A new study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, as reported in Variety (Feb. 9), highlights the disparity between perception and reality in respect to women’s onscreen roles in Hollywood. Box office juggernauts like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Gone Girl and Maleficent along with the rise of Shailene Woodley (Divergent) and Melissa McCarthy (Tammy) obscure the facts — women were protagonists only in 12 percent of the top-grossing films of 2014.
Dr. Martha Lauzen, the center’s executive director and the author of the study, said, “A few high-profile cases can skew our thinking.”
Further consideration of the issue exposes that we should not only be concerned with leading roles, but secondary roles, where women make up 29 percent of major characters and 30 percent of all speaking characters. Logically, this leads to situations where these female characters exist and are solely defined in relation to their male counterparts.
The release of this study coincides with the arrival of Still Alice from writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. The film is based on Lisa Genova’s novel about Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a noted linguistics professor with three highly motivated and intellectually driven children. Having just entered her 50s, Alice discovers that she has early onset Alzheimer’s. Alice, and by extension this film, stands in stark contrast to the reported facts. She, indeed, is an outlier, a woman defined by excellence in her field and as a strong mother. She is also happily married, and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) seems to inhabit a niche within the comfort of her radiance.
Alice blazes; her brilliance demands attention without tipping over into gender-biased territory. As commanding as she is with language and memory, she is equally blessed with a degree of charm and sophistication that stops her well short of negative labeling. She’s driven. She wanted it all — family and profession — and she earned it. Alice is perfect, which means that as soon as she begins to show signs of failing to find the right words or to access short- or long-term memories, we see the impact immediately. It chips away at the heart and soul of this woman, the very foundation of who she is. And sadly, we know things will only spiral further out of control.
An intriguing secondary through-line in Still Alice is the relationship between Moore and one of her co-stars, Kristen Stewart, who plays her youngest daughter Lydia. In the story we see Alice (pre-diagnosis) engaged in a bit of a push-pull dynamic with Lydia, a more creative-type, passionate in the pursuit of a craft that, at this stage, has not resulted in the kind of accolades the Howlands accumulate. To make matters worse, Lydia decided to forego college entirely, a choice that obviously vexes Alice, although she does her best in their early exchanges to not let that dominate their discussions.
These scenes establish the friction in this mother-daughter duo, but also the genuine love on both sides. It serves as another humanizing layer in Alice, a degree of vulnerability that is more personal than the impact of the diagnosis on her professional life. She, too late, it seems, softens her stance on Lydia’s work. She comes to appreciate how Lydia utilizes their emotional relationship as fuel for her performances.
Stepping outside the narrative, the dynamic between Moore and Stewart draws comparisons to Stewart’s efforts in another film from 2014, Clouds of Sils Maria, opposite Juliette Binoche. Stewart has benefitted from her appearances with two veteran actresses, forcing her to tap into nuances to illustrate young women who carve out a place for themselves under the tutelage of more experienced women, whether mothers or professional mentors.
This is more of what we need to see from Hollywood. It is too easy — and Stewart knows this all too well thanks to her role in the Twilight franchise — to headline a studio moneymaker and help to gloss over the industry’s deficiencies when it comes to female presence.
Recently, debate resurfaced over the idea of gender portrayals on film due to the Bechdel test, which codified a general “golden rule” for films – “having at least two women, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.”
Still Alice provides a unique model for this rule, but it goes several steps beyond. Moore allows audiences to see that Alice is not content to simply discuss something other than a man; she becomes the standard-bearer for all characters — male or female — in all genres, to aspire to being judged by the content of their character, even as it undergoes stark and dramatic change. (Opens Friday) (PG-13)
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