As widely reported earlier this month, the new Sight and Sound poll of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time featured only one film by a female director. It was hardly a surprise to those versed in the inequalities of the film industry. No women competed for the Palme d’or at Cannes this year. No woman has ever been nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, let alone won. In 2011 only one film with a female protagonist broached the top 20 highest grossing films worldwide.
Yet there is no corner of the film industry — past or present — that isn't awash with women worthy of such honours. From iconic screen roles to cult actresses, acclaimed directors, producers and writers to the swathes of creatives, agents and other under-the-radar talents, the assembled picture is never all-male far beneath the surface. Each week, Heroines of Cinema will profile a different woman, fictional or real, alive or dead, on screen or off. The only criteria for selection will be the value and interest in highlighting and celebrating that woman's contributions to the world of cinema.
Films directed by women are not the only category under-represented in the Sight and Sound poll. Comedies, films made in the past twenty years and films with feminine or feminist themes are three traits that do not show up with much frequency. It is not the purpose of this article to address the reasons why. But given the pervading prejudices, it seems appropriate for my first on-screen Heroine of Cinema to be not a Golden Age icon, a sultry femme fatale or a great dramatic role, but the star of an unashamedly feminist contemporary comedy, which I consider to be one of the most quietly subversive female roles of the past twenty years.
That honour goes to Muriel Heslop, the role launched the careers of Toni Collette and P.J. Hogan in his 1994 surprise hit "Muriel’s Wedding." Muriel is a young Australian woman stuck in the provincial beach town of Porpoise Spit with low self-esteem, no real friends and even fewer prospects. She sits in her room listening to ABBA tapes and dreaming of getting married, while her father, obsessed with a narrow loss in a state government election, bullies his depressed wife and overweight, under-achieving children and conducts an affair under their noses.
At first glance, Muriel could be mistaken for a somewhat familiar ugly duckling with a Prince Charming dream – and given the film’s title and conventional marketing, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking they know where her story is heading. They couldn’t be more wrong. It is not only that the narrative unfolds as a scathing satire of patriarchal ambition and its devastating effect on family life, with a series of dramatic subplots that encompass disability, depression and suicide. Muriel’s central storyline emerges as an equally refreshing examination of female ambition and romantic aspiration.
Muriel starts the film believing that marriage is the only thing that will validate her as a person, because “Who’d marry me?”. The self-loathing inherent in her logic is already subversive, but as Muriel schemes her way to the wedding of her dreams – complete with wealth, press attention and an unfeasibly good-looking husband – she realises that all is not as she hoped. While the conclusion of her story is ultimately empowering – she learns from her experience, taking from it a sense of self-worth and the understanding that male validation is not the answer to her problems – her romantic dreams do not end happily ever after.
Yet despite this unexpectedly pungent take on the institution of holy matrimony, "Muriel’s Wedding" retains huge mainstream appeal. The film’s marketing was somewhat disingenuous, with posters featuring an immensely flattering shot of Toni Collette looking ecstatic in a wedding dress. Audiences are hardly prepared for what is to come, yet by most accounts, they leave delighted. That is a testament to P.J. Hogan and Toni Collette’s deft negotiation of the machinations of his script, but also surely a lesson that viewers are perhaps not as opposed to unexpected outcomes as might be sometimes feared by risk-averse Hollywood executives, even within the romantic comedy genre.
Time and again, the film flirts with convention, yet manages to subvert it in ways we can enjoy. Before Renee Zellweger and Lena Dunham, Toni Collette dared to play a romantic heroine who couldn’t slip into a size zero dress. Yet during the film, Muriel undergoes that most hackneyed of rom-com tropes, the makeover. However, her makeover occurs early on and without fanfare in a jump cut. More crucially, it signifies absolutely no internal change. Muriel revamps her appearance as an act of cowardice, and it is only gradually, over the rest of the film, that she begins to change her attitude and her ideals. She does not lose any weight, nor much of the goofy demeanour with which we meet her. But the cliché of beauty coming from within has never been more convincingly captured than in the film’s exuberant final shot.
"Muriel’s Wedding" did not make it into Sight and Sound’s Top 50, and given its triple threat status as a contemporary feminist comedy, that was never less than unlikely. It is not the case I aim to make here. But I hope the argument for Muriel Heslop as one of modern cinema’s most original and appealing heroines is less in question. Muriel does not achieve greatness, and given P. J. Hogan’s scathing portrayal of her father efforts to do so, perhaps we would not wish it upon her. We are not even left certain that she will find true happiness – just as many of ABBA’s most effervescent hits are laced with melancholy, so is Muriel’s departing smile. But in finding a sense of self against the odds and beyond her romantic aspirations, she achieves something profound – and something that the current day landscape of insipid rom-com heroines could do worse than emulate.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire's Lost Boys blog.