AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, November 20, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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The continued invisibility of women in Hollywood; a new part of our bodies we gals must learn to hate; Sex Slave: The Movie won’t be exploitive, the (male) director promises and more.

INVISIBLE WOMEN. I’m amazed by my capacity to be continually surprised at how underrepresented or invisible women are not only onscreen but in the talk about film as well. Yes, I am stunned to see that The Hollywood Reporter appears to believe that women have nothing to do with making movies… or at least not in making movies that are worthy of awards.

THR has been running a series called Awards Watch, in which are gathered luminaries of Hollywood — people working today and making noteworthy films, films likely contenders for Oscars this year — to discuss their work. Each of the three roundtable discusses THR has hosted so far included six Hollywood professionals, so that’s 18 slots for talent. There may not be as many women in powerful roles behind the camera as there are men, but there are some. But you’d never guess it: THR’s 18 are all men… and 17 of them are white men.

On November 11, there was the Producers Roundtable: six white men. Women were not forgotten in the discussion, though. Listen to what Ivan Reitman has to say about acting as producer to his son, Jason, who directed the upcoming George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air:

I have to stop being his father, I have to be his producer, which is a subtly different job. I’d say the biggest disagreement we had was over Vera Farmiga, who is a wonderful actress but she was eight months pregnant about two months before he started shooting. He said “Look, I wrote it for her, I think she’ll be perfect.” And she was as big as a house! As a producer, I have to say to him, “I know she’s a great actress, she’s going to be great in it, but she’s got to be someone George Clooney is going to fall in love with.” There were all kinds of actresses who wanted to play this part, bigger names than Vera was at that moment, so I kept saying, “Well, how about her?” But he just hung in there. I had to really defend his decision, and I know he agonized about it enormously. There were a couple rough opening scenes — first days — that he reshot at the end of the schedule to give her a little more time to get into shape. Apart from that, there was really no downside.

These are the concerns men have about women onscreen: that they measure up to a preconceived ideal. Vera Farmiga with a bit of postbaby weight on her would still be a gorgeous woman… but it wouldn’t be plausible that George Clooney could fall in love with her in the eyes of Ivan Reitman.

On November 15 came the Writers Roundtable: five white men and one black man. Here we learn that there are some things that women are good for in the development process, from Nick Hornby, writer of An Education, on that bit in the film with the banana:

It was one of my favorite moments in development. We were meeting with the guy from BBC Films, and he said, “This banana …” And it had always been there. He said, “Would it work?” And then he looked at the two producers, who were both women. They’re kind of shifting in their seats, and there was this long, awkward silence. And then one of his assistants said, suddenly, and brilliantly — because I didn’t know where this was going — he said, “I don’t think it would be peeled.” And the guy from the BBC said, “Oh! Ah! Unpeeled! OK. We’re fine. Then we’re good.”

As I noted earlier, I do think Nick Hornby is one of the good guys, as least based on other things he’s said about writing An Education. But is this really representative of women’s contributions to that film?

On November 18, it was the Cinematographers Roundtable: six white men. Here, Dion Beebe (who shot the upcoming musical Nine) answers a question from Eric Steelberg (who shot (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air):

Steelberg: Was the lighting of the women (in the film) a consideration in the approach?

Beebe: It is a responsibility, having a lot of women in front of the camera at one time. But they were great. We found the language of the movie first (then moved to lighting the women).

What’s so special about lighting the women in the film (or in any film)? Sure, the women feature prominently in the fantasy sequences in the film, and there’s certainly a valid question to be asked about whether the fantasy sequences were lit and shot differently from the nonfantasy ones. But the women do not appear exclusive on the fantasy side, and there are men who appear in the fantasy bits, too. So why make a point about lighting the women? Are they some sort of alien creatures that no one understands how to light and photograph properly? Are they mysterious beings whose amorphousness makes them difficult to capture on film, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster? Seriously: WTF?

Way to go, Hollywood Reporter. Thanks for reminding us women exactly where we stand in the eyes of the industry you cover, and in your own eyes, as well.

YOUR MOTHER WEARS ARMY BOOTS TO HIDE HER CANKLES. Hey, gals! There’s another part of your body you should hate, and you probably didn’t even realize it! Good thing the Times of London is on your side:

Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent appearance at a New York gallery set tongues wagging about the slenderness of her lower limb joints. Since cankles — lack of definition at the point where ankle meets calf — began to concern the body-conscious, celebrities seem to have worked out how to reduce their ankles from an average 23-28cm to the circumference of a cotton reel.

The Times helpfully goes on to explain what Gwynnie’s “secret” is (two hour workouts six days a week, plus eating only one meal a day), and how you can achieve it yourself.

Thanks, Times! I’m feeling worse about my body already!

WOMEN WRITERS, WHERE ART THOU? It’s not that there are no female (and minority) screenwriters looking for a work, the new 2009 Hollywood Writers Report from the West Coast branch of the Writers’ Guild notes: it’s that they’re not getting hired. From the Executive Summary [warning: PDF]:

[T]he present report finds little if any improvement in the employment and earnings of diverse writers in the Hollywood industry. White males continue to dominate in both the film and television sectors. Women remain stuck at 28 percent of television employment and 18 percent of film employment. The minority share of film employment has been frozen at 6 percent since 1999, while the group’s share of television employment actually declined to 9 percent since the last report. Although women and minorities closed the earnings gaps with white men in television a bit, the earnings gaps in film grew.

The whole report [warning: PDF] is depressing as hell, and chock full of miserable details, such as that:

women, who account for slightly more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, remain underrepresented in television employment by 2 to 1 and in film employment by nearly 3 to 1.

and that:

the overall earnings of white male writers significantly outpaced those of the other groups throughout the study period, reflecting the continuing dominance of white males in the industry.

Also mentioned in the report is the WGA’s Writers Access Project, which puts scripts by women and minority writers in front of executive-level TV folks and ask them to evaluate — without knowing the identities of those who wrote them — whether they would hire those writers based on the submitted scripts. Invariably, the report notes, the judges are hugely impressed by what they read, and often do hire those writers, even though they may be female (or nonwhite, or gay or lesbian):

The success of the WAP, it seems, dispels a key myth that has worked to excuse the stagnation we continue to see in the diversification of the Hollywood writing corps: the idea that the pool of diverse writers is limited. To be sure, the success of the program suggests that the underemployment of diverse writers in the industry really has more to do with access, networking, and opportunity than with a shortage of talent. Before we can hope to significantly address the unsatisfactory numbers for diverse writers presented in this report (and the reports preceding it), industry decision makers must embrace this truth.

Will the WGA’s next report — presumably to come in 2011, since the previous one was in 2007 — reflect any signs of progress? The indications are not promising…

HONESTLY, THE MIND BOGGLES. Mercury News reported this week that filmmaker Shane Ryan — the auteur responsible for such underground indies as Romance Road Killers, Amateur Porn Star Killer, and Sex, Kids, Partyis planning a movie on the Jaycee Dugard case.

But Ryan won’t exploit Duggard or the salacious details of her story. The California teen, you may recall, was abducted, raped on a regular basis by her kidnapper, and bore two children by him, all while living in a tent hidden in his backyard:

We want to capture how sad this story is, but also how interesting. We’re trying to figure out a way to do that so it’s not exploitative.

Ryan’s proposed title for the film? Abducted Girl: An American Sex Slave.

OPENING THIS WEEK. The Twilight Saga: New Moon continues, in what will likely be one of the biggest movies of the year, if not ever. Never mind that, at best, the film is an exercise in panding to juvenile female sexuality. (What woman can’t recall that moment in early adolescence when boys were starting to be intriguing but were still scary, too? Most of us do outgrow that feeling, however.) But hey, if The Movies can make a fortune pandering to juvenile male sexuality — see: the oeuvre of Michael Bay, for instance — I suppose we must consider this a sign of progress, however depressing.

See the AWFJ’s regular rundown of new releases for more.

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her Women On Film archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).