collection,” and continued her momentum in the public eye. When grilled by Mike Wallace in 1957 on national television about whether she was like Norma Desmond, Swanson (a powerhouse at 4’11”) retorted, “A lot of people, you know, ask me if ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was my own life — which is rather odd. I’ve no dead bodies in my swimming pool…” She threw him under the bus, in other words. As far as bus-related movies, It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable and SPEED (1994) with Sandra Bullock offer needed alternatives to Monroe’s Bus Stop. And for female empowerment, My Brilliant Career (1979), directed by Gillian Armstrong, is a must-watch to put the Pretty Woman-type movies in perspective.

Yes, This Is Melissa McCarthy

Yes, This Really Is Melissa McCarthy

Anything with surprise box office giant Melissa McCarthy is a plus. McCarthy can open a picture, and her Paul Feig-directed SPY comes out this weekend (watch the numbers blow up on this one). Feig, who directed her in Bridesmaids, will also helm the all-estrogen reboot of Ghostbusters. For dance-related movies, The Turning Point (Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine) is a poignant exploration of the toll it takes to actually become a dancer; Pitch Perfect 2, directed by Elizabeth Banks, represents the new-normal in female-driven musicals. This sequel to Pitch Perfect is killing it at the box office, remarkable for any first-time director. Finally, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with Uma Thurman (Kill Bill), Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence (X-MEN), and Divergent’s Shailene Woodley, have all pioneered new ground in big tentpole blockbuster franchises. So maybe there will be less chance in the future for female leads to take the backseat in star-driven vehicles. And if Halle Berry becomes the next Bond, we’d really be getting somewhere.

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