Hollywood's finally making films about women it has long ignored — and audiences are flocking

The New York Times

Dec 28, 2019 10:32:56 IST

Actress Patricia Arquette began her Emmy acceptance speech in September this way: “I am grateful at 50 to be getting the best parts of my life.”

A few months earlier, 59-year-old actress Patricia Clarkson (Sharp Objects) said as much on the podcast WTF: “I’m one of many women who are in their late 40s, 50s and 60s — we’re having a bit of a heyday now. We have jobs. We have people who want to hire us and hire us often.”

Hollywood often works hard to convince us that older women aren’t appealing, that they are boring, and worse, they don’t really exist, with considerably more opportunities afforded to their male counterparts. But that might be changing. In 2018, 11 of the 100 top-grossing movies starred or co-starred women who were 45 or older, according to a recent University of Southern California study. In 2017, it was just five movies. Even measured against an already low bar in the movie industry — where female-led films about women’s lives often struggle to get off the ground — this does signal progress.

What’s more, at a time when there are more American women over 50 alive today than at any point in history, several movies this year zeroed in on their experiences. There were releases that appealed to a mainstream audience like Otherhood, Juanita and the unfortunate example of what not to do with such women, Poms. These middle-of-the-road titles tended to attack head on society’s long-standing indifference toward older women, sometimes overdoing it with an obvious rush to immediately hook the audience lest they grow well, indifferent. But there were also indie films like Clemency, Gloria Bell, Frankie, And the Birds Rained Down and Diane that found room for bolder storytelling that was as subtle as it was confident.

 Hollywoods finally making films about women it has long ignored — and audiences are flocking

Otherhood was streamed by 29 million accounts in its first month of release | Netflix

Some of these films even found large audiences. If we can go by Netflix’s report that its original comedy Otherhood was streamed by 29 million accounts in its first month of release, that tale of three empty nesters was among the service’s most popular movies of 2019.

When their grown sons drop the ball on Mother’s Day, a trio of mothers (Angela Bassett, Patricia Arquette and Felicity Huffman) takes a road trip to New York City to rebuke them. The movie is both heartwarming and grating in its clichés — like the stereotypical emotionally smothering Jewish mother (Arquette’s character breaks into her son’s apartment when he’s not home). But it’s also an earnest look at a story we rarely see: how mothers can reinvent themselves and their relationships with their adult children for the better. The real prize is that we also get to see classically trained dramatic actress Angela Bassett, 61, play silly for once (crashing a party, drunkenly oversharing with strangers and throwing a bit of shade at a white hairdresser). Arquette and the 57-year-old Huffman hold their own, too, with a similarly refreshing playfulness that feels altogether new for these veterans.

(It’s worth noting that Otherhood took a decade to get made. The film’s director and co-writer, Cindy Chupack and producer Cathy Schulman have said the project stalled at three different studios and was the subject of an unsuccessful foreign financing push. “It was such an uphill battle to convince men why these women were worth that amount,” Chupack told the Wrap Power Women Summit in Los Angeles in October. This despite evidence that a somewhat similar comedy, Book Club starring Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen, made an impressive $104 million worldwide in 2018.)

Juanita is another Netflix movie that told an older woman’s reinvention story. It’s basically a black, working-class version of Eat, Pray, Love, but it has a larger message for viewers past midlife. Burned out on a dead-end hospital job and her grown but needy live-in children, Alfre Woodard’s title character sets off on a journey that randomly ends in Paper Moon, Montana, where she gets to know Jess (Adam Beach), a Blackfoot chef and Desert Storm veteran with a passion for French cuisine. He hires her as a cook in his restaurant and she begins to take stock of her life and where she wants to go. Without ever saying a pithy “it’s never too late,” “Juanita” (directed by Clark Johnson) shows that although it’s not easy, it also isn’t impossible for a woman in the second half of her life to make a big life change.

And then there was Poms, directed by Zara Hayes, which hit theaters on Mother’s Day. Its story of a terminally ill former schoolteacher (Diane Keaton, who is 73) who fulfills a lifelong dream when she starts a cheerleading club in her new retirement community frustratingly failed to harness a talented ensemble that included Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman and Jacki Weaver. Instead it reduced them to a snoozefest of one-dimensional caricatures, forcing ill-fitting set pieces (a car chase, bad viral videos) on veteran actresses who deserve far better.

Of the 100 top films of 2018, only four starred or co-starred older women of color, according to the USC study. In 2019, Woodard had two such roles. In her second indie, Clemency, the Sundance grand jury prize winner written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, Woodard is the warden at an Anywhere, USA, prison whose grueling responsibility of overseeing the executions of death row prisoners has led to PTSD and chronic insomnia. Woodard’s performance reveals an actor at the height of her powers in this sobering character study. As she resists her husband’s (Wendell Pierce) insistence that she finally retire, we get a rare window into the gradual breakdown of a dedicated professional.

Diane, starring Mary Kay Place, who is 72, is another impactful character study about a woman who needs a timeout from business as usual. The title character spends her days in upstate New York taking care of a lot of other people: her drug-addicted son, her elderly neighbors, her sick cousin, the regulars at the soup kitchen where she volunteers. Writer-director Kent Jones skillfully portrays Diane’s gradual awakening to her burnout and inability to forgive herself for past mistakes through journal entries and some dream sequences that look like abstract acid trips.

Both Clemency and Diane are slow burns that culminate in a kind of unraveling, but these older women are not tragic. They are breaking down, but they are also on their way to breaking through.

Other tales of 50-plus women this year pushed past our societal tendency to ignore the sensuality of aging female bodies. In director Sebastián Lelio’s exuberant Gloria Bell, Julianne Moore’s title character has a one-night stand that eventually becomes something more after meeting a fellow divorcée at a dance club. A bona fide breakout, the film is a free-spirited portrait of an empty nester in her sexual prime who at the same time finds herself falling prey to the kind of archetypal train wreck of a boyfriend often reserved for ingénues in breakup movies. Moore’s appearance certainly epitomizes Hollywood beauty standards, but her character’s utter lack of body shyness, quirky solo dancing and all, lands as a radical rebuttal to what movies have historically taught us about the lives of such women.

Writer-director Louise Archambault’s And the Birds Rained Down does this too for women even older. The film features a pair of 70-something hermits, Gertrude (Andrée Lachapelle) and Charlie (Gilbert Sicotte), who meet at a recluse community in the woods and unexpectedly fall for each other. There’s an emotional love scene in which Archambault shows Gertrude’s bare chest and belly without a trace of pity or discomfort. And the scene packs as much heat as it does whimsy.

Isabelle Huppert, who is 66, is topless too in Frankie, making a statement straightaway in the movie’s opening teaser. On a family vacation in Portugal, she nonchalantly removes her fuchsia bikini top and dives into the hotel pool in front of her embarrassed granddaughter. Playing artfully yet strategically with scale, director Ira Sachs and his cinematographer, Rui Poças, capture a wide shot that is far enough away not to ogle Frankie but close enough to take in her figure and say: this is a powerful woman who isn’t afraid to take risks. Sachs, like Archambault, also doesn’t shy away from a passionate sex scene between Frankie and her husband. Like Martha in “Poms,” she has cancer, but the fact of Frankie’s illness doesn’t infantilize her.

Frankie, Gloria Bell, Diane, Juanita. That so many of these stories pull their titles from the names of their middle-aged protagonists communicates a simple but important message: These movies are about these women, not anyone else. And while systemic change proceeds at a snail’s pace in Hollywood, that films about women we’ve too often ignored are getting made and finding audiences is no small matter.

Beandrea July c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Dec 30, 2019 10:12:40 IST