women in hollywood

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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Oscar Season Diary #10: Frontrunning to Instant Death

gravity-bullockAt the heart of divisiveness is passion.

You’re either for something or against it, and dividing love and hate into two binary categories with regards to the appeal of a film is often necessary when talking about it within the context of a race where only one can win. It’s natural to love what you love, push it forward, and let your next-best choice fall off the wagon to the side of the road.

I guess it’s unfair to say that, if you’re an Oscar voter, your #2 choice for Best Picture is one you don’t favor in general. It’s simply one that you don’t favor to win, and is automatically othered as a result. On a preferential ballot, #2 is essentially #9485 on the same scale.

Alas, only Oscar voters have to worry about that. Everyone knows the Academy has a huge task ahead of them after such a magnificent year jam-packed with quality cinema from around the world.

One one hand, the Academy could award the first ever black-made, black-themed film with a Best Picture win; on the other, they could break a 17-year pattern of awarding male-driven films their top honor. The latter seems likely since Alfonso Cuaron–director of Gravity–took home the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards last week. 90% of the time, those who win the DGA’s top prize go on to have their film recognized by the Academy as Best Picture of the year. In fact, it has happened a staggering 11 times since 2000. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have the unfortunate honor of being awarded the DGA’s top prize without a follow-up Best Picture win (both films were directed by Ang Lee, funny enough).

Gravity is also poised to win key technical awards, including Best Film Editing (essentially the third-tier Best Picture Oscar).

Still, these statistics are displeasing and unconvincing to some. Pundits are overwhelmingly in favor of a 12 Years a Slave win, as a staggering 18 out of 23 of those surveyed on GoldDerby have it predicted in their #1 slot. If 12 Years a Slave wins, it would be a nearly unprecedented feat, as not only would the Academy defy statistical expectations, but 12 Years a Slave would rank amongst the least-decorated Best Picture winners in Oscar history, as the only other category it has a shot at winning is Best Supporting Actress.

What about the brewing tide making Gravity the statistical frontrunner doesn’t resonate? How can so many look so deeply into the face of such certainty and pick the opposite course? There’s little to no basis for predicting 12 Years a Slave to win other than hope, which is never a bad thing. It would be momentous if Steve McQueen’s film could pull off an upset in the face of Gravity‘s late-game dominance.

The fact remains, however, that we have two fantastic films on our hands, and one cannot be appropriately valued over the other.

As we saw the guilds, critics, and audiences file into their respective, individualized tributaries flowing into the Oscar picture (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity have each shared the spotlight as frontrunner), certainty seemed to be something each of us lacked as we hunted for a singular film to throw our weight behind.

Once Gravity won the DGA and PGA, the ball finally started rolling in one direction, and the tides turned. From its premiere at Venice to its near unanimous praise from critics, Gravity became one of the most prominent, highly-regarded films of the year. It was praised as a technical revolution, as well as a monumental achievement for actresses, as it is largely a one-woman show that went on to gross nearly $700 million worldwide.

It’s funny, then, that we’re currently witnessing the same things that happened to 12 Years a Slave after the fall festivals and to American Hustle after the critics circles prematurely ejaculated all over it; people are turning against Gravity because its footing is firmly planted at the front of the pack. With Oscar voting beginning in a matter of days, Gravity‘s late-entry status as the Best Picture frontrunner carries a stigma few films escape. When you’re perceived as the best, you’re no longer the sexy choice, even after you win Best Picture. The film will become predicated by what so many will harp on as an unjust triumph over a more “socially important” film like 12 Years a Slave.

It’s also around this time of year that the awards season narrative has an end in sight after bloggers, journalists, and audience wallets started writing it nearly 5 months ago. Early in the season, pundits championed 12 Years a Slave not only as a powerhouse film in itself, but as a beacon for the minority voice to finally reign supreme at the Oscar ceremony.

Generally, black-themed films are either ignored or shoved to the side as honorees in minor categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, very rarely in other categories)but 12 Years a Slave entered the season strong, and will likely finish along those lines as well. It’s a film that recalls an ugly part of American history, but an important one–ever more so during times when the first black President leads our country, modern racial issues pervade our society, and when a societal surge for minority equality across all fronts should be represented and recognized in our art.

So, then, which social cause do you chose? Gender or race? Should it even be based on such factors?

Pundits on both sides of the Gravity/12 Years a Slave debate have essentially turned on each other, digging into their respective opponent because it doesn’t fit the awards narrative they desire. According to them, Gravity would undermine the doors that 12 Years a Slave would open for minority filmmakers, and to others 12 Years a Slave would only win because it’s the black movie that rides to victory on white guilt.

They seem to be forgetting one key fact: a film does not change once it wins Best Picture. It does not become any better or any worse. It merely becomes the permanent frontrunner, and this passionate discourse that’s tearing apart two camps representing two of the best films from a monumental cinematic year proves that once you’re first, you’re automatically dead.

Weighing which social narrative you’d like to triumph is poison. If 12 Years a Slave wins, then it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the Black New Wave to begin in full-force. If Gravity wins, it represents the first plot that’s female-driven to win Best Picture since 1997, and the first film driven solely by a female character to ever win.

The Gravity detractors nearly always fall back on the argument that it’s a film about a woman that’s been directed and written by men, and therefore crippled as a vehicle to advance the position of women in the industry. But, these people forget that we’re talking about a visual medium. When discussing any film, you must begin on the most fundamental level, and that’s what’s in front of us. On the basis of familiarity, general audiences often identify with a movie through its actors and what they’re able to see. That’s largely what makes Gravity so wondrous; its visual effects, and its charismatic lead (Sandra Bullock), who proved herself as a box-office pull in the age of fading individual bankability. She transcends the film’s visuals and becomes the one thing–aside from the visual effects–that people associate with the film. The only people arguing about Alfonso Cuaron vs. Steve McQueen are the film nerds who make a living off of fueling the debate.

Gravity’s plot is also a beautifully sustained metaphor throughout, and a Best Picture win for it would be a fitting cap on a year when a female-driven film topped the US box-office for the first time in 17 years (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Things are changing for women, but pundits would rather pick and choose their social narratives in the hopes that they actually might have a hand in shaping them.

Chiwetel EjioforOne of the most prominent Oscar pundits out there, Sasha Stone, recently downplayed Alfonso Cuaron’s position, implying that he would only be significant as a Mexican director in this year’s Oscar race if he directed something about the Mexican experience, which is absurd and reinforcing of the dominant majority. So, by that logic, the minority is only worth something when he’s talking about the “other” to the white man and playing into the white man’s tastes?

While I tend to agree with the generally fantastic pundits over at Awards Daily, their most recent podcast irked me. Ryan Adams, an Oscar blogger I’ve come to respect, states that white voters and critics were “with” 12 Years a Slave until something more “white” and acceptable came along that they could latch on to, and that a viable “white” option was validated by the New York Film Critics Circle (American Hustle) early enough in the race that white voters were able to default onto it because it is more acceptable to them as a predominantly-white voting base. That makes absolutely no sense. The love for 12 Years a Slave came from a predominantly white voice in the first place. The overwhelmingly white pool of film critics across the country made it the best-reviewed film of the year, and I’m not sure Academy voters think with the same sort of racial bias many pundits have been spouting about all year. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to switch from a “black” movie to a “white” movie that easily.

It seems that the mere existence of 12 Years a Slave is victory in itself. In a year with black filmmakers taking huge strides into the industry as a whole (in addition to McQueen’s success, Lee Daniels directed a “black” film to over $150 million in world box-office, and Ryan Coogler generated significant critical acclaim and impressive box-office for Fruitvale Station), it would be a fitting Best Picture winner after three prominent black men helmed films that began this important dialogue about race in the industry.

While a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave would certainly validate the minority voice in a white-dominated industry, the long-term success of the Black New Wave movement has largely already been determined by audiences and their wallets. There’s often a vitriolic backlash against studios for their overarching control of societal norms–that they reenforce unfair standards of beauty for women by casting thin actresses, that they avoid “black” or “minority” subject matter, etc. While studios and executives shape what’s presented to the public, it’s audience preference that dictates where the money goes, and that dictates what the executives put out. If we don’t want to see it, we shouldn’t take ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of what is largely unattainable for so many.

It’s disappointing that most successful films star men, are directed by men, and are marketed to men, but moviegoers are capable of changing that. Perhaps the smartest thing moviegoers did this year was drive box-office sales for female-driven films like Gravity, Frozen, Identity Thief, The Heat, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

It’s undeniable: while the industry isn’t an equal place for women just yet, 2013 was a turning point, and Gravity‘s impending Best Picture win will represent it well.

The divisive bickering, valuing one great film over the other on the basis of a single award, however, is unfair, and puts us right back at the beginning with no end in sight: squabbling about injustices and forgetting to feed our empty stomachs when a full-course meal sits mere inches below on the table.