For the first six or seven decades of the 20th Century, in Hollywood films, it often was the woman who was the dependent one, the character most likely to lay a head upon the shoulder of the male lead. The strength and goodness of so many traditional movie heroines have been measured by their sweetness, innate goodness, loyalty to romantic interests or husbands and children, and outstandingly good looks.
Of course, there have been exceptions. Scarlett O’Hara only chose to lay her head on a man’s shoulder when she thought it would help her to keep Tara. Scarlett was exceedingly strong, a full-blown, full-dimensional creation who figured out how to use her flirtations and beauty to reach her goals (although the end of GONE WITH THE WIND doesn’t leave her flourishing). She was an independent thinker who used deception as well as her femininity to make her way.
The pattern of the dependent female character changed somewhat in the 1970s with the New American Cinema movement, a more modern sensibility in films, and the diversity of power that arose from the near demise of the major studios amid the rise of independents and smaller studios. Since the early 1970s, women actors have fought for more interesting and dominant roles.
Since the heyday of Meryl Streep, followed by Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, film actresses have been playing women who take control of their situations. Unlike Scarlett O’Hara, their characters don’t have to flirt her way to success, don’t have to use beauty over strength and ingenuity to make a go of life.
In the past few years, movies like MIA MADRE, HIDDEN FIGURES, TONI ERDMANN, 45 YEARS, CAROL, and even the animated MOANA offer strong female characters who fight in many ways as male characters do.
Two current films, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI and LADY BIRD, put the focus on strong women who make their way aggressively using unorthodox and often objectionable tactics.
THREE BILLBOARDS features Frances McDormand as Mildred, a mother determined to find and punish the killer or killers who murdered her teenaged daughter and raped her as she lay dying. Mildred feels the local police haven’t done their job, and she’ll do whatever it takes to prod them into action. She has little sense of humanity, no morality. She’s possibly as dangerous as the man or men who killed her daughter. THREE BILLBOARDS was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who made IN BRUGES almost a decade ago. THREE BILLBOARDS is an auteurist work. It is stamped with McDonagh’s offbeat signature style. In the hands of other writer/directors, this film could have been an offensive fiasco. McDonagh makes it into a quirky masterpiece. Frances McDormand is sure to be nominated for an acting Oscar.
LADY BIRD is the first feature to be written and directed by Greta Gerwig. The title refers to the self-named heroine, a discontented Sacramento-based seventeen-year-old whose final year at a Catholic high school is filled with conventional trials and tribulations. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson isn’t particularly talented, smart, or beautiful. She hates her mother. She lies and cheats to make her way through life. The film has a tight script filled with plenty of comedy and a fair amount of family drama. Saoirse Ronan is the outstanding component that makes LADY BIRD worth seeing. She, too, likely will be nominated for an acting Oscar. And I would not be surprised to see Laurie Metcalf, who plays the long-suffering mother, receive an Oscar nod. LADY BIRD is competently written and conventionally directed. Gerwig shows no particular style so far that I can detect. It’s being heavily praised by both critics and viewers, and certainly points to a promising writer/director career for Gerwig, who up until now has been acting.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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