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Cross Post: Hollywood's New Feminists, Why the Old One Went Away and What's Coming Next?

Women and Hollywood By Sasha Stone | Women and Hollywood November 12, 2012 at 3:00PM

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.
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Let’s look at the cross data:

  • *denotes top box office of the decade
  • bold if it won Best Picture
  • #denotes top of the box office that year

1960s Best Picture contenders that were either centered on a strong female lead or else co-starred one

The Apartment
West Side Story*
Fanny
My Fair Lady*
Mary Poppins*
The Sound of Music*
Darling
Dr. Zhivago*
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Bonnie and Clyde*
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner*
Rachel Rachel
Funny Girl
The Lion in Winter
Romeo and Juliet
Anne of a Thousand Days
Hello Dolly*

1970s
Love Story*
Nicholas and Alexandra
The Last Picture Show (debatable)
Cabaret#
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist*
A Touch of Class
Chinatown#
Nashville
Network#
Annie Hall#
The Goodbye Girl#
Julia
The Turning Point
Coming Home
An Ummarried Woman
Kramer vs. Kramer#
Norma Rae

1980s
Coal Miner’s Daughter#
Ordinary People#
Reds#
On Golden Pond*
Atlantic City
Missing
Terms of Endearment*
The Big Chill#
A Passage to India
Places in the Heart
—-NOTED – Barbra Streisand’s Yentl was one of the top grossers of the year, directing by and starring a woman. Not nominated for Best Picture.
Out of Africa
#
The Color Purple*
Prizzi’s Honor
Children of a Lesser God
Hannah and Her Sisters#
A Room with a View
Broadcast News#
Fatal Attraction*
Moonstruck#
The Accidental Tourist
Dangerous Liaisons
Working Girl#
Driving Miss Daisy*

1990
Silence of the Lambs#
Beauty and the Beast*
The Prince of Tides #
Howards End
The Piano
The Remains of the Day
Sense and Sensibility
The English Patient#
Fargo
Jerry Maguire#
Secrets & Lies
Titanic*
As Good as it Gets#
Shakespeare in Love#
Elizabeth
American Beauty#

2000s
Chocolat
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon#
Erin Brockovich#
In the Bedroom
Gosford Park
Moulin Rouge!#
Chicago#
The Hours
Lost in Translation
Million Dollar Baby#
Little Miss Sunshine#
The Queen
Atonement
Juno#
The Reader
The Blind Side*
An Education
Precious#
Black Swan#
The Kids Are All Right
Winter’s Bone
True Grit
The Artist
The Descendants#
The Help*

What you can take away from this is the following:

1. Female driven films used to drive the box office, and those films, in turn, often showed up in the Best Picture race.

2. After the rise of the blockbuster, female-driven films that did well at the box office did not cross over into Oscar because the better, more respectable roles were in smaller, independent films. That means  movies like Bridesmaids or The First Wives Club or any of the films that draw a healthy box office tend to be too genre-y for the Academy, not Best Picture material.

3. As the number of nominations increased from 5 to 10, more films made by women, about women managed to get into the Best Picture race. Now that they’ve increased it to an unspecified number of films, the jury is out as to what that will ultimately do to films that aren’t big box office successes but are awards-worthy.

Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart’s brand of heroine alters what we’ve seen over the last few decades where women are concerned. Most of the time, female characters need to be defined against a male figure, the person on whom the story turns. The Graduate is a good example of this. Benjamin is the lead but it still has two strong female characters. The English Patient is about Ralph Fiennes but it is also about Juliet Binoche and Kristen Scott-Thomas but they are still females framed around males, though their characters are essential and strong.  Binoche’s role is somewhat debatable. She is probably the lead and one could argue the plot turns on her. But what makes Stewart in Snow White and Lawrence in Hunger Games is that their character arcs do not depend on the male figure, even if there is a love interest. Conversely, Stewart’s work in Twilight is exactly the opposite; she is nothing without the man in her life.

To that end, neither The Hunger Games, nor Snow White, nor Twilight will get anywhere near the Oscar race. But this year has proved that women can dominate the box-office charts just as well as men and that might eventually result in real change. Moreover, these successes help these actresses who then turn to smaller movies like Silver Linings Playbook for Jennifer Lawrence and On the Road for Kristen Stewart.

To my mind, both of these actresses deserve major props this year and perhaps an Oscar nomination is the way to honor them.

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Printed with permission.  Sasha Stone is the founder of Awards Daily.

This article is related to: Academy Awards, Feminism, Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence