feminist films

Finding Summer Sunshine in ‘Tammy’ Beyond the Muck and the Fat Jokes

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By: Joey Nolfi

Twitter: @joeynolfi

What makes a movie worth something? In the blistering months of summer, we find ourselves flocking to the theater in droves to see them: the good ones, the bad ones, the everything-in-between ones. We accept the notion that this is a supposed to be a time for relaxation, a time to drift away from the 40-hour workweek and into the soft caress of increasing temperatures and cool breezes in that wide open space that’s in between your front door and your air-conditioned sedan.

But, being the good cinephiles that we are, we shut ourselves away in tiny, cramped, darkened little theaters and let others create the fantasy for us. We still associate film with escapism, just the same as we hold onto the coded image of summer as if it still bears the same fruits that three months of nothingness ahead of you in the waning days of May did when you were 15 years old.

Of course, the reality for adults is much different. Summer is simply supposed to be synonymous with easy, but the film industry often kicks into overdrive during these months, pummeling us with male-driven tentpole after male-driven tentpole in a cycle that’s driving its top-heavy films into the ground, pushing “minority” characters and stories to the side, and testing just how much audiences will put up with (grosses for 2014’s summer flicks thus far trail last year’s grosses by 15%, according to Deadline Hollywood) en route to a monolithically-male American film culture.

In an industry where real female characters in front of the camera are rare and a female eye behind the lens is even harder to come by, it’s unfortunate that a film like Tammy—one undoubtedly meant as a lighthearted tread through fields of breezy summer tastes that appeal to the masses—lands itself amid an inescapable storm of web-based chatter from all possible perspectives. People don’t want to let the film be as it is without all the extra baggage it may or may not be carrying with arms of its own. Still, we talk; “Tammy is a film about equality for big girls” some say. “Can we please stop talking about Melissa McCarthy’s weight?” others, like Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby did here) chime in. Tammy is being pulled in a million different directions so much that feels like we’ve run the course with it even though we’re still a good 24 hours away from its official opening.

What is true “worth” when talking about a summer blockbuster, then? If we tip so heavily to the side of male taste, is there room for anything else—even, say, a subpar overall film like Tammy—to be worth something in bits as opposed to as a whole?

Heavy discourse might be valid when talking about a film that’s worth something in the eyes of the masses, which Tammy will be if good word of mouth carries it past the modest $30-$40 million holiday haul it’s poised for, though we seem to be more preoccupied with throwing our own words around prior to seeing the actual film than seeing Tammy for what it is; a ridiculously uneven spectacle that digs its own holes that are similar in size and size and scope to the ones dug by others it so desperately seeks to climb out of. But, in the age of the internet court, where everyone’s voice is falsely validated by their ability to fit it into a 140-character space, criticism becomes something that altogether precedes content, and it’s dangerous to glob a film like Tammy into a grey box in an industry that so blatantly separates gender into black and white despite its shortcomings.

We have to pick and choose what we pull from films like Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a 30-something slob with an ex-job, soon-to-be-ex-husband, and an excommunication from a reality, as she attempts to capitalize on her newfound freedom with a road trip to Niagara Falls with her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), though they veer far off track and the film careens into all-over-the-place territory as Tammy embarks on a true journey of self-discovery. McCarthy’s script (co-written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed the picture) feels like a series of aimless vignettes that wear the same comedic gimmicks that McCarthy has relied on for three years now so extremely thin that the barely-there thread connecting everything feels as if its about to snap and coil in on itself if one more self-deprecating fat joke or improvised run-on slithers out of McCarthy’s mouth.

Take it like any subcultural film movement appropriating the normative culture’s use of words that are derogatory (the “f” word, the “n” word), but McCarthy’s use of fat jokes at first doesn’t seem like a harnessing of control, but rather feels like a repetitive reliance on an easy gag. The laughs are there, but the punch isn’t. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to leave the discussion about weight and gender at the door, namely because the film is more than attributable to McCarthy’s own doing: she wrote the script, after all, and her husband called the shots on set. That doesn’t do much for objectivity on their part, and it makes for a film that feels more self-indulgent on McCarthy’s part than it does self-revelatory for the character she’s created on the page and on the screen…for the first half, that is.

So, the overwhelmingly negative response the film is receiving from initial screenings is warranted for the most part: the film’s first half is a silly romp that does very little to elevate itself above the rest of the summer muck. Again, we must be careful, as so rarely are we given female characters like the ones in Tammy that the film surrounding them takes a backseat to the importance of their existence as characters in the first place. The film’s back half, however, turns the nose of the sinking ship toward the sun.

For starters, it’s become quite common to observe that Melissa McCarthy’s body type doesn’t fit in with the normal blueprint Hollywood has drawn for women to build upon, and when lines like “you didn’t fuck the ice cream man just for the ice cream, did you?” and “I kind of got into the pies” punctuate a film that includes scenes of an overweight woman struggling to climb over a small counter top and falling to her knees after dropping three feet off the top of a table, what is an audience supposed to think? McCarthy begs us to view her body as a comedic tool, and while that makes it impossible to leave discussion about its star’s body out of the equation, it does indicate that there is a consciousness to her methods.

xmelissa-mccarthy-susan-sarandon-tammy.jpg.pagespeed.ic.KmtdTVSL3lTammy is a studio production aimed at pleasing the crowds, and it will do that on some level, but the film also explores things you’d never see in the male-driven industry today, thanks largely in part to McCarthy’s power as a box-office draw and audience darling. There are female characters (even lesbians!) that are defined by more than their sexuality and/or their relationship to a man—in a Hollywood production! Though the lack of objectivity and more creative license given to McCarthy in terms of script and performance speaks to her power as a female star with a box-office draw, her decision to include the fat jokes in her own script indicate a comfort and an acceptance of her body. That’s obvious. It’s just wholeheartedly discouraging to see her reducing herself to fodder for trailers with material that’s just not very creative, and altogether makes her body something that we have to think about as something someone has to “accept” in the first place. Is there something wrong with you if you aren’t Melissa McCarthy but have Melissa McCarthy’s body type and no outlet to show off your self-deprecating humor?

Sure, we can say that it’s unfair to talk about women’s bodies and focus on the weight, but Melissa McCarthy’s films seem to fixate on it more than the rest of us do: the jokes are at the expense of her weight and wouldn’t work on a skinny person. McCarthy doesn’t use these jokes as a crutch beyond the first half of the film or so (they’re peppered throughout the entire thing, but ultimately don’t define it), she’s just playing up her assets, and she treats her body as such; she doesn’t create a character who’s disgusting, but rather someone who’s in control of losing control of her body for comedic effect.

It’s this consciousness of what makes McCarthy “different”—both as someone who doesn’t fit the “normal” mold of Hollywood actresses and as a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men—that makes aspects of Tammy accessible in a way we’re not used to seeing in a big-budget Hollywood production. There’s a deliberate effort to construct a non-mainstream, non-typical woman and give her the agency that beautiful, rail-thin leading ladies in other films don’t even get. Without spoiling anything, we do see Tammy getting a choice along her path to romance, the freedom from hinging her life’s decisions on the pursuit of a man, valuable, complex relationships with women based on things that don’t have to do with men, and the power to be the agent of her own story, not dangle from the hands of someone else. This is a story about women helping women, even if the beginning bits distracted us along the way.

So, what does Tammy want to be, and what does it end up being? It’s a line we can’t clearly draw because the film itself is so structurally misshapen, but we can appreciate what little glimmer there is to be extracted from the earnesty of its all-poweful female star and screenwriter. We can’t blindly accept films like Tammy as a whole simply because there are elements that subvert the norm. A mediocre product from a woman, starring a woman who contrasts what other studios are pushing doesn’t make it a great film, but you can make a dry, crusty, dirt-browned potato shine like a juicy red, freshly-plucked tomato; you just have to tilt it a little and lift it into the sun for closer inspection.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Oscar Season Diary #3: The Academy and Box-Office; Does it Matter for Women?

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I hate the word “gendered.”

Maybe it’s because we live in a time where it’s unjustifiably easy to see the dichotomy between male and female–especially within the film industry. Or maybe it’s because I know I use the word far too often, to highlight issues pertaining to the prior sentiment.

When you think about it, the existence of separate categories for actors and actresses at the Academy Awards is sort of sexist in itself. When the boundaries are set, difference is emphasized, and thus the funneling begins. A performance is a performance, and separating them based purely on gender has never felt right to me, never more so than now, when the American film industry is so conflicted in its representation of gender.

Since the 1970s, movie studios have benefited from this sort of separation of gender. The first round of true blockbuster films (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.) were male-centered. The trend of appealing to teenage boys continues today in what is very much the same vein of appeal as it was back then–even though that initial crop of young males are now well into their forties. Films are marketed to men, by men, and are consumed in varying quantities; whether you have a pre-destined hit like Iron Man 3 or a string of major flops like R.I.P.D., After Earth, The Lone Ranger, and White House Down, studios consistently push male-driven films like it’s the only thing they know how to do.

Films like Klute, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Network made the decade a breeding ground for powerful films about powerful women. Women drove the plot. They weren’t filler that needed justification simply to hang over a man’s head.

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But, women were still sexual, you might say. And not to the point that they are in films today. I’d actually say healthily so, as opposed to the empty sexuality we so often see on contemporary movie screens. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in 1971’s Klute is a prostitute both socially and sexually. She has sex with a lot of “Johns,” as she calls them, but rarely do we see her engaging in contemptible behavior. She doesn’t so much use her sexuality like a pawn in a chess game to get what she wants, but rather she absorbs the act of sex as a means to feel desirable. She’s not after the act of sex itself as much as she craves the closeness and sense of self-worth. She isn’t validated by sex, she’s validated by belonging–as a woman should–as an equal part of another person’s life.

Jane Fonda won Best Actress for the role in 1972.

Bree is a powerfully-written character, and the type of female character you don’t see anymore. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity is a similarly-detached female, having once been a mother but not bearing the weight of a mouth to feed anymore, as her daughter died at the age of four. Stone carries the grief, but doesn’t externalize it as a weakness. Instead, the film unravels as a rediscovery of herself; her rebirth; her coming to terms with her physical fragility (the fragility of life, not gender, mind you) on the brink of death as a means to regain a sense of worth that most women in film are only represented as possessing if they’re a mother or a wife. Stone has no generic tropes to validate her; she has only herself, and is validated in her strength and will to survive–to live life itself–with former pain (not in spite of it) that won’t drag her down anymore.

Sandra Bullock is currently neck-and-neck with Cate Blanchett for Best Actress over 40 years later.

The Academy has long been able to pick out strong female parts and amplify their effect. The crop of nominees for Best Actress reflected a diverse array of women that reflected the ever-present demand for strong female characters. Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, and The Impossible featured female characters that drove the plot of their respective films. Silver Linings Playbook, the film which took home the Best Actress award for star Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, happened to feature a fantastic actress in a male-driven film who won for a supporting role. Nonetheless, the age and cultural range (9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis, 86-year old Emmanuelle Riva) compared to the Best Actor category was astounding.

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 each of the films that have opened to over $35 million weekends so far this 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

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

  • 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).

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That brings me back to Gravity and its Oscar chances. The Academy has a duty to not only legitimize itself by nominating great films, but also to reflect what the general public deems acceptable, as well. This is true more so in recent years where films like Avatar, Les Miserables, and The Help sneak into the Best Picture race. Audiences like films that make them feel good (even when more powerful, era-specific films like Zero Dark Thirty are perhaps more reflective of our cultural climate and, therefore, more “important”), and the Academy often falls victim to this sort of blind acceptance of anything that’s neatly-tied together and pushing as little buttons as possible. How else do you explain Argo winning the top prize last year? Unless you go with the Ben Affleck sob story, that is. Poor Golden Boy didn’t get a Best Director nomination, so we’ll console him with the year’s top prize for American films. No word yet on if Kathryn Bigelow will justifiably receive honorary Oscars for the next decade after embarrassingly-cruel tactics led by U.S. politicians (you know, people with real power outside a superfluous movie industry awards bubble) ruined the reception and impact of her film.

Gravity and the case for Sandra Bullock, however, reminds me of how the road to Oscars 2009 should have gone down if The Blind Side were a much more deserving film than it actually was. We saw Bullock win her first Oscar for her role in The Blind Side, a film that entered itself into the Oscar race thanks to its gigantic box-office success (nearly $300 million worldwide). While the film populated the clear “people’s choice” spot amongst the Best Picture nominees, there was no denying Sandra Bullock’s vital extra-filmic role in a changing moviescape. She’s one of the few movie stars (regardless of gender) who can still open a movie based on her presence alone. Even her less successful films of the past ten years manage to gross at least $30-$40 million domestically. It took me a while to realize that her win for Best Actress wasn’t for her performance, but for her essential presence in the industry as a whole.

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Gravity
is making its impact as a critical smash, box-office hit and, yes, a success for the gendered debate within the film industry. The Academy would be insane not to give Bullock the win, if not to pat themselves on the back for a job well done four years ago, but to cement the crown firmly atop the head of the face of the return of the powerful Hollywood female. While Cate Blanchett’s performance is far superior, it’s clear that Oscar has a duty here. In a year when each of the leading female contenders is over the age of 40 (the supposed “age of death” for an actress’ career), Oscar can sink the boat a’la 2012, or it can be on the right side of a changing tide. These women and films are proof that an actress’ career doesn’t have to fade once she reaches a certain age.

The answer to how this year will play out in the Oscar history books lies largely within Gravity.