Rebecca Hall is The Girl From That Thing You Saw™. Maybe it was a British period drama? Was it one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies? No, I think it’s… isn’t she Peggy Carter? Yeah. That’s it. We all remember Rebecca Hall from Marvel’s Agent Carter, where she kicked ass in WWII and smooched with Captain America and no no no no that’s not right I’m fucking this up. That’s Hayley Atwell I’m thinking of. Of course. Well, just who the hell is Rebecca Hall, then? She’s English, brown hair, kind of a waif, big smile… damn. Totally blanking. I mean, I know who she definitely isn’t: the villain in Iron Man 3. That guy is Guy. Pierce. Guy Pierce.
So, funny story. Rebecca Hall is actually pretty amazing and talented, not to mention gorgeous and poised in that classically aristocratic way, she’s just had some bad luck with projects that looked promising on paper but didn’t pan out, or was kept on the sidelines as a supporting character with little to do, kind of like Charlize Theron from 2003 through 2014. She’s still looking for her big break, and she’s doing a Spielberg film due out soon (The BFG), so maybe that will be her chance to get on the A-List. However, she nearly had that opportunity three years ago when she was cast as the main villain in Iron Man 3; as you might remember, not only did the final product not end up with Rebecca Hall twirling her impeccable mustache as the main villain, it didn’t end up with that much Rebecca Hall at all. See, director Shane Black wanted to pull a twist ending with the big reveal that Hall’s character was pulling the strings all along. She was going to be the Big Bad! In a Marvel movie! That’s a big deal! Especially when you consider that there’s, like, one whole female villain in all of the Marvel movies (Nebula, from Guardians of the Galaxy, who is an ancillary antagonist at best). More dangerous than any villain in Marvel’s stable, however, was a being of ultimate power over the entire MCU: Ike Perlmutter. Perlmutter, the crotchety cheapskate bastard who was such a tightfisted little crab he bitched about reporters at The Avengers: Age of Ultron press screening taking extra soda refills, was the merchandising representative (read: toy sales executive) in the Marvel Creative Committee directed by film division honcho Kevin Feige. It was Perlmutter who put the kibosh on Evil Rebecca Hall, relegating the lead villain to be hastily reworked into little more than an extended cameo. Why did he do this? Let me allow Shane Black to explain:
“All I’ll say is this, on the record: There was an early draft of Iron Man 3 where we had an inkling of a problem. Which is that we had a female character who was the villain in the draft. We had finished the script and we were given a no-holds-barred memo saying that cannot stand and we’ve changed our minds because, after consulting, we’ve decided that toy won’t sell as well if it’s a female. So, we had to change the entire script because of toy making. Now, that’s not Feige. That’s Marvel corporate, but now you don’t have that problem anymore. Yeah, Ike’s gone. But New York called and said, “That’s money out of our bank.” In the earlier draft, the woman was essentially Killian – and they didn’t want a female Killian, they wanted a male Killian. I liked the idea, like Remington Steele, you think it’s the man but at the end, the woman has been running the whole show. They just said, ‘no way.'”
Thankfully, Feige had a come-to-Galactus meeting with Disney over Perlmutter’s untreated masculus senilis outbreak, and in the Hollywood parlance, Feige was given control over the film division while dickbag Ike was “promoted” to a different department where he wouldn’t keep fucking shit up with his gender bias, though not before, rumor has it, his veto ensured no female characters would take a prominent position in Phase 1 or Phase 2.
So I guess Shane Black is maaaaybe off the hook here, since it seems he actually advocated casting a woman in a lead role. However, consider some of the roles that Ms. Hall’s line of often top-list male directors have given her, even when she is the lead: Tony Stark’s ex-girlfriend (Black), the harrowed wife of Christian Bale (Nolan) and Johnny Depp (Nolan’s acolyte, Wally Pfister), the girlfriend who made sandwiches while Frost interviewed Nixon (Ron Howard), Will Ferrell’s sad white guy fantasy reward (Dan Rush), the woman whose womb is the sexually menaced Mystery Box all wrapped up in The Gift (Joel Edgerton), the outgoing young professional that inexplicably falls in love with a filthy criminal (Affleck). Even when she gets cast in major films, she’s rarely more than the love interest to the A-list lead actor, defined by her romantic connection to a primary male character. Yet as I’ve established in other columns, movies prominently featuring women sell just fine, especially with younger audiences (aside: Kevin Fiege, seriously, put your money where your mouth is and make a Black Widow movie already, what the shit). So what gives? All this to establish yet again that musty old ideas about gender and sexuality and everything I hate-but-love-to-talk-about in my columns don’t work now, and maybe never worked at all, and the cycles that put out the data that said, “Girl stuff doesn’t sell,” are just a ridiculous negative feedback loop where not marketing X to girls causes girls not being interested in X which causes companies not to market X to girls. I mean, come the fuck on, we’re talking about an Iron Man movie where multiple dudes are wrecking shit in their flying murdersuits; how fragile is someone’s concept of masculinity if having a female lead raises concerns about marketing “girl stuff?”
The film industry, simply, is a demonstrably chauvinistic playground largely run by people who think women’s lib was a fad that ended when Helen Reddy sang “I Am Woman.” So what happens when the whole industry employs this kind of regressive approach toward inclusiveness in other areas? For example, out of The 50 Greatest Directors ever, why are there no women? Why can we find room on there for proud misogynists, racists, and men infamous for incest and sexually preying upon children, but not one person who pees sitting down? Yes, I know the old argument that says, “Judge the art, not the artist,” and whatever, I get it, I do, but how well can you stand behind that defense in an industry that doesn’t seem to want to enable women to even make art, let alone worry if it’s worthy of being judged? Woody Allen has made over 50 movies, 48* of which were tepid comedies about a nebbish old loser banging his way through a parade of hot young chicks. It’s not that women aren’t capable of making great movies–Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Penny Marshall, and others have all proven they can win awards and draw a crowd–but it seems like the deck is really stacked in favor of, you know, dudes.
The 2015 USC study that lead to a federal investigation into Hollywood’s hiring practices headlined with one shocking statistic: around 50% of students studying direction in the major film schools were women, but the working industry was 98% male. That’s a staggering statistic, and hopefully meaningful change comes from that investigation, but for now women are still hammering away at the old boys’ club’s wall that thinks women only direct movies that appeal to women, which A) um, no they don’t, women direct everything from broad comedies like Wayne’s World and Fast Times at Ridgemont High to subversive horror like The Babadook, and B) so the hell what if a movie appeals to women? Are we just going to pretend the huge grosses on Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey were just a fluke? Are we going to look at the stats that say 52% of all moviegoers are women and go, “Why cater to chicks, man? That’s gay and lame?” This is so counterintuitive, like McDonald’s deciding that while the burgers and McMuffins are selling well, what they really want to corner in on is that sexy Filet o’ Fish demographic.
The American Film Institute, or AFI, is well-regarded in critical circles for authoritative pronouncement, so when they release a list of The 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, people take notice. Compiled by thousands of film industry professionals, it’s as equivalent to a Hollywood Canon as much as anything is, and it’s a good list, a pretty solid list, and I take some relief in seeing at least some relatively modern films in that pack (as opposed to the BAFTA’s recent list, which looks like the VHS collection in a nursing home from 1968, and yes, that analogy is anachronistic, don’t be pedantic), though it still belies a problem in a very Bechdel Test kind of way: none of the Top 100 films are directed by women. Over a hundred years of American cinema, thousands and thousands of films, and none worthy of a spot on that canonical roll? I mean, Yankee Doodle Dandy is on that list. Forrest goddamn Gump is on that list, a film I loathe on a molecular level. Why not Big? Or Boys Don’t Cry? Or Harlan County, USA? Titanic made the cut, but Lost in Translation did not. So on and so on.
Of course, these kinds of lists are subjective and infinitely arguable. Is It’s a Wonderful Life really an #11 when Pulp Fiction is #95? No idea. My point here isn’t that Boys Don’t Cry is DEFINITELY a better film than Yankee Doodle Dandy, my point is that if you’re the kind of person inclined to see patterns of disenfranchisement and suppression in such things, the notion that Hollywood couldn’t come up with a single film directed by a woman to put on that list–despite ample critical and financial successes to choose from–would lend your conspiratorial worldview some credence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Hollywood Boys’ Club is making it difficult for women to have a level playing field. I’m letting eleventy-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep say it:
“In the director’s branch of the academy, there is something wrong that there are so few women. In the directors guild, there is something profoundly wrong. It’s not like the film schools aren’t graduating thousands of young women. They’re going to festivals, they’re winning prizes, their films are seen and they disappear. So then do our stories. My story is disappearing, and I can’t allow it, on behalf of my daughters and also my son.”
This is a link to the top 100 films directed by women. It’s a good list, although not as robust as the AFI’s. There’s some legitimate greats on there. A League of the Their Own; American Psycho; Meek’s Cutoff; The Hurt Locker; Monster; Thirteen; multiple major award nominees and winners. Lots of Oscars handed to the films on that list, and rightfully so. Are they not on the AFI’s list because they’re not as good as, say, Giant? Or are they not on there because people in the industry aren’t nominating them? Here’s an interesting comparison: of the few women that have ever even been nominated for an Academy Award in Direction, how much did it help their career? Jane Campion was nominated in 1996 for the Piano, and in the twenty years since has made 4 feature films. Sofia Coppola has made just three films in the 13 years since Lost in Translation was nominated. Kathryn Bigelow, arguably the most successful of the lot, has only directed one movie since The Hurt Locker came out eight years ago. Let’s look at some of their counterparts: after their first nomination, Scorsese has directed 17 features and about a dozen documentaries; Spielberg has 27 theatrical releases; even Tom Hooper, whose films are kind of shitty and isn’t thought of all that fondly by critics, directed tw Best Picture nominees in the mere three years after his first Oscar nomination.
Fun fact: Debra Granik, who directed and wrote Winter’s Bone–the movie that propelled Jennifer Lawrence into superstardom and received Academy nominations for Best Picture, Best Acting, and Best Screenplay (but not Best Director, obvs)–has made exactly zero feature films in the six years since. Looking at the category she did snag a nomination in, Best Adapted Screenplay, the male nominees have completed a 28 combined projects since, while neither Granik nor her writing partner, Anne Roselllini, have been attached to anything after their 2010 nomination. Somehow Granik wrote and directed fantastic performances from untested actors in a movie good enough to be nominated for Best Picture,** but the Academy just didn’t think they matched the empirically awful compositions of Tom Hooper, or the clichéd machismo of David O. Russell’s Rocky rehash (goddamn that Aerosmith training montage was fucking painful). The five directors nominated that year (all male) have completed, to date, 11 theatrical releases, all with ample budgets and star power. Four of those eleven have since been nominated again by the Academy.
However, there is a counterargument that I actually take find hope in. What if there’s no tradition of female directorial talent because the current school enrollment rates aren’t reflecting what the industry will be like in five or ten years from now? What if the days of female lead actresses being treated like doe-eyed props are winnowing out the more the public consciousness pushes people like Ike Perlmutter out to the curb where they belong with all the other garbage? I’ve got very little to go on to cement that hope, but I have to take solace in the fact that people like me can open up a dialogue in a public forum such as this and have the matter taken seriously, just as I take solace in people like Streep and Susan Sarandon and Lexi Alexander being outspoken about the bias rampant in the business and calling out those who perpetuate it (like, I don’t know, maybe some huge raging misogynist who keeps failing his way up the industry ladder in defiance of all logical explanation). Maybe we’ll look back in a decade and see the playing field leveling in all facets of Hollywood’s employment practices, and today’s female film students will find themselves in a more enabling, facilitating, encouraging environment. Maybe the system for their male counterparts that rewards early successes with ever-increasing opportunity will finally reach out and provide them the same chances. Maybe we’ll see a mechanism that at least offers meager inroads for legitimately talented women in the industry while still finding room to celebrate its increasingly worrisome collection of sexually-predacious male A-list talent.
Male-dominated practices are so ingrained into the film industry that it has transcended being mere bias and has instead become conventional wisdom, that hobgoblin which propagates unfair practices through normalizing them. In studies we see conventional wisdom is a sham, and that women are abundantly interested in both working in film and watching it in theaters at levels comparable to their male peers. The truth of this phenomenon can hardly be disputed at this point, and we all lose–men, women, children, everyone–if we continue to stand idle. We have to start consciously reminding ourselves and others about this divide in representation, and point out the demonstrable truth that says people of all stripes like movies made by women. We can’t settle for the status quo. We can’t give ourselves away. As Streep pointed out, when we lose our voices–when we can’t show our own bodies and speak for our own experiences–we lose the stories we tell about who we are. Without a voice, we’re left to the mercies and ambitions of people who are not us, hoping they will be our advocates.
But given that 98% of all working directors are on the other side of the gender gap, I don’t think hope alone will be enough.
*it’s probably not that many, certainly no more than 45
**in 2014, Ava DuVernay would direct Selma and go on to garner over a dozen Best Director nominations, including noms from the Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards; sadly, much like Granik before her, DuVernay would also be snubbed at that year’s Oscars, losing the nomination to directors like Morten Tyldum, whose The Imitation Game was widely criticized for its glossing over the main character’s sexuality (a narratively-important fact) as well as just being rote and boring–even in the positive reviews.