My friend and fellow critic Scout Tafoya has written my favorite piece of movie criticism I’ve read in a long time. I have mixed feelings about Martin Scorsese’s new epic film, “The Irishman,” but the part I liked best is exactly what he describes here.
Fear of death and refusal of old age in movie-making are as old as the moving image itself. Movie stars date appallingly young, and directors sew bone-deep terror of mortality into their images. Film critic André Bazin famously defined the ontology of cinema according to its “mummy complex,” its embalming of time and space. And true to form, something uniquely bizarre occurs when film directors near the death at which they’ve been thumbing their nose by preserving slices of life for one and all to experience. The “late film” has become a class unto itself: what happens to your work if you know this will be one of the last times you point a camera at someone and yell, “Action!”?
It’s a pleasure to read, so wise about movies and about life.
How Two 1994 Movies Transformed Screen Portrayals of Female Sexuality
Posted on March 11, 2019 at 3:58 pm
For rogerebert.com’s Women Writer’s Week, I wrote an essay about how two films, both made 25 years ago, transformed the way female sexuality is portrayed on screen. Before these films, female characters either seemed unaware of sex or determined not to have sex until marriage. If they did, the consequences were usually terrible — an unwanted pregnancy, a nervous breakdown, loss of reputation, even death. There were sex comedies based on successful Broadway farces like “Sunday in New York,” “The Moon is Blue,” and the weirdest of all, written by Arthur Marx (son of Groucho), “The Impossible Years.”
David Niven (one of the failed seducers from “The Moon is Blue”) plays a psychology professor obsessed with his daughter’s virginity—in a sex comedy kind of way but still pretty creepy. Spoiler alert: She is safely married by the time she has sex (with her father’s young professional colleague/rival, hmmm, wonder what a psychology professor would make of that). And somehow the act of having sex instantly transforms her into a mature, thoughtful, responsible person as well, just in time for her dad to start worrying about her younger sister.
Other movies feature the tragic consequences of pre-marital sex. In “Where the Boys Are” Yvette Mimieux is not only raped but also hit by a car as the consequence for her decision to have sex on spring vacation in Fort Lauderdale. Worst of all, “they’re not even Yalies.” Meanwhile, Dolores Hart, who intellectually is in favor of sexual autonomy and freedom from shame for young women, maintains her purity and thus achieves the ultimate—an invitation to the spring dance from handsome Ivy Leaguer George Hamilton.
But the micro-budget “Clerks” and the glossy romantic comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral” both did something remarkable and revolutionary — they gave us female characters who were comfortable with sexual desire and expression, unapologetic because they saw no reason to be. And the men they confided in were not disgusted, disappointed, or contemptuous. They were impressed and intimidated. Compare this to Audrey Hepburn’s similar — except entirely fictitious — recitation of imaginary lovers to Gary Cooper in “Love in the Afternoon,” just one example of this era’s pretend to have your cake but don’t eat anything attitude during this era.
This idea that sexual experience was evidence of a healthy, confident ownership of sexual expression was an enormous shift, the foundation for later films like the raunchy but sweet-natured sex comedy “American Pie” (1999), also revolutionary in the female characters’ ownership of their sexuality, compared to “Porky’s” (1981) or “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Sixteen Candles” (both 1984), where the perspective is all about male sexual gratification including voyeurism, sexual assault, and a boy selling a look at a teenage girl’s underwear.
2018’s “Blockers,” like “The Impossible Years,” also featured parents who were way too invested in whether their daughters were going to have sex. But this time, the point of view of the movie was very much on the side of the girls and their ability to make their own choices. Series like “Big Mouth,” “PEN15,” and “Broad City,” have characters who may make some bad decisions and suffer the consequences, but they do not pretend that sexual desire is wrong or bad. They follow in the steps of “Clerks” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” as those two films provided a turning point for healthier depictions of women and our right to our feelings and our choices.
Where once slasher films almost made killing teens who had sex a given, after “Clerks” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” came “Scream,” with a heroine who only after having sex achieved the wisdom and power to defeat the killer(s).
I love the annual Women Writers Week on rogerebert.com and this year’s is especially dear to my heart because it is my first as an assistant editor. From my welcome/introduction:
We do not pretend that women have more empathy or indeed that it is possible to make any generalization about gender with one exception: every one of us has walked through the world as a woman and that is an experience only we can understand and reflect in our take on the films we write about. It may be less important in what we bring than our own particular points of view based on our individual experiences—whether we are old or young, hetero-normative or LGBQTIA, partnered or single, mothers or childless, baby boomers, Gen-Xers, or millennials, from the city or the country, from the US or international, white or a woman of color, whatever our level of education or amount of money, whether we are fans of Korean horror movies or anime or multiplex fodder or quirky indies, all of those elements are reflected in our writing, as they are for the male critics. But all of us understand what it is to live in a culture that has always been dominated by another gender, and review films that come out of a system that has been even more so.
This week, with every word on the site written by women, our readers of any gender will see the fabulous range of talent, insight, and perspectives of our female contributors. If you look closely, you may see something else—a consistent perception by writers who are at least in part outsiders to the stories overwhelmingly told by men. Sharing their perspectives creates an empathy machine of our own.
And there is some superb new content, including a “Captain Marvel” video interview, Carrie Rickey connecting golden age of Hollywood directors George Cukor and Mitchell Leisen to “Black Panther’s” Ryan Coogler for their sympathetic and nuanced portrayals of female characters, and a piece on “Killing Eve” by Kristy Puchko.
Throughout cinema history, films by and about women have enthralled audiences, accrued awards and honors worldwide and scored at the box office while influencing out social social mores and enriching our cultural conversation. Although some Hollywood honchos and haters assert that female-centric movies are less likely to be commercial successes, our list proves them wrong. Movies that tell women’s stories have legs.
Released to celebrate Women’s History Month, AWFJ’s REAL REEL WOMEN List is an annotated roster of 50 fascinating real women whose remarkable true stories have been told in narrative features since the earliest days of moviemaking. The REAL REEL WOMEN List is a companion to AWFJ’s WONDER WOMEN List of iconic fictional females, published as a five-part countdown series in 2016.
AWFJ members selected our 50 iconic REAL REEL WOMEN from more than 150 nominees, all of whom have had their stories told in watch-worthy films. Short essays about our REAL REEL WOMEN’s lives, accomplishments and the films made about them have been written by AWFJ members Betsy Bozdech, Liz Braun, Sandie Angulo Chen, Carol Cling, Leslie Combemale, Linda Cook, Laura Emerick, Marilyn Ferdinand, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Kimberley Jones, Loren King, Sarah Knight Adamson, Cate Marquis, Brandy McDonnell, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Lynn Venhaus, and Susan Wloszczyna.
We hope that reading about these REAL REEL princesses and pilots, artists and actors, poets, political activists and other women from all walks of life will prompt you to add all the films about them to your watch list, and that you’ll then be motivated to seek out and enjoy additional current and classic movies about other real women whose stories are memorialized in cinema.
One of my contributions to the list was Fanny Brice, unforgettably portrayed by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.”
Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach, was the daughter of Jewish immigrants who dropped out of school as a teenager to work in burlesque and began her association with vaudeville impresario Flo Ziegfeld two years later. She headlined the Ziegfeld Follies from 1910 through part of the 1930s. Best known in sketch comedy as bratty little girl “Baby Snooks” and performing songs like the comically self-deprecatory “Second Hand Rose,” her signature was the heartbreaking torch song, “My Man,” which inspired her first film, My Man (1928). She played herself in the Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld (1936), acted in several other films, and had a hit on radio with the “The Baby Snooks Show,” but there is no question that her own fame has been eclipsed by the performer who starred as Brice on Broadway and in her first film—Oscar-winner Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968). It was a perfect match—one brash, prodigiously talented, unconventionally pretty, New York Jewish singer equally adept at comedy and drama portraying another. Streisand sings “Second Hand Rose,” “My Man,” and original songs created for the Broadway show, including the now-standard “People.” The story of Brice’s determination and resilience despite the heartbreak of her marriage to a handsome scoundrel is now a classic and prompted a sequel, also starring Streisand, that told more of Brice’s story, 1975’s Funny Lady. Brice helped pave the way for unconventional-looking lead performers, and her few films are well worth watching.
As we see in movies like “Get Out,” “28 Days Later,” and “Dawn of the Dead,” horror can be more than scares and carnage. It can reflect and challenge our assumptions. Two new articles provide some fascinating commentary on these themes.
Mary Beth McAndrews writes on Reel Honey about “reclaiming female exploitation” in horror. “Recently, female directors have been working to reclaim this exploitation by appropriating these tropes to create empowering horror narratives. These films are still violent, but they do not solely depend on the suffering and abjection of their female characters….These directors and writers are just a few of the women in horror working to change the trajectory of the horror narrative and how we view the female body on-screen. Yes, horror is a genre built on violence and gore. But these women are re-evaluating the use of that exploitative violence into something thoughtful, empowering, and equally gory. The monsters they construct are not so fantastical and the scenarios they portray are much more real, giving their violence more meaning and purpose. It is not just about reveling in women’s bodies in pain; it is about understanding their pain.”
And on Medium, Marcus Benjamin writes about a new documentary: “Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror’ Makes The Case For Empathy In A Scary World.” Traditionally, he says, “Outside of dying, tending to the the main character’s need was our number one function. This was all done while doing a disservice to our own lives, which we may or may not have had on screen because no one cared enough to give them one. Or in the case of Rachel True’s character from The Craft, someone decided to cut out portions of the film altogether that explored her family life and other struggles….When you’re not surrounded by people of races other than your own, you don’t develop the empathy gene for them. How can you begin to comprehend how a black person feels about blackface if you don’t have any black people in your circle to tell you? Or if you’ve didn’t grow up with any black friends? Or if you grew up in a racist city or town? Despite all your efforts to learn, you’ll likely have a cultural blindspot or two. Similarly, when the history of cinema is filled with blackface or monsters and gigantic apes as stand-ins for black people, that means entire generations grew up believing black people were always lesser.”