Feminism

Oscar Season Diary #11: Will ‘Maleficent’ Shatter Angelina’s ‘Unbroken’ Year?

The Academy is all about patting itself on the back.

Its membership advocates for the individual, whittling down category after category until one soul is left standing in the carnage with a gold weapon and a bloody PR trail behind them. The Academy has its favorites, it has its darlings, and it most certainly values its opinion as the sole Gospel of popular cinema. Time and time again, we see repeat winners in the “lesser” categories (just ask Edith Head, Colleen Atwood, or Leon Shamroy), and even some in the more prominent ones (refer to Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, and Ang Lee). Singularity is recognized. Stars and icons shine through the soupy sameness of everyone else at the Oscars.

The film industry, however, is gradually shifting away from the individual and toward the collective. Franchises and young adult adaptations have replaced movie stars as genuine box-office draws. The business has always been to make money. The masses are the target. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in an over-sharing, over-entitled society, the quality of what it means to truly be a star with massive pull rides on your shareability.

Shareability is an old creature that’s evolved into a full-fledged monster in the contemporary era. Trade publications have always attempted to bring the stars to the people, but it’s only today that the people can take control of stars by more than just speaking through dollars spent at the box-office. It’s undeniable that we’re living in the age of the “darling.” We don’t have movie stars. We have Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to generate fodder for BuzzFeed articles and user-made, crowd-shared .gifs becomes a more valuable commodity than a powerhouse skill set. The woman is talented, but it’s our consumption of the superficial aspects of her persona that make her a consistent, comfortable, warm personality, not a movie star. The dynamism simply isn’t there.

Angelina Jolie, perhaps the last remaining titan of the box-office, is in a unique position as a star who’s pulled back from her earlier days as a tabloid spectacle yet maintains a high profile. Her latest film, Maleficent, is her first live-action role in nearly four years, and is set for release this Friday. Six months later, her sophomore directorial feature, Unbroken, will hit theaters. She has the rare pleasure of starring in a summer tentpole and directing a historical biopic that’s destined for awards season gold. She is the star and she’s in control of two separate films that have the potential to shape the rest of her career in monumental ways.

She’s proof that the public wants to consume stories by, about, and starring individual women (or maybe just starring her), though she’s built a career for herself based on her physical appeal to men. She’s never been in a Best Picture winner or nominee, though she has one Oscar under her belt (as well as one other nomination), but still her popularity within the industry is difficult to gauge. Despite her titanic star power and popularity with the masses, Angelina Jolie faces a different struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Academy when it comes time to recognize her work behind the lens; despite her accomplishments, she’ll be held to the standards of a fading movie star whether that’s what she is or not.

On one hand, Maleficent represents everything that’s driving the film industry into the ground. It’s a huge summer blockbuster with a bloated budget riding on the bankability of a star who was unbreakable six or seven years ago, but who’s ability to solely headline a $180 million picture on the contemporary front has yet to be proven.

We’ve watched the likes of Johnny Depp (multiple times), Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Ryan Reynolds, and Channing Tatum crash expensive films into the flop-laden abyss over the course of the past year. It’s nearly impossible for a sole individual to carry a picture these days, yet studios keep pushing the men and their guns to the forefront in the hopes that something sticks.

It seems glaringly obvious that it’s women (like Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) who can drive a film to box-office gold on name alone. McCarthy and Bullock did it twice in one year (together with The Heat and individually with Identity Thief and Gravity, respectively). The difference with those films is that no one expected them to make as much money as they did; everyone is expecting—even banking the future of female-driven films—on whether or not Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it too.

The pressure is certainly on for Jolie, but her bankability isn’t the only thing at stake; her status as dynamic representative of a well-rounded industry force is as well. If Maleficent fails (let’s say by studio standards that means earning less than $40 million in the US in its first weekend), it’ll be attributed solely to her. The recent failures of big-budget films are almost unanimously attributed to their stars, even though these films exist and are pushed as star vehicles when the industry around them simply doesn’t foster a climate where the star is an entity any longer.

It’s easier to sell a franchise based on a young adult novel or a sequel to the latest Spider-Man on familiarity alone. American films capitalize on the pop culture relevance of broader entities (Marvel, DC, Godzilla, family animation, etc.) versus stars. Star personas benefit the individual, not the films as a whole.

Where does that put Angelina Jolie in terms of Oscar season? Let us not forget, box-office matters for women at the Oscars. Bridesmaids would never have found its way into the race without a gross of nearly $200 million domestic. Women have to prove themselves to Oscar voters with a set of gorgeous legs (ripe for the sexualizing) that carry them to box-office gold as well. Disney mounted a healthy campaign behind Maleficent, which crescendoed into a dull roar over the course of a year or so. It’s a film that has a firm, pre-established base of fantasy fans and Disney aficionados alike, and one that can easily rope in families (it’s rated PG) and Jolie fans (she’s the clear focus of the studio’s marketing campaign) together. 

If you’re calculating Unrboken’s potential appeal to Oscar voters, it’s a checkmark in every category. Beautiful, previously-decorated member of The Academy in the director’s chair? Yep. Written by past Oscar winners (and Academy darlings of popular adult cinema) Joel & Ethan Coen? Uh-huh. War drama with a male-driven narrative that’s based on historically-rooted, wartime events? You bet. Much like The Hurt Locker, the film is the kind of picture the Academy wants to see a woman direct; one about men overcoming obstacles in a macho-man setting. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, its appeal is broad and (presumably) free of controversial material that would implicate any aspect of American culture (God forbid).

You simply can’t get any more Oscar-friendly than Unbroken. After the Academy pulled their version of a “radical shift” in tone for Best Picture, they’ll actively seek out something that falls in line with tradition to offset the divisiveness of 12 Years a Slave. The entire industry objectified Steve McQueen’s film as “the one about slavery,” and fixated upon its racial implications versus seeing what was underneath versus acting based on a casual glance. Unbroken is Academy meat and potatoes. It’ll be fantastic, plug-and-play, make truckloads of cash, and establish Jolie as the sole woman in a race dominated by men.

There are whispers here and there about the performances Jolie was able to get out of her cast as well. Miyavi, in particular, who plays the film’s antagonist, is receiving a great deal of pre-release buzz. Films like Unbroken, as of late, have an almost surefire chance of being recognized in the acting categories, especially when there’s a nice, meaty, showy role for an evil male character. Christoph Waltz won for his role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, as did Forest Whitaker for playing notoriously vile Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Heath Ledger collected a posthumous Oscar for playing the diabolical Joker in The Dark Knight, and Javier Bardem saw gold on Oscar night for his role as a sinister hitman in No Country for Old Men. Miyavi plays Matsuhiro Watanabe, war criminal and abuser of POWs, which gives him ample opportunity to milk Oscar voters with theatrics and lots and lots of yelling.

If the performances in Unbroken are Oscar-worthy, it will only help Jolie’s case in the Best Director category. It’ll be no surprise if buzz picks up for other members of the film’s cast once the film opens, as Jolie will likely be able to connect with them as an actor herself. The film also has cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, who has an astounding 11 Oscar nominations without a single win. He’s at the point where he’s getting into the race on name alone (hence his nomination for the critically divisive, un Academy-friendly Prisoners just last year), and this could be his year to collect his career Oscar for his work on Unbroken.

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Any way you look at it, Unbroken is a glimmering piece of Oscar bait—and perhaps the smartest thing Angelina Jolie has done in her career—waiting to drop right into the Academy’s lap. The Academy will see an opportunity to help carry Jolie’s career beyond the front of the camera and into a successful one behind it into her later years. They couldn’t give themselves a more self-congratulatory pat on the back than by decorating her for Best Director or her film for Best Picture. What better way to complete their self-made circle than to turn their sexy, objectified, Oscar-winning action star into a sexy, Oscar-winning filmmaker?

It’s poised for success, but if Maleficent bursts, Unbroken will endure the barrage of shrapnel. Jolie’s second directorial effort (the first is the little-seen, poorly-received In the Land of Blood and Honey) comes plated with hater-proof armor. Unbroken is ready for the Oscar battle, but it’s not ready to withstand the stigma around the “Jolie falls short of expectations with Maleficent” type of headlines. The internet machine is waiting to pick at the carcasses of anything that unravels for any reason. Again, box-office and perceived “success” is extremely integral for women in the film industry. They’re taken seriously when they make films about men that make money, or films with broad appeal that make money. Maleficent will carve Jolie’s path to (and through) the Oscars.

It’s unfair that Jolie’s appeal to the white male Oscar voter will be predicated largely by her sex appeal, which she has distinctly tried to de-commodify as she’s deliberately pulled herself out of the spectacle of the tabloid circus; it will either help her or hurt her—especially with the Director’s branch of the Academy and the Directors Guild of America, both of whom are never kind to actors turned directors (just ask Robert Redford).

Jolie will also have to deal with the Kathryn Bigelow effect. The majority of white male Oscar voters will view Jolie’s gender as the defining characteristic of her awards season run. The “been there, done that” mentality will kick in, they’ll remember that Kathryn Bigelow was their posterchild for gender acceptance, and not feel obligated to vote for Angelina because the conquest has already been had.

As usual, Jolie has everything working in her favor at the moment, and she’s heading into the Oscar race with a powerful army of elements working in her favor. Unbroken seems painfully obvious as an early-season frontrunner for an Academy that likes to stroke its own ego. How easily, though, the perfect exterior could tumble down with one fell swoop of the American public and where they choose to place their dollars this weekend.

Whether Maleficent lives or dies and whether Unbroken sustains its potential through to Oscar night is still up in the air, but if her career has shown us anything at all it’s that she’s the star, and the conversation will be—and always been—about Angelina Jolie.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Andrea and the Boys; Analyzing One of the Most Hated Characters on Television

The natural order of life gives birth to the structural order of society; an infinitely dichotomous relationship forming between free-flowing chaos and streamlined rigidity. When flesh-eating zombies are thrown into the mix, however, the man-made confines of civilized society fall victim to the “natural” order of patriarchal dominance—if we’re using the ideological outlook of AMC’s The Walking Dead as a playbook for the end of the world, that is.

While it’s hard to know just how the societal cookie will crumble once humanity is faced with the actual apocalypse, The Walking Dead seems to think men have the upper hand in a broken down, flesh-eating fantasyland. The series sees a group of survivors (about equally comprised of men and women) fighting their way through metropolitan Atlanta in the midst of a zombie infestation (Epidemic? Outbreak? Have we deemed an appropriate term for this by now?), reverting largely to the hunter-gatherer state of living we all remember learning about during the Neanderthal unit in elementary school. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leads the pack with an iron fist and a soft underbelly; He’s authoritative but level-headed, with his go-to “veep” Shane (Jon Bernthal) nipping at the heels of his newfound authority. Both men are former police officers, typical posterboys for a male-dominated field synonymous with control, power, and brute force.

The women of the group, most notably Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne-Callies) and middle-aged mother Carol (Melissa McBride) take on a much more passive role; cooking, mothering, and all-around homemaking in a world devoid of homes or families to fit within them.

One woman, however, doesn’t take kindly to her would-be role as submissive camp servant; Andrea (Laurie Holden) is the black sheep of the female survivors, rejecting any notion that she’s there to serve anyone but not entirely free from patriarchal constraint, either. It seems that, for these very reasons, the public’s relationship with the character has been tumultuous at best. She can’t even find solace in the confines of online message boards. Endless posts ragging on her “whiny” episodes, her unwillingness to “shut up,” and her inability to “stop being a bitch.” But, do these fears represent a genuine dislike of the character or a subconscious self-hatred for contributing to a society that’s made Andrea the conflicted, restless, emotionally unstable woman that she is?

When I say “emotionally unstable,” I hope not to conjure images of a hysterical numbnut. Andrea’s lost a sister, a protector, her “old” life and, as of Season 3, her newfound “family” (the group left her at the farm, assuming she was dead). Andrea never really “fit in” with the hierarchical scale of the survivors in the first place. The constant power struggle between Rick and Shane intensified in Season 2, leaving little room for female characters to “butt in” to the conversation. Lori, the “First Lady” of the group was, at best, Head Housewife of Season 2. Let’s face it—Lori embodied passivity and stereotypical womanliness that a single television character can. A doe fought for between two hot-heated bucks, Lori was the sexual and emotional “prize” in the feud between her husband and Shane. She was knocked up, had to be “saved” by her husband multiple times, and spent the majority of the season rounding up the other women to do chores and housework around Hershel’s farm.

Andrea, on the other hand, was busy getting over Dale’s decision to “save” her from her decision to end her life during the finale of Season 1. An independent “person” (gender has no room to talk, here), Andrea was able to decide for herself that she no longer wanted to passively endure the hand she’d been dealt. Her sister now a flesh-eating zombie, the rest of her biological family dead, and seeing no clear reason to continue, Andrea chose death. In essence, a much bolder decision than Dale’s to forcefully insert himself into another person’s problem until he gets what he wants. We see him do this again in Season 2 when the group ponders the fate of an “intruding” survivor they’re holding as prisoner in Hershel’s barn. Dale kicks, screams, and makes a fool of himself stomping around the farm like a five-year old until someone agrees with his wishes to keep the man alive versus the majority decision to kill the prisoner. Andrea is bitter for Dale’s “intervention,” and rightfully so.

Things don’t go much smoother when Dale bars Andrea from using her own gun out of fear she’ll use it to kill herself. Shane and Rick agree, although Andrea wants to help them protect the group instead of folding linens and looking pretty in the RV. Again, the patriarchal societal structure keeping her one step behind the men in line with the other women.

Andrea’s presence in the community can best be described as a challenge to the male authority that controls it. She’s the only woman (save for Maggie and Michonne in Season 3) that take any sort of active role in protecting the group; Andrea learns to steadily wield a gun in Season 2 (after Shane effectively plays her emotional chords) and becomes what the men clearly view as a “third-rate” asset to their defensive team; she’s ultimately used for “keeping watch” on the farm.

While Andrea is treated as an afterthought for most of the men, she actively inserts herself into the role of sexual object during a key moment in Season 2. She and Shane embark on a small road trip to search for Sophia. After an hour or so of successful zombie slaying, Andrea—seemingly “turned on” by her exploits as an active member of their small militia—initiates a sexual encounter with Shane. She forcefully grabs his crotch out of left field, instigating a romp in their vehicle unlike anything else we’ve really seen before on The Walking Dead. It might seem out of place, but for a woman on this show it’s a moment from the heavens. Andrea chooses to seduce the man not to gain anything from him other than his penis. She’s not sleeping her way up the chain of command, but merely satisfying her own sexual craving. The moment of passion is barely referenced again throughout the rest of Season 2, indicating yet again that it means nothing more than a momentary brush with ecstasy amidst a world of terror and despair. She breaks from her would-be role as passive female, placing herself at the forefront of her own desires, taking the man (and our perceptions of female sexuality) along for the ride. Her ride.

For me, Andrea’s shining moment comes when Hershel’s daughter, Beth, teeters on the edge of suicide and is placed under house arrest by her family. Andrea agrees to take watch, only to whisper sweet nothings of reality into Beth’s ear. She tells her if she wants to die, there’s nothing wrong with that; the decision is hers and hers alone. Neither persuading her to die as Dale persuaded Andrea to live nor hoping to scare her into living, Andrea gives Beth perspective. She levels the playing field instead of building against for or against her; just because Beth is a young female doesn’t mean she has to submit to the overarching control of her family’s desires. Her decision to die is her decision alone. And, of course, Andrea’s name is besmirched yet again once Beth chooses death.

Beth is ultimately saved from her decision, just as Andrea was last season, but Andrea is forced to deal with the aftermath alone. Beth is “clearly” a victim of Andrea’s manipulative ways, when all the latter did was gently open Beth’s eyes to another perspective, not having to pry them open with a crowbar as forceful as Dale’s. Lori in particular is hard on her, saying that Andrea has barely done anything to help the other women construct the façade of the homespun fantasyland Lori so unrealistically seeks to maintain. Lori is a woman blinded by the weights around her ankles grounding her in a sort of post-feminist world which sees her as a safety net for the men to fall back on—sexually, emotionally, and for simple peace of mind. She preserves the comforting “image” of the nest while Andrea actively seeks to physically keep it—and its contents—alive.

My biggest problem is that The Walking Dead and its characters never seem to acknowledge Andrea as anything more than a tag-along pain in the ass. As an audience we’re given pieces of a puzzle to solve and make connections here and there on our own, but Andrea becomes a case for study on our part while the inter-character conflicts remain diegetic. I’m not sure if the show is making a case for women’s rights by attempting to funnel the audience’s perception of this post-apocalyptic societal breakdown in a negative light. We’re clearly meant to understand that this is a world driven by brute strength, cunning, and power—things none of the women on the show have. Society, for them, has devolved into a primitive state of man-before-woman, the male characters taking clear control over each of the major survival groups we’ve seen so far and will continue to see in Season 3 (The Governor, I’m looking at you). The women have “accepted” their passive roles thanks to an unspoken, almost preconceived veil of inferiority following them around from pre-zombie society; Carol was an abused housewife, Lori was a mother living in the shadow of her powerful husband. Is the show critical of this way of life the characters seem to have simply fallen into without question? Do the creators of the series genuinely believe the world will revert to this sort of primitive existence in the face of such apocalyptic events? Or are we meant to see this sort of power structure as archaic as a result of our own notions of right and wrong which still exists outside the lore and fantasy of The Walking Dead?

The answer to that question lies within Andrea. We’re supposed to see her as a woman fighting back against the “inherent” societal structure which succeeds on male activity and female passivity. Andrea is forced to deal with backlash from a public audience who deem her as insignificant and a waste of space. I welcome an existentially-questioning character in a show like The Walking Dead. She’s conflicted far and away above the other characters, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of people watching this show don’t want to entertain the effort that’s required to fully appreciate Andrea’s character. Her history on the show is complex and tainted by her insistence on merely existing as she sees fit, not on anyone else’s terms—especially not the men who see it necessary to revert to primitive hunter-gather, active-passive binaries based solely on gender. Andrea is flawed, but beautifully so; in a post-rules, post-structure, post-logic world she’s merely regaining her consciousness as an independent female fighting against a tragedy-induced society of patriarchal command.