Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and, since I give myself the weekends off, I didn’t blog about it the day of. I’m a senior in college and I work two jobs. I need some “me” time.
I am an outspoken feminist, and, with the modern wave of feminism sweeping across this generation, it is an endlessly relevant (and important) conversation to have. Since this is a film blog, I will triangulate that discussion to the cinematic arts here.
Notice that I didn’t title this post as a “Top Ten” list. It’s counterproductive to the movement to turn it into a contest, since gender equality is the goal and equality does not exist in a competitive environment, so this list is not organized into any particular order of importance. These ten women, either from behind the camera or in front of it, have shaped movie history in a way that opens it up to all women, and, because their pioneering has paved the way, it’s largely possible now for fellow feminists in Hollywood to keep the good fight going.
- Patricia Arquette
Arquette made a splash at this year’s Academy Awards when she used her Best Actress in a Supporting Role acceptance speech as a platform to make a rallying call for wage equality among the sexes. (Ironic, considering that a movie called BOYhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) is what led to this moment in the history of women’s rights). Some, like Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, are enthusiastic about Arquette’s comments, but others think her racially and sexually charged backstage remarks are problematic.
“It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for, to fight for us now,” Arquette said. However you feel about it, at least she used her fame for good instead of evil and got a dialogue started. Yes, the path to Hell is paved in good intentions, but feminism doesn’t begin and end with Patricia Arquette – we’re on the journey, not at the destination.
Arquette is the sister of Rosanna Arquette and David Arquette. David starred in one of my favorite horror movies, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), and both Patricia and Rosanna acted in Quentin Tarantino films, Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993, written by Tarantino) and Pulp Fiction (1994) respectively, and any chance I get to namedrop Quentin Tarantino is fine by me. Patricia Arquette is currently working on CBS’s CSI: Cyber (there’s a tongue-twister for you, assuming you’re into that).
- Hilary Swank
Swank won her first Oscar for Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), the true story of a twenty-one-year-old trans man named Brandon Teena who was gang raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993 for being trans. Not only was the film directed by a woman – a rarity in the film industry – but Swank’s high-profile and sympathetic portrayal of Teena was (and still is) bold, especially when one considers that the film was released around the same time as the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard, a time when anti-LGBT sentiments were so virulent in this country that queer youth were (and still are) victims to violence. Gender inequality affects the rights of transgender people as much as it does cisgender women, and so Swank ought to be applauded as much for her bravery as she is for the performance itself.
As for myself, personally, I didn’t learn what it meant to be transgendered until Boys Don’t Cry. I knew about sex-change operations, of course, but I never knew about the difference between biological “sex” and gender “identity,” so you can imagine how confused my sixteen-year-old self was when I heard Swank refer to Teena in her acceptance speech with male pronouns. I think transgender rights are the next frontier in the battle for sexual equality in the United States – equality between the genders and equality between the sexualities – and movies like Boys Don’t Cry raise the awareness we need to raise.
When actresses like Swank give their all in roles like these, they deserve every bit of praise they earn.
- Jessica Lange
Lange was a cinematic powerhouse throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), the same year she was nominated for her leading part in Graeme Clifford’s Frances. After appearing in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) and winning her second Oscar for Tony Richardson’s Blue Sky (1994), Lange, born in 1949, entered some dangerous career territory for a woman in Hollywood: the aging actress.
Some, like the fifty-year-old Russell Crowe, say it is older actresses’ faults when they land fewer roles than older actors, but this does not account for the harsh treatment that then eighty-one-year-old Kim Novak received at the 2014 Academy Awards, when people on social media discussed her looks rather than her impact on filmmaking when she starred in Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), which critics consider to be the greatest film of all time. Lange, who does not seem to be resisting the aging process (which she also has every right to do if she wanted to), has been rediscovered by a new generation and launched her comeback through FX’s American Horror Story, winning two Emmys (in 2012 and 2014). Some say she deserved an Academy Award nomination for her supporting character in Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler (2014), even though the film itself was panned.
Honorable mention goes out to Lange’s American Horror Story costar, Gabourey Sidibe, who, despite her weight, earned herself an Oscar nomination for lead actress in her debut, Lee Daniels’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009). Lange and Sidibe are living proof that age and size should be irrelevant to women in Hollywood. When you focus on your talents, they will get you farther than your looks ever will, even in the sexist movie business, which objectifies females under a one-size-fits-all standard of “beauty.”
- Charlize Theron
Theron was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in Niki Caro’s North Country (2005), a supremely difficult film to watch about the first ever class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in United States history, but that’s not why she made this list. With the debate over whether men are funnier than women still going on in the twenty-first century, it’s clear that male talent is privileged over female talent. However, Theron proved all these misogynists wrong when Roger Ebert praised her Oscar-winning turn in Patty Jenkins’s Monster (2003) as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”
Not “one of the greatest performances by a woman in the history of the cinema,” but “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” I rest my case.
- Katharine Hepburn
The late, great Hepburn is still the winningest actor (not just actress) in all of Hollywood. With four Academy Awards under her belt, all for leading roles, she has won more Oscars than any man or woman, alive or dead, in the acting community. Meryl Streep currently holds the record for most nominations (sixteen), Tatum O’Neill was the youngest actor ever to win (for Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973) at ten years old), and Gloria Stuart was the oldest actor ever to be nominated for an award (Best Supporting Actress, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), eighty-seven years old).
Actresses do quite well for themselves in a medium that persecutes them when it doesn’t like their bodies. It takes genius to overcome systematic vanity with pure talent and hard work.
- Emma Watson
After proving that Hermione Granger is smarter than both the leading gentlemen in the Harry Potter film series, Watson has gone on to distinguish herself from other child actor superstars with a degree in English literature at Brown University. She was named a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador last year, and she’s done more with herself at twenty-four years old than most women or men ever will in a lifetime.
She truly is the brightest witch of her age (if you’ve seen Harry Potter, you’d know that “witch” is a compliment).
- Hattie McDaniel
McDaniel so impressed producer David O. Selznick with her interpretation of Mammy, the house slave at the Tara plantation in Georgia, that he rewrote the screenplay for Victor Fleming’s American Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind (1939), to accommodate her. Due to segregation, she was not even permitted to attend the premiere of the film in Atlanta, and, when she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year, she was forced to sit in a segregated section of the ceremony. Notwithstanding, she became the first African American ever to win an Oscar – not the first African American woman; not the first African American actor; the first African American.
African American women have been delivering some of the finest supporting performances in recent years. Lupita Nyong’o – who deserves to be on this list for her advocacy of “black beauty” in a culture that privileges white skin as much as it does youth and figure – won for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), Octavia Spencer won for Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011), and Mo’Nique thanked McDaniel in her acceptance speech for Precious. Since neither the director Ava DuVernay nor any people of color in her cast were nominated at this year’s awards show for Selma, it goes to show how amazing it still is, in a post-Ferguson America, that a black woman won an Oscar seventy-six years ago.
- Kathryn Bigelow
Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of The Hurt Locker (2009) or Zero Dark Thirty (2013). It’s not that they’re bad – it’s just that they’re overpraised. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015) is a superior representation of what the War on Terror does to those who fight it, and even that is problematic in its inappropriately patriotic glamorization of Chris Kyle’s kill shots (those were real people, you guys, who actually died; that’s not something you should cheer about).
Then again, what can you expect from the same nation that chased the Dixie Chicks off the airwaves when they dared criticize our overlord during the war, George W. Bush?
Anyway, despite my personal feelings toward The Hurt Locker, I still respect Bigelow for being the first female director in cinematic history to snag an Oscar. As of 2013, only five percent of directors in Hollywood are women (down from nine percent in 1998), and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated female directors just four times in eighty-seven years. Granted, Bigelow’s work on The Hurt Locker probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it had been a more “feminine” film, but, when Jesus passed out loaves and fishes to the starving masses, they didn’t ask him first if the bread was gluten-free before they ate it.
In other words, be grateful for what you have right now, but don’t let it stop you from going after something even better in the future.
And I don’t think she got the award just because she’s a woman, either, even though the film isn’t my favorite. The alternative was her ex-husband, James Cameron, for Avatar. Thank God for progress in 2009, or else Avatar might’ve won, amiright?
- Callie Khouri
I have a Thelma & Louise poster hanging up on my wall, so, personal bias is weighing in heavily on this one, but it is an opinion blog, so, don’t act surprised.
Khouri was a secretary at a music video production company when she wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Ridley Scott’s 1991 road movie classic, and she earned that Oscar. Thelma & Louise is as funny as it is tragic, making for an overall powerful and compelling viewing experience, but, perhaps most importantly, it is a commercially successful picture about two female protagonists (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) who actively fight back against a world that’s out to oppress them. Raina Lipsitz of The Atlantic hailed it as “the last great film about women,” and, whether or not you believe that to be true, it showed everybody that it’s possible to make not only a great film about women, but also a great film that just so happens to be about women.
All you have to do is go on a road trip with a gal pal and you have the inspiration you need for a brilliantly plotted script. Will the next Callie Khouri please stand up?
- Mary Pickford
The one who started it all, Pickford, “America’s sweetheart,” was a silent film star who not only cofounded the studio United Artists with Charlie Chaplin (his ex-wife, Paulette Goddard, is a distant relative of mine) and Douglas Fairbanks, Senior, but also helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Actor, filmmaker, businesswoman… she’s done it all. Most analyses of film history make mention of Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, D.W. Griffith, and Orson Welles, but Mary Pickford is a name that belongs in your mental catalogue of Hollywood entrepreneurs, and not for any condescending, “just-because-she’s-a-woman” reason.
It’s for more than “just because she’s a woman” – it’s for because she’s a woman who did what she was told was impossible for women to do, especially since she was born in 1892, twenty-eight years before she even had the right to vote in this democracy.
Before you get cynical over the feminine presence in Hollywood, and before you get complacent, just remember how far we’ve come – and far we still have left to go.