It is a well-known and mystifying fact to my closest friends, including my female relatives, that my idea of a chick flick is Christian Bale and one or two other hot guys without shirts; in other words, non-explicit gay porn. Try bribing me to a family/relationship-centric melodrama or, worse, romantic comedy with Drew Barrymore or Julia Roberts or some other pretty and likable female at the center, and I will run screaming. Shift the emphasis to clothes trumping the likability factor – witness Sex and the City and its cadre of chic shrews, or are they drag queens? – and I am likely to run screaming toward you, possibly armed with a machete. Macho types, including most men gay or straight and myself, will do anything to avoid a chick flick, although it is a Judd Apatow-sanctioned fact that attending one will get you laid as never before, a fact I shall keep handy in the event of a sea change that has me playing for the other team.
Problem is, nowadays any movie with a woman at its center gets tarred with the pink sparkly paintbrush. (Theories of why to come in the next post.) There are virtually no American filmmakers who aren’t white males, and let’s face it, they’re interested in their own stories, which feature homoerotica served up with varying degrees of skill (from the sublime Fight Club to the in-denial bumbling of the aforementioned Apatow oeuvre). The handful of female directors either go the route of Nancy Meyers and her famous thread counting (“that character would only buy Egyptian cotton sheets!”; wow…um….fascinating….) or the much more interesting one of Kathryn Bigelow, whose rare commercial efforts focus on tough guys and, well, we’re back to homoerotica.
Bigelow, of course, may be leaving the hard sexy babes to her ex, James Cameron, one of the few directors to feature women at the center of mainstream commercial action, with Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Connor in T1 holding their own as two of the most memorable heroes of all time. Unfortunately, by T2, Linda Hamilton had morphed into a shrieking cyborg so unsympathetic that Arnold Schwarzenegger had to play the soft motherly one. When Cameron went for the biggest bucks of all and helmed the ultimate chick flick, the dreadfully written and shameless Titanic, he gave us a main heroine so soporific and annoying that even the glorious Kate Winslet couldn’t keep her head above the brine. Then again, if we think of the boat as the main character – after all, according to Steve Martin in The Jerk, a boat is just one of the many things you can call “she” – well, that’s something. Anyway, by the time we get to Avatar, or Fern Gully: the Live Action 3D Movie, chicks are still strong, but take second place to paraplegics. Also, they’re naked.
It wasn’t always so. In the old star system, a woman at the center of a movie didn’t relegate it to a category that giggled, “Pay me no mind, I’m just a girl!” Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Shirley Temple, for hell’s sake, all drove huge box office, outearning the menfolk in any given year. To argue that all of the above (with the exception of Curly Top) have a certain masculine gravitas, Dietrich and Stanwyck in particular making little secret of their preference for les girls, is to miss the point that men used to write screenplays with women as central characters, directors directed them, studios promoted them to everyone, and audiences flocked. Sure, different time; talk to Americans born prior to 1945 and you’ll note that everyone saw everything. But a perusal of the top box office over the years shows at a glance that, prior to 1950, the gender of your star didn’t matter nearly so much as whether or not you made a good movie. With audiences basically guaranteed – what else were you gonna do, sit around and talk? – filmmakers had the luxury of telling stories.
Thank God so many European directors and writers are still taking the above approach, and are resisting the demo-driven nonsense to turn out some great movies. There are still dozens of wonderful movies released annually in England, France, Italy, Spain, Romania, Germany, Belgium – basically everywhere that isn’t the US. Many, possibly most, feature women at their cores. They just don’t make a big deal about it, unless of course they’re subjected to a Skillful Marketing campaign.
Coming up next: Why “I’m Awake” strikes terror in the hearts of many….