March 17, 2009

Whatever happened to female stars and their stories?

This evening, temporarily alleviated of the homework burden that has been crushing me all semester (and preventing me from writing on this here blog), I watched Now, Voyager (1942), a Bette Davis film. The film was uneven, and it many ways was like several films stiched together, but it certainly had its moments and Bette was of course wonderful. This was actually only the third Davis film I've seen, after All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which I know, of course, is shameful and I really do intend on working through her filmography. Having previously seen her as the washed-up, hardened, and not entirely sympathetic Eve and the crazed and cruel Baby Jane, it was interesting to see what she brought to a more sympathetic and victimized character. It seems that even when her movies get campy or melodramatic, she has the ability to ground them.

The strengths of Now, Voyager are not only in performance, however. It is a genuinely insightful look into a layered and complex female character. When you think about it, there were a lot of films like that in the 40s, perhaps in response to the liberation of women that occurred during WWII. But when you think about it even harder, women probably had equal representation on screen from about the start of film (even D.W. Griffith was really invested in his heroines) to maybe the 60s/70s or so. There were stars then, with a capital S: your Stanwycks, your Crawfords, Davises, Hepburns, Monroes. These women could sell anything on name alone. Movies were just as willing to delve into their troubles, their hopes and dreams, and their psyches as those of men.

Female stardom certainly hasn't stopped, but I would argue that even though these stars still exist, they are used differently. Take someone like Julia Roberts, for example - definitely a big female star and a name that sells movies. But she always appears in either big ensemble casts (Ocean's Eleven, Full Frontal), smaller ensemble casts (Closer, America's Sweethearts) or most often, movies that weigh her equally with her costar (The Mexican, Pretty Woman). There are only a couple of movies in her filmography that are really all about her. While this also happens with male stars, it seems to happen less.

So what happened? I have a theory: women got choices. Not just actresses, but women in society. They were let out of kitchens and into the world, where they could go to work and even divorce. So many of the classic Hollywood female-driven films center on how the heroine is trapped or has limited options. The plot of Now, Voyager would have no dramatic tension today: Charlotte Vale is trapped by her domineering mother (um, move out, duh) and the man she falls in love with is married - but unhappily so (get a divorce, duh). Other notable films like this include Leave Her to Heaven (Ellen just wants to be loved, but has very few ways of making that happen) and Baby Face (the only way to get to the top is to sleep your way there), and arguably some noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice because somehow or other, murdering your husband is always a more viable option than divorce. Really, any major star of this time had one of these films - Mildred Pierce, Kitty Foyle, Summertime, Gone With the Wind, even Audrey Hepburn is trapped in Roman Holiday as a result of being a princess. But when women no longer had these constraints, Hollywood didn't know what to do with them anymore. Their primary female conflict was lost.

So while I don't think we'll ever quite have another Bette Davis, or Katharine Hepburn, or Joan Crawford, I'm not completely in agreement that "they just don't make em like they used to." I am willing to believe that the newfound ability of options to women inadvertendly created a female movie role ghetto.

What do you think?

The genius of Billy Wilder

You may notice that the sole permanent picture on my blog is one of Billy Wilder. In addition to being a totally rad picture, I had no trouble handing over the only spot to Wilder, because he is a cinematic genius. Films like Double Indemnity, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard are all impeccable classics, as well as less famous works like Ace in the Hole and Sabrina. A more thorough examination of his filmography reveals treasures like the stunningly dark alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend (a Best Picture winner, actually) and the Berlin comedy A Foreign Affair, which I'll be catching at my beloved Brattle this week. Nobody's gonna argue that this guy wasn't a brilliant filmmaker and writer (he wrote of lot of classic films that he didn't direct, like Ninotchka). But why was he so brilliant?

I have a theory. Some directors build a reputation on a distinct visual style. Others are all about plot (looking at you, Hitchcock). But what Wilder was about - and what many screenwriting books tell you films are all about - was relationships. The key, however, was that they were not just any relationships, but a subversion of relationship archetypes, which therefore meant that the conflicts were built in. Instead of husband and wife, how about wife and man trying to kill her husband, or wife and man exploiting her husband that is trapped in a mine? Instead of boyfriend and girlfriend, how about younger man kept in a mutually dependent relationship by a decaying older woman, or married man lusting after a fantasy girl upstairs that might not even be real? Man and prostitute in Irma La Douce becomes man who is prostitute's pimp but falls in love with her and has to start going to her with an alternate identity. Boss and employee becomes more complicated when the boss is using the employee's apartment to have sex with a girl they both like. The relationships of Kiss Me, Stupid are so complicated that you need a road map, but what might have been a simple infidelity scenario becomes lots of people pretending to be other people in order to get what they want. A quick browsing through the AFI Top 100 proves that not many other classic American films relied on this concept. Oh sure, you take something like screwball comedy where the hero and heroine get into all kinds of entanglements and conflicts in their path to an eventual union, but from the first frame you know that both of them are basically there for a straight courtship.

It seems to me that a lot of writers and directors, both past and present, make things too complicated. Now, that isn't to say I don't love a good thriller or mystery, but sometimes you just have to go back to basics. Maybe modern filmmakers should take a hint from Wilder and look at the relationship as the source of their inspiration. You might have a really great character, but if you don't give him other people he's just going to sit in his house alone and be boring. But instead of just giving him a wife, maybe give him a woman pretending to be his wife - something with an inherent conflict. Watching people relate to each other is maybe the most relatable thing you can show on a movie screen.

What do you think? Other Wilder fans in the house?