How women like Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence came out on top in the 2013/2014 awards season.
The majority of films in Hollywood are filmed from the perspective of the male, both within the films’ narrative and from behind the lens. Like with mostly every other workplace, men rule the world. But last year displayed an exceptionally diverse group of performances from women. You’d never be too hard pressed to find a group of great female performances every year, but female-centric movies were practically omnipresent in the 2013/2014 awards year.
Females quite literally dominated the screen over the last year – it’s so rare to get a Cate Blanchett and a Sandra Bullock in one year
You’re going to get grandiose, powerhouse male performances à la Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey embraced with superlatives every year (see Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix last awards season), but it’s so rare to get a Cate Blanchett and a Sandra Bullock in the same year. Females quite literally dominated the screen over the last year: Cate Blanchett was the fallen Upper East Side socialite whose histrionics took centre stage in Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock was ready for her close-up in the critical and commercial smash Gravity and Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are caught in a venomous familial face off in August: Osage County.
Emma Thompson flew the biopic flag as standoffish Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers; as did Judi Dench, who tackled the heartbreaking titular character in Philomena. But of course, great female performances in 2013 went beyond awards recognition. The likes of Brie Larson in Short Term 12, Julie Delpy in Before Midnight (luminous), Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (undateable, but likeable) and Amy Seimetz in the idiosyncratic yarn Upstream Colour have been nominated sporadically, but are naturally glossed over at the Oscars in favour of studio films.
And extensively, world cinema has been obliging to (particularly older) women than Hollywood has – take a look at Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert’s illustrious careers – and it was every bit as strong last year. Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, stars of the French lesbian odyssey Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the obligatory must-see foreign feature of the year, were deemed so good they became the first actresses to win prestigious Palme D’ors alongside director Abdalletif Kechiche. Chile’s Paulina Garcia emblematised the under-represented older female generational in Gloria, which nabbed her the Golden Bear. Suddenly, it’s not so bad being over 40, huh?
The outcry of misogyny for The Wolf of Wall Street is living proof that the topic of sexism is very much in vigorous shape
Even the supporting roles for women of late have been brimming with vitality. There was no stopping Blanchett’s one-woman show display in Blue Jasmine, but backing with fine support was the always reliable British thespian Sally Hawkins. Lupita Nyong’o became the obligatory it-girl of 2013 thanks to her soulful performance in 12 Years a Slave while Scarlett Johansson, experiencing something of a minor career renaissance, rounded out 2013 with two much-talked about supporting performances: as Joisey girl Barbara in Don Jon and as a physically absent AI in Spike Jonze’s Her.
But Johansson’s Barbara was not the only sassy female causing distress for her male counterpart this last year. Jennifer Lawrence and Margot Robbie play trophy wives in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, respectively. While Lawrence’s Rosalyn has been praised for her brazen attitude and snappy comebacks, the latter however attracted an outcry of misogyny for the way in which women are presented as prized possessions and merely plot devices. While these accusations made by staunch feminists could be easily debunked given that it is based on a true story (shouldn’t we blame society instead?), it is living proof that the topic of sexism is very much in vigorous shape.
But if there is anything that the past awards year reiterated, it is that women could also be mentally unhinged, morally bereft characters, and at times antagonists to the narrative. Rooney Mara (Side Effects), Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave), Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) are examples of this: They’re not jovial, two-dimensional pleasant fantasies for the men to gaze at, nor is primitive stereotyping at play here. And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence – again – this time as the persistent heroine Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire, exposing the hidden box office talents that women can have.
Sarah Polley’s third feature film was a particularly ambitious one, while Lake Bell also tested her auteurship skills this last year
Behind the lens, the likes of the aforementioned Delpy and Gerwig, as well as Brit Marling (The East) co-wrote films in which they had starring roles, whereas Sarah Polley’s third feature film, Stories We Tell, was a particularly ambitious one, an intimate documentary that infused family footage with re-enactments replicated with a Super 8. The results were resoundingly successful, and Lake Bell also tested her auteurship skills for In A World…, subsequently igniting buzz through Sundance.
Veteran indie filmmaker Nicole Holofcener’s follow-up to the underrated Please Give was her first studio picture, and her most accessible film: Enough Said. It is imperative that the very few female directors out there are creating roles for women, such as Holofcener did with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said. Sofia Coppola, too, who returned this year, albeit with a rather dry social critique on suburban ennui in The Bling Ring, which was a bit too objective for its own good.
Saudi Arabia made history by creating its first full length feature to be shot inside the country with Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film contender Wadjda, which was directed by, yes, a female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. It also had a female lead in the name of Waad Mohammed toplining the film. (Which smacks of irony given the repressive state of the film’s country.)
But in spite of this wholly triumphant year, women still have a long way to go, in front of and behind the camera. The truth is there simply are not enough women controlling the strings in Hollywood as one would want to believe, no matter how much success women enjoy in front of the screen. Where are all the Kathryn Bigelows? We have Lawrence and Bullock fronting enthralling crowd-pleasers at least a few times every year, but where are the uncharacteristic female directors?
Featured image: Columbia
Inset images: IFC Films; Open Road Films; A24