AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, December 11, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Everyone knows women directors are disasters at the box office; skewering the dumb-blond stereotype; is it too soon to celebrate Sandra Bullock?

WHEREFORE ART THE WOMEN DIRECTORS? Manohla Dargis in The New York Times looks at the situation for women as a driving creative force in Hollywood, and doesn’t find much to be optimistic about:

Only a handful of female directors picked up their paychecks from one of the six major Hollywood studios and their remaining divisions this year: 20th Century Fox had “Jennifer’s Body” (Karyn Kusama) and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” (Betty Thomas), while Fox Searchlight had “Amelia” (Mira Nair), “Post Grad” (Vicky Jenson) and “Whip It” (Drew Barrymore). Anne Fletcher directed “The Proposal” for Disney, while the studio’s once-lustrous division, Miramax Films, continued on its death march without any help from female directors. Ms. Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” was released by Sony Pictures while the art-house division Sony Pictures Classics released “An Education” (Ms. Scherfig), “Coco Before Chanel” (Anne Fontaine) and “Sugar” (Anna Boden, directing with Ryan Fleck). Universal Pictures has Nancy Meyers’s “It’s Complicated”; its specialty unit Focus Features has no female directors.

Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, meanwhile, did not release a single film directed by a woman. Not one.

Dargis notices, too, what I’ve often stated, that if it really were all about money, and that the reason that we don’t see more movies made by women simply is because they don’t make as much money as movies made by men do, then we wouldn’t see situations like this:

Money makes the movie world go round, sure. But there are exceptions to this perceived rule, as some of my favorite male directors, including Michael Mann, have routinely proved with various box office disappointments. Released in 2001, Mr. Mann’s “Ali,” a well-regarded if not universally beloved biography of Muhammad Ali with Will Smith, brought in nearly $88 million in global receipts. (The production budget, partly paid for by Sony, was an estimated $107 million.) The next year Ms. Bigelow’s independently financed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a submarine adventure movie with Harrison Ford, was released to solid reviews, raking in just under $66 million globally (with a $100 million production budget).

What did a $22 million difference in box office mean for the directors of “Ali” and “K-19”? Well, Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when she began “The Hurt Locker,” a thriller about a bomb squad in Iraq that was bankrolled by a French company and is said to cost under $20 million. For his part Mr. Mann directed “Collateral,” a thriller with Tom Cruise, for Paramount and DreamWorks (with a budget of $65 million and global box office of more than $217 million), and “Miami Vice,” a reimagining, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, of Mr. Mann’s popular 1980s television series. Paid for by Universal, that movie cost $135 million and is considered a disappointment with about a $164 million worldwide take.

I imagine there are a host of reasons why Mr. Mann has been able to persuade executives to keep writing such large checks. He’s a dazzling innovator, and big stars keep flocking to his side, despite his reputation for difficulty. But Ms. Bigelow is one of the greatest action directors working today, and it’s hard not to wonder why failure at the box office doesn’t translate the same for the two sexes.

I also imagine there are a host of reasons to believe that if Kathryn Bigelow were Kevin Bigelow and all other factors were precisely the same, she’d have a lot more executives writing her big checks.

MOST MOVIES MADE BY MEN DON’T BREAK $100 MILLION. You’ll never, ever see that headline, and it’s time to ask ourselves why. IndieWire’s recent look at the top-grossing films directed by women is hugely depressing at first glance:

[T]he numbers show the appalling state of the role of women in the film industry. Over the past ten years, 241 films have grossed $100 million. Five of them (“Twilight,” “What Women Want,” “The Proposal,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Something’s Gotta Give”) were solely directed by women, while an additional two (“Shrek” and “Shark Tale”) had women as co-directors. That amounts to roughly 2%, an absolutely ridiculous percentage when one considers just over half of the world are females. More over, only 31 films directed or co-directed by women grossed over $20 million. Over 1,000 films directed by men did the same.

Alarming statistics aside, it’s certainly interesting to look at the trends in the below list of top grossing female-helmed films. Romantic comedies, many of them directed by Nancy Meyers and Anne Fletcher (who between them accounted for 6 of the 12 top grossing films, and Meyers’ upcoming “It’s Complicated” could easily join them when all is said and done), dominated the overall list. The films on the list also had an overwhelming tendency to feature female actors in a lead role, with Meyer’s “What Women Want” the sole film in the top ten not to at least have a woman co-headlining the cast.

But there’s another way to look at it. If half of all movies were directed by women and, still, only two percent of female-helmed films broke $100 million at the box office, then there might be a supportable argument that movies directed by women simply don’t make money. But that’s not the case. In fact, since most movies are directed by men, the situation is this: Most movies directed by men do not break $100 million at the box office, and most of the movies that do not break even $20 million are directed by men. Most flops are directed by men.

And yet, men continue to get work directing movies, and no one — no one — has ever or will ever make the sweeping generalization that movies made by men are simply a bad investment. Yet the same statement is made all the time about the other half of the human race, with far less evidence or justification for such a statement. Why?

The answer is easy, and hard. It’s because men are allowed to operate under certain assumptions — that it’s okay to fail, that it’s okay to not be brilliant all the time, that it’s perfectly normal and something to be accepted without thought that not every attempt to achieve a difficult feat will succeed, and that there’s no reason not to get back up on that horse when you fall off. Yet a woman’s failure in one instance is evidence of total, complete failure for all time. It’s because the work of one man is never, ever presumed to represent the work of all men — if a Superman movie fails, it’s because Bryan Singer fucked it up, not because “men can’t direct comic book movies”; that would be silly. Yet the work of one woman is frequently assumed to represent the work of all women — if Jennifer’s Body fails, it’s because women can’t direct horror comedy; that’s just common sense.

It goes for audiences, too. No one would presume that, because Singer’s Superman Returns failed to earn back its budget domestically, that that means that “men don’t like comic book movies,” as is clearly represented by the fact that there have been numerous comic book movies since. But the presumption regarding Jennifer’s Body is, “Women don’t like horror comedies/feminist satires/Megan Fox” (instead of the truth, which is that hardly anyone thought this was a good horror comedy or feminist satire, and perhaps that we just didn’t like Megan Fox in this bad movie); who wants to bet we’ll never see another attempt from a studio that looks anything like Jennifer’s Body, even if it’s actually, you know, good? Who wants to bet that Jennifer director Karyn Kusama has a helluva time getting studio backing for her next film? (IMDB Pro notes that her next project, currently in the script stage, is not greenlit at a studio. Bryan Singer, on the other hand, has made two films as producer (one of those as director, of Valkryie, which just barelye earned back its production costs domestically) since Superman; has another three in preproduction, all of which he’ll direct, while serving as producing on two of them; and has four more in development, at least one of which has been optioned.)

Men are presumed to be individuals. Women are not. That is the crux of everything sexist. Until this attitude changes, nothing else will.

(Thanks go to reader Ben Jackson for the heads up on the IndieWire article.)

SHE JUST PLAYS A DUMB BLOND ON TV. This week on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart took Gretchen Carlson to task for playing the resident dumb blond on Fox News, when in fact she’s nothing of the sort. It’s brilliant, and hilarious, and well worth watching:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gretchen Carlson Dumbs Down
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

What’s most notable about Stewart’s take on the matter, however, is his perspective. He assumes that women are smart, is stunned when they act like they aren’t, and ties it in all to the Fox philosophy that denigrates intellectualism.

Making fun of the “dumb blond” has long been a standard of the male-dominated entertainment industry. But making fun of a “dumb blond” because she’s pretending to be a dumb blond when she’s clearly sharp as a tack? That’s new, and welcome, and totally refreshing.

ONE AIN’T OF THREE AIN’T BAD? SAYS WHO? I was all ready to be excited about the Entertainment Weekly cover story on Sandra Bullock, in which she says things like:

Sexism is everywhere. Ageism is everywhere. But you know know what? It’s about making money. Look at what Sarah Jessica Parker did with Sex and the City. Look at what Meryl Streep is doing every other week! The proof is in the pudding. I didn’t have the ‘Oh my God, I’m not working because I’m 40.’ I was working when I was 40. I’ve never had this many opportunities in my lifetime.

Sounds great. But then there’s this, from the EW staff:

The Blind Side comes just five months after Bullock made her long-anticipated return to her romantic comedy roots in The Proposal, which surpassed everyone’s expectations by going on to rake in $314 million worldwide. The 45-year-old is enjoying the best year of her acting career, which may bode well for everyone who wants to see more well-told stories about grown women up on the big screen.

This is a preposterous claim: that Bullock’s success at the moment “bode[s] well for everyone who wants to see more well-told stories about grown women up on the big screen.” The Proposal is a terrible movie that, if I may quote myself:

sap[s] all intelligence out of the romantic comedy, all hint of the feminist out of a movie with a female protagonist, and all romance out of the concept of “the wedding” — and there’s precious little of any intelligence, feminism, and romance to be found anywhere these days to start with.

Her second film this year, All About Steve, is a pile of excrement that explicitly casts Bullock as an overgrown 12-year-old, one possibly autistic, she’s unconcerned with, even unaware of, the feelings of anyone else. This is the absolute antithesis of a well-told story about a grownup woman. In fact, if someone said, “Get me a poorly told story about a child in the body of an adult woman,” All About Steve would be the result.

In The Blind Side, Bullock does indeed portray an actual adult. And its story is well told, at least if predictability, tediousness, and a lack of any real drama qualifies. But if Sandra Bullock’s 2009 is an indication that things are getting better for women in Hollywood, we’re in bigger trouble than I thought.

OPENING THIS WEEK. Invictus, about the rugby game that healed South Africa’s national soul, may be a wonderful movie indeed, but there’s nary a woman to be found in it: it’s all about Nelson Mandela and the male (natch) rugby team captain. At least we girls can see ourselves onscreen as a down-to-earth “princess” in The Princess and the Frog… even if she does spend most of the movie as a frog. Or there’s The Lovely Bones, which turns an aching tale about grief and acceptance and moving on after the murder of a teenage girl into a horror story fluffed up with pretty CGI. Ooo, look at the candy-colored heaven!

(See the AWFJ’s regular weekly 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, 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 archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).