The Celluoid Ceiling

So the Oscars are over now, and no time to do a post-morten on them, except I’m very glad that Crash won over the terminally dull Brokeback Mountain. Which led to a number of critics and commentators lamenting that Hollywood lacks the guts to salute Ang Lee’s “courageous” film about love between men. Which brings me to . . .

Forget the gay cowboys, folks. As one of the people accepting an award for Memoirs of a Geisha said, what really takes courage in Hollywood is to make a film about women.

Or even by women. Or with women involved. A week or so ago I read some startling statistics about women in Hollywood. They’re contained in a report called “The Celluoid Ceiling” by Dr. Martha Lauzen. The latest statistics available, they deal with the top 250 films of 2004. You can read the full report here. But here are some samples:

Women comprised 16% of all executive procucers, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, and editors on these films — a decline from 19% in 2000.

Women comprised 5% of all directors on these films, down 6 percentage points from 11% in 2000. In other words, the precentage of women directors was slightly less than half that of 2000.

Women comprised 12% of all screenwriters, down from 14% in 2000.

If you ask me, those are very discouraging statistics. Women are not even making slight gains in Hollywood; in fact, their role is declining. And for a woman who wants to be a screenwriter, especially so. I’ve heard a number of explanations from people in the trenches in Hollywood. Most are quick to deny that there’s any real sexism. You see, they say, women just aren’t as agressive as men in pursuing what they want, including in Hollywood. According to Greg Beal, director of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, about equal numbers of women and men enter the fellowship competition, but women don’t enter as many scripts as men, who tend to enter two or three scripts at a time. So that’s why more men win!

Forgive me for not buying it, but I can’t help thinking that something else is coming into play here. It’s well known that Hollwyood execs are largely male (women have actually made more inroads here than anywhere, but evidently not enough). They tend to write for a young male audience: 13 to 29, or 18 to 34 are some ballpark figures. They claim that this is the most profitable audience for films — though the truth of the connection, as one insider has pointed out, may simply be that most execs themselves are males under the age of 34. Therefore there are some favored genres in Hollywood, comedy, horror, action, sci-fi — and they aren’t genres in which women play a large role, or generally have much interest, though this is changing. Here’s some interesting advice from a screenwriting magazine, from a guy who has clearly absorbed the mindset:

[Speaking of a high-concept-type comedy] “We’ll naturally have a love interest, but this isn’t a rom-com . . .[she may motivate the hero, but] the story isn’t about her.” He advises writers to avoid writing “pages and pages” of romantic scenes between them, because after all, she can’t be allowed to take away from the “hero.” (“Write the Logline First,” Michael T. Kuciak, Script Magazine, September-October 2005).

Yet another writer whose name I can’t recall, adivised us in an earlier issue of the same magazine that though in a romantic comedy, the focus should be equally on both partners in all their neurotic glory, “in a straight comedy, [the female love interest] is just there to make our guy feel good about himself.” In other words, don’t waste any time on characterization of a female lead, unless you’re writing romantic comedy, and for heaven’s sake, don’t give her too much screen time! Did it never occur to him that a comedy can have a female protagonist?

My personal experience is even more discouraging. I’ve submitted a script of mine a couple of times to Triggerstreet.com, a site associated with Kevin Spacey’s production company, where aspiring screenwriters review each other’s work. What I’ve learned there is eye-opening – and not necessarily just about my script. You see, the screenwriters who use the site tend to be predominantly young and male, and to be writing the types of films (action/adventure, horror, sci-fi) that the studios want. They’ve already absorbed the mindset. Several writers have advised other writers that they have too many female characters in their films, which the studios don’t like. Any time someone submits a script that has a female lead (and deals with something other than having stuff blow up), some reviewer is bound sooner or later to say: “Right now I see this as a Lifetime movie for television, not a feature film.” In other words, if it deals with a woman in a prominent role, or is about relationships, it doesn’t belong on the big screen.

My own script, The Marquise, is about a woman and her struggles against a historical background of eighteenth-century Paris. It’s also a romance — very much so — but primarily I consider it a serious epic historical drama. Not so the reviewers. One warned me that “no self-respecting straight male” would be going to such a film, so naturally its box-office potential wasn’t that good. Two others told me that what I was writing was “straight out of a Harlequin romance novel” (this from guys who have obviously never opened a Harlequin romance novel in their lives–how would they know what one of them is like?). At least I was spared the “Lifetime movie” crack.

To be fair, some of my best and most helpful reviews on that site have come from more mature-minded male reviewers. But there is just a mentality in Hollywood that it’s hard from women to combat. No wonder it’s so hard for them to send in their scripts. And not to get noticed when they do. And things don’t look as if they’re going to turn around soon — unless women screenwriters do something about it. But what? Any ideas?

Two Writers

There are many cliches about the artist/writer’s life; one of them is that artists are basically very screwed-up people. In fact, it’s been raised into something of a romantic myth. This seems to have been proven by the fascinating Academy-Award nominated film Capote. Truman Capote, a rejected child who became a flamboyant and out-sized character, always begging for attention and recognition. After becoming fascinated by the story of accused killers Perry White and Richard Hickock, he made it the basis of his most famous book, In Cold Blood.

Capote felt a real kinship with White because of their abused childhoods. But in pursuit of his story, he was drawn into moral compromises that made him even more akin to his subject. He lies, makes promises he doesn’t keep, and manipulates his the two killers, pretending friendship while planning to let them die, as long as he has his account of the murders.

Finally White confesses to the writer that the moment he saw fear in his victim’s face, recognition that he could become a killer, he quickly decided to prove him right — and shot him. Capote, listening, seems to become at least partly aware that his own seeking for recognition has made him a monster. The titles at the end of the film tell us that he never wrote another book.

Critics (who are writers) are naturally fascinated by this aspect of the film — the Faustian bargain that a writer can make in the name of art. But Capote actually portrays two writers. Fascinating as Truman Capote is, the other writer is even more fascinating to me. I first read her book as a young girl, when my father was assigned to an Air Force base in North Carolina in the late 60′s. I read it to pieces; I practically memorized it. It taught me things about the South (a new place to me), about racism and about humanity that I couldn’t have gotten so well in any other way. A kind of radiance has always hung around the author for me and I’ve always longed to meet her. She is, of course, Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ll never forget my amazement when I learned that the model for the character of Dill, the childhood friend of the heroine Scout, was none other than Lee’s own childhood friend Truman Capote.

Beautifully portrayed in the film by Catherine Keener, Lee is as clear-eyed and self-effacing as Capote is self-deluded and narcissistic. When her first and only novel is published, she isn’t yet the famous literary figure that Capote is. People mistake the title of her book, speak patronizingly to her, and ask questions like “Its a children’s book, isn’t it?” She winces, but replies politely, “Well, yes, it’s about children.” Yet when her book becomes world famous, wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and is made into an award-winning film, she doesn’t change. She always gives the impression of being more concerned with her friend’s decline than with her fame, which she never speaks about. She doesn’t try to be the center of attention at parties with talk of the writing life. At the gala party for the film version of Mockingbird, Capote stands as though posed for a photograph, while being ignored by everyone, while Lee speaks with her friends, seemingly ignoring the cameras. And yet when she asks Capote, someone whose ideas she truly values, for his opinion of her work, he is too absorbed in his own trouble to answer.

Few critics have written as much about Lee as a character in the film — and of course she is a supporting character. One thing we’re not told at the end of the film is that Lee also never wrote another book after her best-selling novel. She seemed happy to return to obscurity. Perhaps because she saw what seeking for fame did to her friend. We also never learn anything about her writing process, or what facing racism did to her.

It’s something of a shame that the true sacrifices made for art aren’t quite as exciting on film as the ruinous temptations. As for myself, I’d rather be more like Harper Lee.

An Overlooked Gem

Less than a week to go before the Oscars now, and the mood seems to be . . . a little flat. A few voices are suggesting that the nominees selected by Hollywood insiders might really have been the best offerings this year. As several writers have pointed out, the nominees this year tend toward a few works that politically correct (and increasingly insular) Hollywood finds significant, while audience-pleasing films like The Chronicles of Narnia or or Batman Begins are all but ignored. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all films that are popular deserve nominations. In fact, there were some wonderful gems out there this year that never found much of an audience – or nominations. So I’ll talk about some of those this week, as well as some of the nominated films. But new DVD releases are coming out every week — and not just of this year’s films. I’d love to urge everyone to see one recent release in particular.

Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film Francesco, Giullare di Dio, known in English as The Flowers of St. Francis, became available last fall on DVD from the Criterion Collection (b+w, in Italian, with English subtitles). The film celebrates the life of St. Francis of Assisi and his brothers. The DVD release was practically unheralded, but this is nothing new. Italian neo-realist director’s work was panned by critics and all but ignored by audiences when it first appeared in 1950. But it has since come to be known as “one of the masterpieces not only of Italian cinema, but also of religious cinema,” as film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, S.J. notes in the extras on this beautifully produced DVD.

The film is a series of vignettes based on The Little Flowers of St. Francis and other early Franciscan sources. They realistically show Francis and his brothers suffering from rain, cold and hunger, as well as the suspicion and misunderstanding they arouse among the townspeople of Assisi. It portrays their inner spiritual struggles, their asceticism (even those aspects uncongenial to modern viewers) and the contrast between their poverty and humility and the violence of their time. Most of the roles, including St. Francis, are played by real Franciscan friars. Rossellini treats Francis’ story with warmth and insight, and is faithful to his sources. One of the film’s highlights shows the simple Brother Juniper being tortured by the tyrant Nicolaio,but bearing it so patiently that the brutal man is eventually overcome with remorse and converted. Love overcoming violence is an especially strong theme in this film completed not long after World War II.

Along with the interview with Father Fantuzzi about the film and his relationship with Rossellini, the extras also include a delightful interview with the director’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, who says that her father chose St. Francis as a subject because “he is loved by everyone, even non-Catholics. His was a simple way of being good that anyone can reach.” She adds that this simplicity was in perfect accord with her father’s filmmaking style; he preferred to observe with the camera rather than use much editing or rely on the studied performances of professional actors. With the friars, he captured genuine spirituality on film. “The innocence in their faces is something that an actor cannot play,” she said.

Father Fantuzzi recalls that though Rossellini claimed not to be religious, religious themes of “good and evil and redemption.” often occur in his work. This moral quality adds to the excellence of this film. Don’t miss it.

Where Will You Be on D-Day?

It launches on May 19. Not the invasion of Europe, but the storming of theaters by the film version of The Da Vinci Code. Some of my Christian friends online are debating whether to go to the movie — or even read the book.

On one hand, we have to be informed. When we discuss the ludricous historical errors, distortions and blasphemies in the book with those who have read it, as soon as they find out we haven’t read it, it’s likely to stop the discussion right there. Nobody wants our opinion on something we’re ignorant of. But reading the book or seeing the movie will put money into the coffers of the publisher and filmmakers.

Now Sony has put up a web site so that Christians can “discuss” and ‘”respond to” upcoming film. The publicity team for The Da Vinci Code have long been making it known that they are seeking some “Passion dollars” for their film. They’re referring of course, to the over $300 million earned by The Passion of the Christ, much of it contributed by Christians, Hollywood’s newly-discovered audience.

One thing is clear to me. Every person who has read and believed the book or at least has become interested in it is a soul for whom Christ died, someone who deserves and needs to know the truth. Many people who have wandered far from Him over the years may have become interested again. Many who left the Church long ago, still have some respect for the person of Jesus. Some who know little about Him have become interested for the first time. We don’t dare not be informed; we don’t dare not respond. Here’s a free way to get yourself better informed.

But at the same time we have to send a clear message to those who promote and stand to make money off the Christian audience through something that is an offense to all Christians. We need to state loud and clear that we aren’t playing along with them.

That’s why I’m very glad to spread the word about this initiative, started by Jan the Maven. In short, let’s vote with our feet, with our box office dollars and see a movie on the weekend of May19 – any good movie EXCEPT The Da Vinci Code. You see, Hollywood is still hoping that the Christian audience is a small one. Yes, at first they thought the Christians who went to The Passion were just a few people dredged up from under rocks in the Bible Belt — people “who otherwise never go to the movies.” They’ve eventually learned they can’t exactly ignore us, but they still hope we’re not that important. Staying home won’t prove how big an audience we really are (80 percent of the country, actually). Staying home won’t send the message that Christians can make or break a film at the box office.

And if anyone knows of a way to advertise and promote this initiative in the media, let’s do it. Because we should let them know why.

Oscar Noms tomorrow!

I think I probably chose the wrong year to start my blog. For two years running, I’ve enjoyed reading blog posts discussing potential Oscar nominees and winners. Normally I try to watch all the films that have a prospect of a nomination, but this year, while I did see several potential nominess that came out earlier in the year (Crash, Cinderella Man, Good Night and Good Luck), I for the last two months I’ve had a problem with my leg that has largely kept me confined to bed (though happily able to work sitting up with a laptop). So I have missed practically all the year-end Oscar hopefuls. Since I’m almost well, I’m still hoping to see a number of them in the following month before the Oscars – including Walk the Line, Munich and Capote.

So I guess there’s no way I could make any credible predictions about who is going to be beaming a few hours from now, or deserves to — on the other hand, I sometimes think the Oscars are so much a matter of favoritism and inbred “politics” that it isn’t really necessary to have seen the films to guess who’ll be nominated. So here are a few random thoughts.

Russell Crowe – for my money, definitely deserves a nomination for Cinderella Man. I hope he’ll be nominated, but because of his recent phone-throwing shennanigans, won’t win. But Philip Seymour Hoffman has given too many critically acclaimed but awards- unrecognized performances not to be nominated — and win.

Reese Witherspoon — With her SAG Award, she’s getting some long-overdue recognition as well. Can Oscar be far behind? She’ll be nominated for sure -I can predict that without having seen her film yet. But can she win?

It will be interesting what the Academy thinks a good lead woman’s role is this year. It’s usually slim pickings for actresses.

Hang in there, cast of Crash – no real star role, so everyone’s a supporting player. The roles are spread too thin, I’m afraid, for any one of them to get recognition – though I’d be glad to be proven wrong. At least they can hug their SAG Awards.

As Janet Batchler is so fond of pointing out, the Academy loves actors who write or direct. Will this bode well for George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck – or will voters shy away from the controversy? And will they embrace Brokeback Mountain or shy away from it for the same reason? (Hollywood’s generally “liberal” until it becomes unpopular with audiences).

People who deserve to be nominated but probably won’t — largely because comedies, (non-dramatic) musicals and fantasy films aren’t taken seriously by the Academy:

Keira Knightly, Best Actress, Pride and Prejudice – she was the best part of one of the most joyous films of the year.

Uma Thurman, Best Supporting Actress, The Producers – she was a singing and dancing sensation and a comic delight. This was a side of her I’d never really seen before.

Georgie Henley – Best Supporting Actress, The Chronicles of Narnia. C’mon, it isn’t such a stretch – rember Tatum O’Neill and Paper Moon (she won and she was only 9), and the upset nom of 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider? So I guess I’m entitled to dream – because the character of Lucy is the heart and soul of Lewis’ story: in her trust and her courage, Queen Lucy the Valiant is what we all ought to be – and Georgie embodied her perfectly.

Unfortunately, Chronicles, this year’s one heralded “Christian” film doesn’t stand a chance of any nominations, except for special effects. But there’s always the possibility of an upset. And of course the Oscar nominations aren’t any fun at all without upsets.

I expect to have more to say after I’ve seen a few more of the nominated film, so stay tuned. . .