Fishing for Feminism with Sofia Coppola’s “The Little Mermaid”

sofia-coppola-chateau-marmont-roomreporterDeadline Hollywood reported Tuesday that Oscar-winning writer-director Sofia Coppola is in final negotiations to helm a live-action interpretation of The Little Mermaid.

The news comes on the heels of one of the most forward-thinking collective votes the Academy Awards have ever seen. 12 Years a Slave triumphed as the year’s Best Picture, appealing to the white voters’ taste—a taste that had chosen only one female for Best Director, no films about slavery or directed by a black person for Best Picture, and overwhelmingly chose white actors and actresses for top honors in the acting categories since its inception nearly 90 years ago. 

Diversity—and the celebration of it—is not, at least from any discernable pattern, the Academy’s cup of tea.

That doesn’t mean it’s an inherent, natural part of the Academy’s complexion, or that it’s a conscious decision by the Academy’s 6,000 (and growing) membership to shun minorities of gender and race.

One thing is clear, however: the industry is angry.

We’re experiencing a wave of reactionary movement pushing for the greater presence of women and racial minorities in the industry. There’s a hunger that permeates the discussion about women and minorities in film. Trade publications, Oscar bloggers, and women directors themselves are voicing their frustration with the glaring lack of female hands behind the lens and the wafer-thin opportunities and stories built around the ones in front of it.

The reactionary feminism and reactionary support of the New Black Wave trio (Steve McQueen, Lee Daniels, and Ryan Coogler) last year is persistent, ever-present, and urgent. It’s angry, in a sense. Enough is enough and, as 12 Years a Slave’s campaign spelled out for us quite literally near the end of awards season, it’s time for change.

I imagine many of this year’s Oscar voters found themselves at a crossroads between personal preference and moral obligation.

Preference seemed to tip in the favor of Gravity, a film with a narrative that’s driven solely by a female character played by an over-40 actress who consistently proves her might as a box-office draw in the age of the fading bankability of stars in general. Gravity garnered widespread critical acclaim, recognition from top Oscar precursors (including DGA, Golden Globe, and PGA), and titanic worldwide ticket sales totaling over $700 million.

12 Years a Slave emerged early in the race as a game-changer. Touted as the Best Picture winner as far back as Telluride, it’s the first film with a predominantly black cast (directed by a black filmmaker, about the “black” perspective during slavery) to ever win Best Picture, albeit decorated by a predominantly-white voting base.

While either outcome would have been historic in its own right, 12 Years a Slave will ride the next few years as the defining film for black filmmakers at the Oscars. It will be the volleying point for voters in the future who will turn away at the next black film to enter the race because it’ll all be so “been there, done that.”

The one thing 12 Years a Slave did by winning was not only to cement itself as the crowning black achievement in the eyes of a white majority, it also became an endpoint for these films, at least for the immediate future

The Academy listened to industry pressure and defied all statistical precursors that by all means should have put the Best Picture Oscar in Gravity’s court. 12 Years a Slave won by default as the sole objectified race picture of the year (The Butler and Fruitvale Station were nowhere to be found when Oscar nominations rolled around).

It’s “equality” by default, but that’s not enough.

The numbers speak for themselves, and audiences respond to diversity in a way that’s not as overt as the journalistic narrative seems to make it out to be.

While we’re still seeing male-driven, top-heavy blockbusters dominate the box-office, there’s no denying the impact women are having on American audiences. Let’s take a look at films which opened to over $35 million in weekend sales from last year:

▪    Gravity – $55.8 million
▪    Insidious Chapter 2 – $40.2 million
▪    The Conjuring – $41.9 million
▪    The Wolverine – $53 million
▪    Despicable Me 2 – $83 million
▪    Monsters University – $82.4 million
▪    Man of Steel – $116.6 million
▪    Fast & Furious 6 – $117 million
▪    Star Trek Into Darkness – $70.2 million
▪    Iron Man 3 – $174.1 million
▪    Oblivion – $37.1 million
▪    G.I. Joe: Retaliation – $40.5 million
▪    The Croods – $43.6 million
▪    Oz The Great and Powerful – $79.1 million
▪    Identity Thief – $34.6 million
▪    The Heat – $39.1 million
▪    World War Z – $66.4 million
▪    The Hangover Part III – $41.7 million
▪    The Great Gatsby – $50.1 million
▪    Thor: The Dark World – $85.7 million
▪    The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – $158.1 million
▪    Frozen – $67.4 million
▪    The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – $73.6 million

If we remove sequels, family/animation films, and superhero/adaptation films, we’re left with original stories:

▪    Gravity – $55.8 million
▪    The Conjuring – $41.9 million
▪    Oblivion – $37.1 million
▪    Identity Thief – $34.6 million
▪    The Heat – $39.1 million

Only one relied on the box-office power of its male star (Tom Cruise in Oblivion) to open a large number. The others? Driven largely by their appeal to women or appeal because of women. The Conjuring featured two strong central female characters (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor) in a genre that largely skews female, Identity Thief hit it big solely because of Melissa McCarthy’s presence, while her appeal combined with Sandra Bullock’s presence in The Heat propelled it to box-office success as well. What else do these four films have in common? They’re all films with original screenplays and successful gross to budget ratios (Gravity being the best opener. Go figure, with a woman pushing 50).

Merely winning an Oscar or driving box-office doesn’t give credence to an underrepresented group. Such films will remain the fluke until internal, structural change occurs. The importance of a stage like the Oscars for films like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave lies in the Oscar’s existence as a stage for visibility.  The award itself is essentially inferior–a golden statue is meaningless in the face of inequality. The award is a golden man, after all.

Reactionary feminism in the industry seems to have brought about a greater consciousness—the narrative is there. It’s in the trade papers, it’s on the Oscar blogs, it’s coming straight from the mouths of female filmmakers and producers themselves in even more easily-accessible mediums (Lena Dunham and Ava DuVernay on Twitter, Shonda Rhimes speaking out about her DGA “Diversity Award”).

So, then, is Universal’s decision to tap Coppola’s talents affirmative of a consciousness of inequality —similar to the Academy’s, which won 12 Years a Slave Best Pictureor merely a studio seeking the most appropriate talent for the job?

Let’s hope for the latter.

Coppola of course won her first Oscar for writing 2003’s brilliant Lost in Translation. She continued as the Oscar successor to her father, Francis Ford Coppola, who’d previously won a slew of Oscars for The Godfather and its first sequel. Not only did Coppola’s win for Best Original Screenplay cement her family as a budding dynasty (her brother is a small-time producer and director, while her niece, Gia, preps to release her first film as director this year), it also placed added another female to the roster of winners in a non-makeup, non-hairstyling, non-costume design craft category that women seem to have a greater chance of winning in.

Lost-In-Translation-scarlett-johansson-23676554-1060-565Since 1940, when the award was first introduced, eight women (including Coppola) have won the award: Muriel Box, Sonya Levien, Nancy Dowd, Pamela Wallace, Callie Khouri, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Diablo Cody. In the Adapted Screenplay category, seven women (Frances Marion, Sarah Y. Mason, Claudine West, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Emma Thompson, Philippa Boyens, and Diana Ossana) have won the award since its inception in 1928. Only one woman (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) has repeated a win here.

The Academy (and the industry in general) seems to throw women away once they’ve fulfilled their duties as object of the industry or Academy’s participation in the overarching social narrative. A black film wins Best Picture, another one won’t win for 20 years (let’s check back in 2024, shall we?). Kathryn Bigelow wins Best Director, and she’s snubbed for her vastly superior Zero Dark Thirty a mere three years later.

Jane Campion, Callie Khouri, Diablo Cody (fellow female winners in the Best Original Screenplay category) have achieved minor successes in their own right, but none has matched the rapidity of release (she averages about one film every three years).

Coppola has taken an alternate route, however, than most men have after they win an Oscar. A win in this category generally either compliments the upward trajectory of men who win it (Joel & Ethan Coen), or turn a budding male career into a powerhouse of future hits (Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen). In short, men who win the award have a much greater chance of actually using the prestige of visibility to bolster longevity in the field.

Unlike other women filmmakers who’ve garnered acclaim from the Academy in this category, Coppola has gone on to have a generally high-profile and sustained career. Though none of her subsequent films have generated as much praise, respect, or box-office as Lost in Translation, her follow-up, 2006’s Marie-Antoinette won an Oscar itself, while 2010’s Somewhere and 2013’s The Bling Ring rode the festival buzz machines and played well—if to less-than overwhelming box-office—with critics and audiences alike. She consistently works with big-name talent, and her reputation and stance in the industry has waned little despite her films’ underperforming ticket sales.

Coppola’s attachment to The Little Mermaid speaks to the faith studios have in the quality of her work, and it shows that they’re paying attention to her work and applying it to suitable material. A woman is not objectified for her gender, whose work takes precedent over her being a woman? Is this the film industry we’re talking about?

Coppola’s films have an innate alienesque quality about them. They radiate with a sort of specific melancholy that mostly arises from her female leads. They’re often at a polar opposite crossroads between relegated stagnance and self-discovery, experienced with the men in their lives to the point of boredom or detachment, and often are stuck between a moral duty to fulfill a societal role or break free to explore and confront their independence and its beckoning for action and engagement; a suitable metaphor for the current state of women in the industry. They’re experienced, revved, and ready to go; they just don’t know (or aren’t provided with equal routes) how to harness full control and take the reins just yet.

How perfectly does Coppola’s style fit the story of The Little Mermaid?  Of course her interpretation will more closely follow the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than Disney’s lighthearted approach, though even this version poses a few potential problems for Coppola:

  • The subject material is inherently anti-feminist, being that it revolves around a female who essentially sacrifices her way of life for the love of a man, which validates her decision
  • It’s  being billed, as of this publishing, as a family film, meaning that she’ll more than likely  have to compromise her aesthetic to make it more accessible, which could divert any sort of free reign she may have had over the material if it were to be approached with an adult perspective

There’s no doubt that her talent, focus, and perspective will see through to a fresh take on the aforementioned issues. Her continued success as a powerful female director ensures that her career cannot be defined by pure gendered status, that her achievements have not been a fluke, nor have they been an object of an of-the-moment reactionary equality movement.

Coppola’s ability to land such a high-profile directing job speaks volumes about the ever so slight shifting of consciousness regarding gender in the industry, and this is the kind of change that needs to occur at the internal level instead of merely throwing Oscars at whatever of-the-moment minority case is deemed worthy enough to gain gold sympathy.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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