No Country For Old Women? A few slipped into Hollywood...
The great (free to the public!) AFI FEST in Los Angeles is over and as a perennial movie addict and feminist I can't help looking at the crop of new American and international films also from a woman's angle. An "older" woman's angle that is. What do we get this and next year? Anything new and revolutionary on the women's front that doesn't involve breakups and breakdowns, desperation and whining, rejection and ridicule, hardship and invisibility -- almost all of it written and directed by men?
Well, there was that on the screen all right. But there was also a fresh mix of bitches and babes, selfless moms and tough cookies, bitter losers and charming winners. It was kind of fun and reassuring to see a few confidant and stubborn, even nasty older females, all of them well over fifty or sixty. Which is relatively rare as is confirmed yet again by the just released study by USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It revealed what role gender, race and ethnicities play in U.S. box office movies (not that we need studies for the glaring obviousness).
The result is as predictable as yawns and bafflement on "Oscar" night. In simple words: the overwhelming number of main characters (and ticket buyers) is white, young and male. Old, white and female is an altogether different story. The conglomerate of old men -- in the movies and outside -- in the shape of oldie stars like Bob DeNiro, Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Bruce Dern -- is a beloved bunch. They can do no wrong. Nothing they play, not even the most vile and despicable characters, ever reach the underlying derision and bitter aftertaste often reserved for feisty older women on screen. Especially, if they dare to defy any stereotypes and are neither sweet grannies nor mistreated doormats. Which always reminds me that the days of bitches with bite and style in general are long gone. How I miss Bette Davis and Joan Crawford!
Of course -- sexism and double standards being more alive than ever -- playing old and cranky doesn't mean the same for men and women. So, here is the bad news first: Sad to say, but Meryl Streep, in most films simply divine for my taste, is cringingly dreadful in the over-the-top drama August: Osage County. Maybe it's because she seems to have kept and used her wig (and matching torturous emotions) from Sophie's Choice, or maybe it's just that old, sick and drunken women -- like her character -- are at the bottom of society's acceptance and must be punished with condescension and contempt by writers who hate their Moms.
In contrast, let's look at Bruce Dern as a difficult crackpot in the stunning, slightly depressing black-and-white saga Nebraska by Alexander Payne. Although he is a loony drunk, indifferent father and loser husband with little to love about him, he is depicted as a complex character that brings on an amused smile in the audience and somehow keeps his dignity (men always do -- in the movies that is). Which, of course, has all to do with Dern's beautifully measured acting. Matching him is the unglamorous but all the more cantankerous grouch June Squibb as his sharp-tongued wife. Here we have a 60-plus plain Midwestern woman completely devoid of anything decorative or soothing. She is the queen of barbed quips and sees through every attempt at bullshitting and lets everybody have it that even tries, including her children and husband. And because there aren't many women as abrasive as her in the movies recently who act without a trace of make-up, she's a winner -- and a rarity.
Judi Dench has nothing on June regarding dowdiness but she is a woman and mother of a different kind as the intrepid Philomena in the film of the same name by Stephen Frears. There is no way around it. Leave it to the Brits to put a much-needed dose of restraint to storyline and especially acting. Take a clue, Meryl! Dame Dench plays the no-nonsense, old-fashioned but outspoken Irish Catholic orphan who got knocked up by a charming lad when she was 15 and brought scandal and shame to the convent, run by sadistic nuns. She bore a little boy and kept him until a rich American couple picked up the cute kid for adoption and disappeared for good. 50 years later she meets a famous British ex-reporter, equally prickly and dry-witted, and the odd couple starts searching for the lost boy who turns out to be gay and dead in Washington. It's based on a real story which always works, and a mother's undying love - that works even better and is always a welcome tear jerker, no matter what age.
Saving Mr. Banks is a nicely done nostalgic confection. But a closer look actually reveals another true story under the slick late 50s set-decoration that shows a genuinely sharp and independent older woman with her own head and perseverance to spare. Amazingly, she resisted Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) elaborate tricks to secure the movie rights to her by all beloved book Mary Poppins for very long. She was appalled by Walt's idea to have cartoon characters in it. So much female independence must simply be punished and Emma Thompson as author P. L. Travers plays her prim, proper and humorless. Obviously, so the implication, she was only able to indulge in writing and sticking to her guns because she was British and SINGLE. And "naturally" therefore painfully lonely, creativity being only an ersatz for a man's adoration. I found her singlemindedness refreshing. Not everybody might have had the strength to resist even tap-dancing hippos and singing geese in fancy fox coats if Walt had set his mind to it. Travers stayed stubborn. Her conduct was that of a true artist who lived for integrity, despised crass commercialism and compromise and simply wanted to have it her way. It must have felt nice to be courted for over 20 years by a famous and beloved man like Disney who, like her, also competed for the love of children. Few admirers, let alone husbands, can keep that amount of ardor alive that long. She gave in finally and Mary Poppins became one of the biggest movie success stories. So this film is a sentimental vintage charmer that downplays women as important artists. Half a thumb down.
No such damper for glorious Gloria, yes, she of the other famous song that is NOT spelled G-L-O-R-I-A, and she is the real deal (in the form of actress Paulina Garcia) that any woman over 50 can probably relate to. This warm, lusty, charming and sexy Chilean mother and divorcee single-handedly restores and confirms the belief that knowing, grown-up women got it all and then some. She dances and dates, has plenty of great sex and even falls in love for a while with an older very nice guy who has unhealthy separation issues with his grown children no less. When Gloria throws him out finally and goes dancing to her favorite song and her own tune so to speak -- all by herself but pretty darn happy -- the movie crowd cheered. Most of them women. Of course.