Saturday, 17 April 2010

Sex In Hollywood

The age-old 'Battle Of The Sexes' has always been present in Hollywood. Of course it's been the source of many romantic-comedies, including His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) and The Battle Of The Sexes (Charles Crichton, 1959), but it's just as real behind the scenes. There has always been a slightly unfair male dominance in Hollywood, some would say a sexism, but over recent years a lot has been done to rectify things. You'll still hear the same old thing at the OSCARS, when one of the five women nominated will declare "I'm so lucky to have this opportunity. There just aren't enough good roles for women." It almost seems to have become a cliche. Now granted, they have a bit of a point. This year sees a male-lead summer season with Clash Of The Titans (Louis Leterrier), Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau), Prince Of Persia (Mike Newell) and The A-Team (Joe Carnahan) all being guaranteed hits. Sure we have Salt (Phillip Noyce) starring Angelina Jolie, but even that was re-written for her when Tom Cruise backed away from the originally male role. And this isn't even mentioning the holy union of action stars Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Bruce Willis in The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone). But of course, summer fun is exactly what these films are and if we look to the acting stakes 2009 was a pretty solid year for women in Hollywood. Even outside of the OSCAR nominations there were several great female performances in solid female roles - Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger in Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino), Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist (Lars von Trier), Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days Of Summer (Marc Webb), Alison Lohman in Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi) and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star (Jane Campion). These were all critically acclaimed, brilliantly written roles, performed note-perfect. The reason they weren't bigger hits or didn't gain nominations? Because most of these women aren't billboard names and the Academy doesn't favor horror or rom-coms. They like films that are 'important' (probably the reason why men like Sam Rockwell, Jackie Earle Haley, Sharlto Copley and Zachary Quinto lost out at this years OSCARS). They like films about hope, courage and the will to persevere. Films that pander to an audiences tear gland and deliver a message. Films like The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock).
So it came as a surprise when I heard a remark by Sigourney Weaver last weekend. While in Brazil promoting Avatar, one of the leading ladies of the screen, and an established action star, declared that James Cameron didn't win Best Director because he "didn't have breasts." Now of course Weaver would defend Avatar - she was out there promoting it after all. And James Cameron is an old friend who directed her to an OSCAR nom for Aliens in 1987. Weaver is also an environmentalist and Avatar has a very strong 'save-the-planet' message at its core. But for a leading lady so iconic to put that kind of a slant on the glory of The Hurt Locker and Kathryn Bigelow? I could hardly believe what I was reading. Have the politics of the Academy become so important that they overshadow the artistic merit of the films themselves? Indeed last year most people thought that Mickey Rourke had the Best Actor OSCAR in the bag, but Sean Penn was awarded for his role as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official. Since then pessimists have said that the Academy awarded Penn as a reaction to Proposition 8, an amendment passed in November 2008 which stated that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California". Although unlikely, it's not impossible to imagine that the Academy would award Penn to show their support of homosexuality and its rightful place in America. And now that Kathryn Bigelow has become the first woman to win Best Director, for a film about the Iraq conflict, it seems that Academy politics could be in question again. This must be Weaver's point after all - it seems strange that she would want to attack Bigelow personally.
It's very rare though, that the shoe should fall on this foot and Hollywood come under fire for sexism against men. Could it really be the case? Did Bigelow win just to make the Academy look good? The answer, in my eyes, is no. The Academy can be accused of leaning one way or another due to political motivations, but there is still no real weight to this argument. Sean Penn is one of the greatest actors of his generation and he was superb as Harvey Milk. And we can't exactly attack Hollywood for standing up for gay rights, if political motivation was the case. Hollywood is still a business after all.
It was also, of course, about time the achievements of female directors were recognised, and there are few better than Bigelow in contemporary American cinema. Gender equality still has some way to go - the cinema industry is still seemingly male-lead in terms of actors and audiences. Superheroes are predominantly male, as are most cowboys, gangsters and cops. There are women who have made a mark with these kinds of characters but, sadly, there will also always be the 'glamour girl', designed to fit into the scenery rather than act. So, did Bigelow win because she has breasts? No. Only the greatest of pessimists could invent an argument to defend such an idea. She won because The Hurt Locker is a superbly crafted, taut, exciting war drama which places as much emphasis on exploring the realities of war and its soldiers as it does on thrills. It's powerful, political and almost unbearably tense. Avatar? Just wasn't that good really, was it?

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