Gravity, an action thriller set in space, is pretty much the last film over which you'd ever expect me to swoon. The last action movie I left thinking was a "great movie" was Bad Boys, and I was five-and-a-half. Gravity has special effects that rival the Lord of the Rings movies -- none of which I've ever seen -- and the dialogue consists more of banter about "O2 levels" than it does of lines like "You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard." (You get extra points if you can name that movie.) I'm generally a Before Midnight/Blue Jasmine kinda guy, but Gravity is one of the tightest, most terrifying, most beautiful, and most profoundly spiritual pieces of art I've ever encountered. It somehow manages to make my biceps tighten with fear, while simultaneously making my mind dizzy analyzing what it means to be alive. Gravity brought out in me visceral responses that I didn't know the cinema could make me feel, and I can't for the life of me comprehend how someone made the movie in the first place.
Now, having said that...have you seen the posters for this movie? I live in New York City, where I have been visually attacked for the past month by the marketing campaign for what has become my new favorite film. Every day on my way to the subway, I greet a particular Gravity-promoting phone booth. (I'm convinced that phone booths have only stuck around to display movie posters). This advertisement, along with all other advertisements for this film, enrages me. No, there's nothing wrong with the graphic design, which is gorgeous and represents the movie impeccably.
Here's why I'm livid: Gravity has a cast of two actors, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. This is just a guess, but I'd say that Mr. Clooney is only on screen for about twenty minutes. Ms. Bullock, on the other hand, is never not on screen. She is the movie. So why, may I ask, does every piece of marketing material for a movie which pretty much features one actor and no one else for its entire ninety-minute running time look like this?:
SANDRA BULLOCK GEORGE CLOONEY
Imagine if the roles in Gravity were literally reversed, and it was the story of a male astronaut, played by George Clooney, who is struggling to get back to Earth, with a cameo by Sandra Bullock. Every poster for that movie would have had George Clooney's name, and George Clooney's name only, above the title.
Remember Cast Away? Tom Hanks? Wilson the Volleyball? I do. Much like my first experience with Gravity, I'll similarly never forget the first time I saw Cast Away, but for different reasons. My cousin got into a screaming match with this machismo guy in the row in front of us in the middle of this nearly silent movie -- but that's another story for another day.
A simple-minded film executive might pitch Gravity as "Cast Away in space." Both films are human-against-nature stories that predominantly feature one character's struggle to get home, except that Gravity exists in real time, there's no Wilson, and the protagonist is always a second away from dying. Like Gravity, Cast Away also features a secondary actor playing a secondary character with about twenty minutes of screen time. This other actor was Helen Hunt.
Now, if the billing for Cast Away was laid out in the same way that Gravity's is, it would have looked like this:
TOM HANKS HELEN HUNT
This was not the way in which Cast Away was billed...but you already knew that. Every poster for that movie contained four simple words: "Tom," "Hanks," "Cast," and "Away." Why wasn't Helen Hunt's name there? Simple: it didn't belong. The movie was about Tom Hanks's performance, just as Gravity is about Sandra Bullock's. Yes, Gravity does feature ninety-nine-percent more special effects than Cast Away did, but, still, it's very much about Bullock's performance. So why is Clooney's name on the poster, next to Bullock's, above the title? Simple: Tom Hanks is a man, and Sandra Bullock is a woman.
This doesn't always happen. We can be grateful for the moments in movie history when female actors got the billing they deserved. It was appropriate that the poster said, "Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich," and not, "Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in Erin Brockovich," though Albert Finney had much more of a reason to be above that title than George Clooney did above Gravity. And we can also be grateful that The Iron Lady had only Meryl Streep's name above its title, and not Jim Broadbent's as well. Ditto for the folks at The Queen letting Helen Mirren fly solo, without a companion in Michael Sheen. I am sad to report, however, that these are exceptions to the maxim of men-rule-the-world. Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and Helen Mirren demands a certain kind of respect in America because she's English and she's been knighted. (The entertainment industry tends to treat this breed of actor like they live on Mount Olympus.) These women all sit in unusually high positions on the Actor Market Value Food Chain, and, let's face it: no one in America besides me and about six other people know who Albert Finney, Jim Broadbent, or Michael Sheen are.
If an actor like Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie had been the star of Gravity, I'm fairly confident that George Clooney would have been placed below the title. (Angelina Jolie was actually slated to play Sandra Bullock's role while Gravity was in development.) Roberts and Jolie are both A-list stars of the highest caliber whose Oscar wins were greeted with only minor backlash, if any, whereas Bullock, while still hugely popular around the world, is an A-minus-list star whose Oscar win was looked upon with contempt by many of the slightly pathetic people who follow the Oscar race like it's a major sport. (I include myself in that category, by the way.) But, whatever any male actor's place on the Hollywood food chain, if he carried a movie on his shoulders, it seems like he would get the top billing.
It's ironic to be discussing this in the same week that Vogue had Ms. Bullock on this month's cover, calling her "more beautiful and bankable than ever." If Warner Brothers couldn't have trusted her breathtaking performance or her respect in the industry, couldn't they have trusted her ability to sell tickets? Why couldn't she have been given the same courtesy as Clooney was given in The Descendants? Or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator? Or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and Lincoln? Or Brad Pitt in Moneyball? Or Denzel Washington in Flight? Or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler? Or Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote? Depending on the poster in question, Michelle Williams had to share above-the-title billing with three to four of her costars for My Week With Marilyn. And Kristen Wiig's name didn't even appear on the promotional materials for Bridesmaids!
You get the point. We don't live in a world where a female actor's carrying a film can guarantee that she will get the credit she deserves. Female actors are judged according to their market value, whereas male actors are credited based on their performances. I can't remember ever watching an award show that didn't at some point include a presenter describing the female actors nominated in a certain category as "beautiful." The Day-Lewises and Nicholsons seem to be introduced as "talented," "gifted," or "brilliant," while the dainty lady actors, who might also be described with those modifiers, are subverted with a comment about their looks. "Now, let's look at the extraordinary performances from the five beautiful women nominated for Best Actress." Can you imagine Helen Mirren introducing "these five hunky men nominated for Best Actor?"
It's telling to examine how often in their thank-you speeches award-winning female actors express gratitude for the opportunity to play, as Frances McDormand said in her particularly grateful Oscar speech, "such rich, complex female characters." She encouraged "writers and directors to keep these really interesting female roles coming." Emma Thompson dedicated her Best Actress prize "to the heroism and the courage of women, and to hope that it inspires the creation of more true screen heroines to represent them." Catherine Zeta-Jones felt honored to get her Academy Award in "an amazing year for women." Idina Menzel, accepting her Tony for Wicked, began her speech by saying how proud she was to be in a musical that "celebrates women." In her Oscar speech, Penelope Cruz thanked Woody Allen and Pedro Almodovar for "having written over all these years some of the greatest characters for women." Can you imagine Sean Penn accepting an Oscar and gushing, "I feel so blessed to have been able to play such a strong male character in a movie that celebrates men?"
I'm not saying that female actors shouldn't feel lucky to get to play quality roles. They should. The roles are rare. My point is that their rarity is pathetic. One might argue that the underrepresentation of authentic female characters in movies might stem from the men who predominantly write and direct films. In the eighty-five years of the Academy Awards, only twenty-two movies written or co-written by women have won a writing award, and most of the earliest winners shared their award with their husband! Of the past four female-written Best Screenplays, only one, Juno, was primarily about women's issues, while the rest -- Brokeback Mountain, Lost in Translation, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- basically ran on a tank of testosterone. Three years ago, the Best Director honor went to a woman for the first time ever, but that was for a violent war film that you'd never have known was directed by a "her." I don't look down upon female filmmakers for telling male-dominated stories. They have no responsibility to forward any cause. But, if the women at the forefront of the industry aren't giving other women complex roles to play, how can the actresses of this world aspire to be anything more than "beautiful?" In Shakespeare's plays, male characters grossly outnumber the women, and it's terribly disheartening to acknowledge that not much has changed. This problem pervades television, too. In 2013, it's still abnormal for a television show's female characters to outnumber its men, or even equal them. Take a look at this season's six new cast members on SNL: only one of them is a woman. (They're also all white.)
But here we have Gravity, a film written and directed by a man, Alfonso Cuarón, and co-written by his male son Jonas, that not only features a virtually solo lead performance by a woman, but, also, that woman is playing a feminist character. Dr. Ryan Stone is a highly educated, independent, free-thinking, unpartnered single mother up against the most insurmountable of circumstances, seemingly capable of anything that chance brings her way. It's worth noting, however, that the entire plot of Gravity revolves around Bullock's character's never having traveled in space before. She's a research doctor, not an astronaut, and she cannot get back to Earth without a heroic rescue by Clooney's character early on in the film. He knows far more about space travel than she ever will, and the only way she gets anywhere in her feature-long struggle is due to his advice. But I don't read too far into that. A great deal of that element of the film is what gives the audience their "in" to the story -- "Sandra's just like me! She doesn't know anything about space travel either!" And, hey, this character is nowhere near as bad as that ever-popular trope of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," whose only job seems to be helping the story's male protagonist find his purpose, all the while having sex with him.
It's astonishing that the marketing for such a feminist film could have been handled in such an anti-feminist way. But I blame this entirely on Warner Brothers, and not Cuarón, who did everything right. Dr. Ryan Stone needing some help from astronaut Matt Kowalski doesn't send a message that women can't do things on their own -- it's what would happen in the truth of that circumstance. But, when someone like Sandra Bullock isn't acknowledged for single-handedly carrying a $100 million blockbuster, that sends a message that women aren't capable of heavy lifting without some help from a man.
Sadly, this all makes a certain kind of sense. We still live in a world where men ask women's fathers for their hands in marriage, and women take their husbands' last names. I hardly think that individuals partaking in these marital customs today believe that women are property, but that philosophy is certainly from whence those customs came.
I was kvetching over the weekend about all of this, and a friend remarked that Warner Brothers was probably just trying to make sure that they didn't "scare away their male audience, because they're the crowd that generally likes movies of that genre." But when has anyone ever said that a female actor needed more of a spotlight in order to bring a female audience out to see the kind of film predominantly frequented by females? In fact, I have a feeling that a studio would bring in a man to repair that situation, too. I bet that no one said anything about needing Helen Hunt's name on any posters, out of fear of "scaring away" the female audience of Cast Away, which was a pretty schmaltzy, "feminine" film.
In her magnificent commencement address to the graduating class of Barnard College in 2010, Meryl Streep, a sage and articulate authority on matters such as these, laid out why she thinks our entertainment culture is so male-dominated:
"As people in the movie business know, the absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman protagonist, to feel themselves embodied by her. This more than any other factor explains why we get the movies we get! And the paucity of the roles where women drive the film. It's much easier, it's much easier for the female audience, because we were all brought up, grown up identifying with male characters from Shakespeare to Salinger. We have less trouble following Hamlet's dilemma viscerally, or Romeo's, or Tybalt's, or Huck Finn or Peter Pan -- I remember holding that sword up to Hook! I felt like him! But it is much, much, much harder for heterosexual boys to be able to identify with Juliet. Or Desdemona. Or Wendy in Peter Pan, or Jo in Little Women, or the Little Mermaid, or Pocohontas. Why? I don't know, but it just is. There has always been a resistance to imaginatively assume a persona, if that persona is a she."
Meryl precedes this comment with an anecdote about how most men of her generation tell her that their favorite character that she has played is Linda from The Deer Hunter, "a lovely, quiet, hapless girl, who waited for the boy she loved to come back from the war in Vietnam." But now, Meryl celebrates, "in a measure of how much the world has changed, the character most [young] men mention as their favorite is Miranda Priestly [from The Devil Wears Prada]."
The poster for Gravity doesn't necessarily lead me to believe that movie studios are run by misogynists. It just leads me to believe that they don't give enough credit to the world in which they live. People would still see Gravity in the numbers in which they went out to see it last weekend even if Clooney's name had lived below that title. Gravity is a game-changer in the craft of filmmaking that will bring out Oscar race-trackers, but it's also an accessible, popcorn-friendly thriller that will draw sci-fi dorks, Fast and the Furious fans, and sappy romantics who like to root for the good guy. Warner Brothers didn't need to whisper to the American public, "Don't worry, you're not going to be watching a woman for ninety minutes," which, in fact, they were.
As Meryl says, the world is changing: "Men are adapting...changing their deepest prejudices to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found very, very difficult, and their grandfathers would have abhorred. And the door to this emotional shift is empathy." But nothing will ever change as long as a megastar like Sandra Bullock needs George Clooney's name next to hers in order to turn what might be an art-house indie into a blockbuster. That is the gravity of this situation. (Sorry, I had to.) If a woman will probably be our next president, then Sandra Bullock should be able to have her damn name above a title by itself.