“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt
If you want to win an Oscar for Best Picture now, make an old fashioned Hollywood movie. But make sure it is easy on the eye, entertaining and not too challenging. Don’t let there be any controversy attached to it. And never remind us of the complexities in human nature. Focus on the positive. People are good. People do good things. Isn’t the world a nice place to be? On the flipside there’s Zero Dark Thirty, which has to be judged on its own merits as a film. The facts about the torture — whether it happened, whether it didn’t — can be had at a different time. What we have before us is a work of art.
Zero Dark Thirty was so upsetting it seemed to go even beyond the torture debate. I began to wonder, would people have been so personally pissed off if the director of Zero Dark Thirty had been a man? Moreover, if the lead character had been played by George Clooney do you think it would have changed anything? Would the movie be less threatening? Would sticking to the status quo have enabled people to fall in line and accept it? Would the critics have rushed to give it their top prizes to begin with but then abandon it just as fast when the water got too high?
I want to look at the state of things in American film, but specifically the Oscar race. The ongoing disparity between films by and about men compared with those by and about women is worth discussing. What is it about us in 2012 that makes us so desperately want to cling to the past? We love Mad Men because women and men were divided into power positions. We watch Peggy take a little climb upwards but for the most part women can’t really go very far because the men rule that world. Even Downton Abbey is a show about a time when the power of women was limited. It is the brilliance of that show, and of Mad Men actually, that they write female characters who are powerful beyond the roles society and culture assigns them. And yet, I can’t help but wonder why we have such a hard time adjusting to change?
The one film in the Best Picture race with a lead female, directed by a woman, has now been ejected from the winner’s circle completely. There was no pity party thrown for Bigelow — oh sure, a few critics and bloggers kicked up a fuss but there were no awards given out after the torture controversy hit. Zero Dark Thirty started the race winning the New York Film Critics award for Best Film then won in Chicago and then at some point it just stopped winning anything. Even the Critics Choice, where it was supposed to win the major awards (they’re supposed to be CRITICS) couldn’t even manage to give it an award for Original Screenplay. It got only won Best Actress and Editing. It did not win a single National Society of Film Critics award. They seem to split two ways — snooty critics went for Amour and populist critics went for Argo. Zero Dark Thirty? Did it even happen?
Before Ben Affleck became the cause du jour for not doing what Bigelow did, not claiming to be “history” but rather, just making a fun, funny movie about a fake movie, Bigelow was the one director that seemed like a lock. I remember predicting her and having someone say “are you sure about Bigelow?” And I said, she’s a lock. Once the film starting winning I was glad I’d been right about that but now I look back on that exchange and I think, hmm. You have to go all the way back to 2002 to find a director whose film won the New York Film Critics but didn’t get nominated at the Oscars and that was Todd Haynes with Far From Heaven.
Digging deeper, I find that almost all of the films up this for celebration are movies that are male-driven. One of the reasons I love Lincoln as I do is that, even though it’s a film that takes place in 1865, Kushner and Spielberg give Mary Lincoln a full spectrum of human emotions, much to the annoyance of Fanboy Nation who like their women fuckable and off to the side. A famous historical figure dealing with bi-polar Mary’s personal traumas were among the many burdens Lincoln carried. The relationship is beautifully wrought in Lincoln and provides 2012 one of its best female performances. The other film that busts out of convention is Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild which gives over the entire film to the inner life of a small girl. The film is about what happens inside her. When was the last time you saw that in any Oscar movie?
Last year, the only film that had female characters with something to do other than decide which end she wants the dick placed in was The Help. That film, naturally, brought with it much of the same controversy Zero Dark Thirty is receiving. Boy, was The Help threatening all the way around. So much so that, even though it made $150 million and had a large mixed race cast, it was nominated for just four Oscars. The rest of the BP nominees were all about men.
Zero Dark Thirty represents a revolutionary idea — a woman who doesn’t need any man to come in and rescue her. Moreover, she’s the ball buster in the room. She’s the one who says it’s time to put the pressure on (a reminder that I am looking at the film as art and not debating torture) and she’s the one who sticks to her guns when the men want to turn tail and run. We spend much of the time on Maya’s face, watching her thought processes as she works it out, as she zeros in on her target.
At the end of the day, no one really knows what to do with this character. We prefer movies where the men fix everything because that’s what we’re used to, that supposedly controls the box office, that is the status quo that has been choking the life out of modern Hollywood. What do we do when a whole movie is about the internal life of a female character that isn’t a positive experience? By the end of Zero Dark Thirty Maya has done her job and done it well, as she had been trained to do by the CIA but that doesn’t mean she’s happy. There are no knights in shining armor to rescue her. She doesn’t get a pat on the back and a gold star. She doesn’t right the wrongs of our society. She suffers silently, alone, with nowhere to put her own torment.
Mark Boal wrote the character as a woman to make the point that in America women aren’t treated the way they are in the fundamentalist Muslim sects we’re at war with. In fact, there are two women in the film who are each in charge. This is something you saw back in the 1970s and in the 1980s even but you never see now. Women are meant to be wives and girlfriends but not singular protagonists.
The shame about Zero Dark Thirty, and even The Help, is that the controversies surrounding them might mean that movies like that don’t get made again. It is not our job to seek perfection in art; it is the artists job to seek their own perfection. The critics should not have abandoned Zero Dark Thirty for the safer choice because of the controversy. Either the movie is a brilliant work of art or it isn’t.
If Maya had been less sure of herself, like, say, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs who learned much from and was sort of pushed along by the men in her life, Hannibal Lecter among them, would there still be the same kind of agitation? Is it that old theory that men don’t trust women behind the wheel? Do none of us trust women behind the wheel?
Zero Dark Thirty is threatening in many ways that have nothing to do with torture. It is quietly the only film in the Oscar race by a woman and about a woman. Yes, the screenplay was written by a man but the uniqueness of the Bigelow/Chastain collaboration should not be discounted, particularly when we are in the rut we’ve been in for the past two years, where the majority of movies that land in the Oscar race are by and about men featuring men doing great things and women being subdued and supportive in the background. It feels like the 1950s all over again — except for back then movies like All About Eve were winning Best Picture.
Bigelow herself is threatening. After Twitter Asshat Bret Easton Ellis put out the “Kathryn Bigelow is overrated because she’s pretty” nonsense, then tried to retract it, it was obvious that Bigelow would be judged differently simply because she was a woman. But I think we can be sure that if, say, Clint Eastwood or Jim Cameron had directed Zero Dark Thirty the controversy would have been minimized. Face it, we’re used to men being the smart ones, men being in charge. One of the great things about last year’s winner, The Artist, was that Peppy was a character in her own right. Sure, the film was really about the guy’s inner world but Peppy was the successful one. She rescued him. In Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence is also the rescuer but she doesn’t seem to have anything else on her mind except him. That appears to be the way so many of the younger generations, at least the ones I read on Twitter, want things to be – that is how they see strong women.
I am heartened by the way my 14-year-old daughter and her friends talk about gender roles in the media. They recognize that there’s a problem. I hope they become uppity women because without uppity women the world would be a very boring place. “Well behaved women seldom make history.”
Not enough is celebrated about what Zero Dark Thirty is, how it’s a tiny revolution that may slightly alter the landscape of American film and the Oscar race. The invisibility of women is not a concern in Europe and other countries that showcase at Cannes. This is an American problem. Hats off to the filmmakers who remembered that 50% of the population in America are female and we’re not letting go of our power any time soon. Spielberg’s Lincoln, Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and most importantly, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.
I watched Bigelow take the heat and respond with cool prowess, just as Hillary Clinton faced down Senate inquisitors with firm assurance when she was grilled at the Benghazi hearings. If I were arguing the point of history and torture I would have different things to say but we are still dwelling in the world of art, and in that world Bigelow is a quietly defiant hero. Whether Zero Dark Thirty or Beasts of the Southern Wild or even Lincoln win a damned Oscar or not is really beside the point. You can’t really beat back popular opinion. But the saving grace in this mishegoss is that we have these works of art for all time. They are worth more than a gold statue, which is really like the Maltese Falcon when you get right down to it — a futile pursuit.
So here’s to you, Kathryn Bigelow, and you, Mark Boal for doing the impossible — delivering a strong onscreen female who really is just interested in the work. Some might think the “feminist dream” of a woman who can say, “I’m not the girl who fucks” is a nightmarish stereotype, but that’s only because they’ve never lived inside the body of a woman who really does just want to work, to make her voice matter, to do everything a man can do and maybe sometimes do it better.
Sasha Stone is the founder of Awards Daily.