Women’s rights made a major impact on Hollywood in the 1970s. Feminism, now a dirty word, was such a force to be reckoned with that you didn’t dare depict a woman in a film who didn’t have, at the very least, her own identity. It was a hard fought war. But like most things go in Hollywood, economy drives the movement. Thus, once Julia Roberts became the $100 million dollar baby in the 1980s with Pretty Woman, the strong female characters began to slowly disappear. At the same time, the rise of the blockbuster drove the cost of movies higher. Roberts was one of the few women who could command the same salary as Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. That’s what made her so powerful back then. But those high salaries demanded high box office returns and sadly, at least according to Hollywood, those would shrink because what sells at the box office are films starring men, made by men.
If you’d like to see how dramatically things shifted away from films featuring strong female characters, I already researched it once, trying to track Best Picture nominees and to see how many were in the top twenty at the box office that year. But a curious detail emerged and that was after movies started making upwards of $100 million, strong female characters all but vanished in the highest grossing films of the year. That leads us to today, to ask why so few of the Best Picture contenders feature strong female leads.
To a degree, the box office since Jaws and Star Wars forever changed the landscape of American film, and big box office has always been driven by movies about men.
In the 1960s, the top earners that centered around a female character were: The Sound of Music (which was the highest grossing film of the decade), Dr. Zhivago, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Cleopatra, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (debatable), Bonnie and Clyde (debatable), Let’s Make Love, West Side Story.
In the 1970s, the top box office earners that were female driven included The Exorcist, Love Story, Kramer vs. Kramer, Electric Horseman, Alien, A Star is Born, What’s Up Doc?, King Kong.
The 1980s had a scant few films that were female-driven. Notable exceptions were An Officer and a Gentleman (although, really, that’s about Gere’s character), On Golden Pond, Little Mermaid, Fatal Attraction, Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy, 9 to 5, The Color Purple, When Harry Met Sally. It’s a fairly amazing decade of strong female films at the box office but during this decade something dramatically shifted.
Moving into the 1990s, you have Titanic, which arguably featured a strong female lead; Jim Cameron also gave us Aliens. Beauty and the Beast has a central female character and Julia Roberts made Pretty Woman a lot of money as its central character — although it’s really about the two of them. Roberts made Runaway Bride, which again, made Hollywood a lot of money, though arguably, it’s about both of them, ditto As Good as it Gets.
Moving into the 2000s, you have Twilight, The Blind Side, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
One of the reasons for the sharp decline is how much money movies are expected to make now. At the end of the 1990s, the highest grossing film of the decade was Titanic and the second highest was The Phantom Menace. It doesn’t really matter to Hollywood executives that Titanic made that kind of money with a female lead because, let’s face it, the Titanic itself was the real star. But the second highest film made $473,307. The previous decade, the 1980s, the highest grossing film was $434,975. And in the 1970s, Star Wars with $460.998. But in the 1960s, our best decade for female-driven films, the highest grosser was Sound of Music with $158.671.
So you can see how the blockbuster, namely Jaws and Star Wars really changed things in Hollywood, and really changed things for women.
But, cut to 2012 and a peculiar thing has happened. So far, the box office is suddenly once again dominated by female-driven films. Sure, you still have the Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers as the top two, but The Hunger Games, led by Jennifer Lawrence (with no obligatory sex scenes or nudity) came in at number 3 so far and made $400 million.
Then you have Pixar’s first movie with a female heroine, Brave, which made a whopping $235 million. At number 11 you have Snow White and the Huntsman, which made$155 million.
The impact of these successes should not be overlooked nor diminished. This is huge. What its impact, ultimately, on the Oscar race is still yet untold. But last year’s box office success of The Help pushed it into the Best Picture race. Still to come this year, Zero Dark Thirty is a film with a strong female central character, and Les Mis is one, arguably, though I have to see it first. Other than that, this year’s Oscar lineup looks to be, once again, male centric.