MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Oscar and the Absence of Femme Films

Published under Oscar Outsider.

The box office success (and relatively high profit margins) of femme-focused films like Sex and the CityMamma Mia! and, presumably, the upcoming Twilight (assuming it does well enough at the box office to make back Summit’s $37 million investment and justify a sequel, which I think it most certainly will) may well have a positive impact on the future greenlighting of female-targeted films, but will that impact spill over into seeing better female films, and more top-quality films being helmed by women directors?

Honestly, I don’t know. The optimist in me hopes so; the pragmatist says, “Yeah, not going to hold my breath on that one.” But then again, if you’d asked me a couple years ago if our country was ready to elect someone for president who’s not a white male in 2008, I probably wouldn’t have taken that bet, either.

Look, I don’t hold anything against the above films for their success, but a future where most of the female-centric films being greenlit by studios are lightweight, milquetoast romances, rom-coms and musicals is not the brave, new world of femme cinema I hope to see. Sex and the City was fine for what it was, but I don’t need to see another two hours of Carrie and the girls agonizing about men over drinks while wearing overpriced footwear. I want more of the raw, wrenching Anne Hathaway of Rachel Getting Married — in fact, I never want to see Hathaway have to take a role in a crappy romantic comedy or badly-executed drivel like the Get Smart remake ever again. I want to see her stay in this zone and see how far she can take it — but will the studios let her?

I want Kate Hudson to either get her shit together, get her Penny Lane vibe back and pull off a stand-out, knock-me-off-my-feet performance in an edgy indie film, or stop making movies altogether. I want to see Megan Fox, bless her heart, be more of an actual asset in a film and stop being tit-and-ass-driven boner fodder for horny fanboys.

I want to see more films with strong female performances like Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein in I’ve Loved You So LongMichelle Williams in Wendy and LucyMelissa Leo and Missy Upham (who people seem to largely be forgetting about) in Frozen River, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, all great films with strong lead roles — and two of them directed by women, too — and none of them are in serious contention at this point for Best Picture.

Let’s examine the list of films that are front-runners for Best Picture this year. Twenty-three films on the Gurus of Gold Best Picture chart and of those, not a single damned one is directed by a woman. That’s just sad — both generally speaking, and because I’m rather shocked that Frozen River, at least, hasn’t managed to garner even a single vote in its favor. The only femme-helmed film even showing up on the Gurus’ Best Pic chart is … The Secret Life of Bees? Seriously? No offense to that film, but Dakota and the Bees above Frozen River? I honestly cannot imagine an objective version of reality where the former is a better film artistically speaking. And don’t get me started on the mostly dreadful Body of Lies being anywhere on that list when Frozen River is not. Oy.

None of this is to say anything against most of the male-directed films that are considered to be in the running — there are several I’ve seen that certainly deserve to be in the race for the five big slots — Milk and Slumdog Millionaire I think for sure should be in the running. I haven’t seen The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonRevolutionary Road or Frost/Nixon yet. Until I’ve do, it’s rather moot to judge them, but I personally would put The Wrestler way above Changeling and perhaps a notch above Doubt. And I’m surprised — and irritated — Rachel Getting Married isn’t getting more love at this point in the game.

Admittedly, you could argue that there aren’t more woman-directed entries in the Best Picture race because women directors just didn’t make any really stand-out, Oscar-caliber films this year … and sadly, aside from Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy (which is more of an end-of-year top ten pick than a Best Picture contender), you’d mostly be right.

But if we want to have a conversation about why more smart female films aren’t made, and why more women don’t get jobs directing awards-caliber films, we have to look beyond just the box office numbers to the people making the decisions at studios about which films get greenlit and who gets hired to helm them. Studios are businesses that will always be about the bottom line, and they need to wake up and realize that women are not a niche market. There are more women than men in the US now overall, so why are studios still targeting the vast majority of their filmmaking efforts at teenage boys? Sure, teenage boys spend bucks at the box office to see car chases and explosions, but maybe, just maybe, more women would bother to plunk their hard-earned dollars down for films in theaters if the films being targeted at them weren’t largely condescending crap.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Hollywood is still largely controlled by men. There are women of power in Hollywood, but they’re still far outnumbered, and so long as that imbalance exists, so will the male domination of most of the Oscar categories. We need more smart women in Hollywood focusing on getting films made for the female demographic, visionaries who will reach beyond just the low-hanging fruit of adaptations of summer-beach-read chick flicks and Oprah picks and find the hidden box-office and gold-trophy treasure trove of female films that are intelligent, compelling, powerfully acted and boldly directed.

Balancing that equation, though, is not as simple as Hollywood studios just saying, well, okay, we’ll strive to balance that out and have more women in top roles. There’s a glass ceiling in Hollywood, just as there is in the business world everywhere, that serves to prevent more women from rising to positions where they have the power to control the money that gets spent. And that ceiling stays in place not just because the men who hold the power want to keep it there, but because there are broader societal issues that still make it more difficult for women to break through it.

Hollywood studios, for all their perceived glitz and glamour, are nothing more than corporations driven by bottom lines, like any business. And as in most professional career paths, as one moves up the corporate ladder, the sheer amount of work hours and stress that go along with being an executive in any large corporation largely serve to penalize career women who also choose at some point to be mothers — ask any professional woman how easy it is to jump back on the career ladder if you take a few years off to raise babies. Society pressures women to be “good” mothers, to nurture their children, to be loving and present and there in their children’s early years in a way that it does not pressure men; then it penalizes career women who struggle to find that balance while being true to both corporate project babies and real ones.

Is it any wonder we don’t have more women making decisions in studios? Not really, and I’m frankly not optimistic that all these gender-role issues will be resolved any time in the near future. So we’ll continue to have predominantly men in decision-making positions; those men will continue to green-light femme-driven films, for the most part, only when it’s a “safe” bet of an existing literary property with a known fan base to drive female audiences to see them, and will continue to put the bulk of studio dollars behind films aimed primarily at men, or films that have a broader cross-demographic appeal across gender lines. They’ll put their Oscar chances where both the dollars and greatest likelihood of success lie, and it’s going to take more than decent box office from a few femme films to effect any lasting change.

But believe me when I say that I would love for an exec — male or female — at a major Hollywood studio to prove me wrong over the next couple years by being ballsy enough to focus primarily on the women’s market; some smart young exec could build up a hell of a career by finding a way to both make smarter, awards-level films for women (directed by women would be swell, too) and effectively market them to a demographic that’s pretty much come to expect a low bar of quality for films aimed in their general direction.

I suppose I should just be grateful that we have a great slate of films in 2008 in the running, period, and not let it bother me that there’s no femme representation in the Best Picture equation. There are some great films on that chart; I just wish we had some great films from women on there to consider as well. Can we get there? Yes we … well, maybe.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon