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The Big O: 12 Must-See Feminist Films Saluted by the Oscars

The Big O: 12 Must-See Feminist Films Saluted by the Oscars

If any year proved how entrenched Hollywood’s female troubles are, it was 2014, and not just because the bench of best-actress candidates in the Oscar race was far from deep.

Also problematic was the types of female-centric stories being told by the major studios. Of the seven releases featuring female protagonists among last year’s 25 highest grossers, five titles were steeped in fantasy. Two were based on dystopian fables based on a young-adult book series aimed at young women (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” “Divergent”); two others were revisionist fairy tales (“Maleficent,” “Into the Woods”); and one was a sci-fi action thriller (“Lucy”).

As for the others, “The Fault in Our Stars” was a romantic tearjerker about a pair of teen cancer patients based on yet another young-adult novel. The only entry that openly courted a more mature demographic was the crime thriller “Gone Girl,” based on a best-seller.

These days, escapism increasingly dominates what gets greenlit. Blame it partly on the digitized special-effects revolution that lends itself to the fantastic and the increased competition for audiences who now have countless other entertainment options beyond their neighborhood megaplex. As a result, grown-up movies that reflect our lives in an increasingly complicated world are primarily the domain of independent filmmakers whose work often doesn’t make it beyond bigger-city art houses, and of cable/online productions such as “Mad Men” and “Orange Is the New Black.”

And, as the utter lack of female-focused entries among this year’s Oscar best-picture contenders underscores, compelling portraits of over-30 women and the issues they face are becoming scarcer than ever.

Hollywood wasn’t always adverse to doing high-quality films about middle-age females, however. Back in the ‘70s, there probably would have been a bidding war over bringing an adaptation of an intelligently observed Pulitzer-winning novel like “Olive Kitteridge” to the big screen. Now, in order to do the material justice, this sort of slice-of-life drama about ordinary people in a small New England town is delegated to HBO while barely drawing the amount of viewers it so richly deserved.

Meanwhile, 2015 started off with the biggest opening weekend at the box office ever for a film by a woman director. The less good news is that the movie was the critically slammed adaptation of the erotic fantasy “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Nothing wrong with applauding Sam Taylor-Johnson’s achievement, but such success just encourages studios to pander rather than enlighten. What will be the next female-driven film sensation? Disney’s “Cinderella,” opening March 13 and based on yet another fairy tale.

What got me thinking about this subject was something that Women and Hollywood’s founder, Melissa Silverstein, brought to my attention. She was shocked to discover after recently speaking with a group of 20-something women that none of them had ever heard of, let alone seen, 1979’s “Norma Rae” or 1983’s “Silkwood.” For those of us who grew up during the time when the feminist movement was taking root, these titles were part of a canon of stirring cinema that showed ordinary women, flawed as they might be, making change in the world and sacrificing themselves for a cause. Both inspired by real people, these stories were “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “American Sniper” of their day — but about women.

The Oscar race often saluted such feminist-leaning offerings throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Even the first decade of the 2000s saw more opportunity than there is now for substantive, female-driven plots on the big screen.

Why is it important to make sure that main characters exist who mirror average women and not just action-warrior types like Katniss in “The Hunger Games” or Tris in “Divergent”? Because moviegoers of both sexes want to witness great actresses in roles that aren’t just bigger than life, but also down to earth and relatable. They want to see situations and experiences that reflect their own once in a while. 

As the ever-wise film historian Jeanine Basinger once told me, “We go to the movies to see ourselves and make that connection. To feel what we can do, what our lives are, what we can learn, what we can achieve. These female role models suggest you are equal, you can be the captain of your own ship.”

Here are 12 Oscar-nominated movies from the last four decades that are set in the real world with a feminist point of view. Many made money, some made careers, a few are dated – but all prove that telling women’s stories often leads to art that endures.

1. “Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970). This biting satire’s portrait of a well-educated, affluent Manhattan homemaker severely undervalued by the men in her life is a far cry from the pearl-wearing June Cleaver sitcom types a decade before. Carrie Snodgress was nominated for an Oscar for her breakthrough role as a woman pushed to the edge by verbal bullying from her insufferable, social-climbing husband (Richard Benjamin as one of the biggest jerks in the history of movies), a cold-hearted narcissistic lover (Frank Langella in a knockout feature debut), and even the chauvinistic male shrink running her group-therapy sessions.

Where to find it: The film is famously not on DVD, although VHS tapes and made-to-order DVD-R’s are sold on Amazon. You can also watch the entire movie on YouTube.

2. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974). A rare Martin Scorsese-directed effort with a female in the spotlight. Ellen Burstyn, who rightfully won an Oscar for her performance, is a blue-collar single mom with a smart-aleck pre-teen son who moves to California with hopes of becoming a singer, but instead is forced to work as a diner waitress to make ends meet. The often salty female camaraderie between Burstyn and fellow servers Diane Ladd and Valerie Curtin compensates for the string of subpar men in their lives, from abusive husbands to chauvinistic patrons. The lone exception: Kris Kristofferson’s perhaps too-perfect divorced rancher who takes a shine to Alice.

Where to find it: All major online and on-demand outlets, including Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.

3. “Claudine” (1974). In an era when “blaxploitation” films such as “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” were all the rage, here was a brave attempt to throw some reality into the mix by showing the struggles of inner-city families trying to get by. “Claudine” also gave the under-appreciated Diahann Carroll (who previously made strides on TV’s “Julia” as the first black actress to star in her own series) an opportunity to show off her talent on the big screen. Her performance as a single Harlem mom with six kids who has to lie about having a job to qualify for welfare and falls for James Earl Jones’ garbage collector earned her an Oscar nomination.

Where to find it: On DVD at Amazon and Netflix.

4. “An Unmarried Woman” (1978). The late, great filmmaker Paul Mazursky touched more than a few nerves with this brutally honest — at least for the ‘70s — account of how a pampered New York City wife and mother actually improves her life after her stockbroker husband dumps her for a young Bloomingdale’s sales clerk. If anyone but the immensely appealing Jill Clayburgh were in the title role, her over-wrought art-gallery worker Erica might have been insufferable as she leans on her disgruntled girlfriends for support, gets touchy-feely with her female therapist, adjusts to the new world of casual sex, and falls for Alan Bates as the soulful painter who graciously makes her an omelet with Tabasco sauce for breakfast. The movie earned Oscar nominations for best picture, actress, and original script.

Where to find it: Online and on demand through Netflix, as well as on DVD.

5. “Norma Rae” (1979). There are few iconic movie moments as powerful as when Sally Field’s minimum-wage cotton-mill worker stands atop a table while hoisting a hastily scribbled sign that says “UNION,” causing her colleagues to shut down their noisy machines one by one. As a small-town widow and mother of two who was inspired by a real person, Field is bright, outspoken, funny, and feisty as heck. She eschews any easy sentiment and instead provides emotional insight into how Norma Rae is finally coming into her own as a person by becoming a crusader against health risks at the factory. The film won Oscars both for her performance and for its theme song, “And So It Goes,” along with nominations for best picture and adapted screenplay.

Where to find it: On DVD at Netflix and Amazon.

6. “Silkwood” (1983). This higher-stakes cinematic soulmate to “Norma Rae” (written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen) is based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, the gutsy lab worker-turned-whistleblower at a Oklahoma nuclear plant who is accidentally exposed to radiation. Before paranoia and fear take over, Meryl Streep gives one of her more relaxed portrayals as a free-spirited woman who shares a rundown home with a live-in lover (Kurt Russell) and lesbian best friend (Cher). The cast’s laidback camaraderie and ribald humor are infectious, and they are given enough leeway to build memorable characters in the midst of an issue-oriented drama. Streep would earn her fifth acting nomination, while Cher competed in the supporting category and Mike Nichols collected a directing nod.

Where to find it: On DVD at Netflix and Amazon.

7. “The Color Purple” (1985). The film based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel remains a moving tribute to a black sisterhood that puts up an united front against the tyranny of men while delivering unforgettable performances. No one can criticize Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut as Celie, an abused child of the South forced to marry a brutal sharecropper (Danny Glover) who treats her like a slave and forces her to have sex. Encouraged by jazz singer Shug (Margaret Avery) and friend Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), Celie leaves her husband and starts a new life. “The Color Purple” would receive 11 Oscar nods, including Best Actress for Goldberg and Best Picture.

Where to find it: Online at iTunes, Amazon, and other outlets.

8. “Working Girl” (1988). Another Mike Nichols-directed gem, one that mixes business and pleasure. Tess McGill, a spunky Wall Street secretary from Staten Island (a top-notch Melanie Griffith) relies on her smarts and common sense to get ahead, even as her smug yuppie female boss (Sigourney Weaver) blocks her upward path while pretending to be a supporter. Though very much of its time, this capitalistic Cinderella tale still contains plenty of insight into how to move up the ladder, especially for women. There is even a bonus or two: Harrison Ford at his most charmingly romantic as the exec who believes in Tess and Joan Cusack as her mouthy, mall-haired bosom buddy. Nominated for six Oscars – including Best Picture and Best Actress – with a Best Song win for “Let the River Run.”

Where to find it: Online at iTunes, Amazon, and other outlets.

9. “Thelma & Louise” (1991). Two Arkansas women, footloose housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) and uptight waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon), decide to enjoy a weekend getaway and leave the men in their lives behind. Matters take an ugly turn after Louise shoots and kills a would-be rapist who attacks a drunken Thelma outside of a bar. They turn into outlaws on the lam with cops in hot pursuit, including one sympathetic officer (Harvey Keitel). Along the way, Thelma finds she has a knack for crime and a taste for cowboy hustlers (in the form of a very young Brad Pitt). With Ridley Scott behind the directing wheel and a dynamite script by Callie Khouri, this female twist on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is one hell of a ride. Both Davis and Sarandon competed for Best Actress and the film picked up three other nominations (and a win for original screenplay).

Where to find it: Online and on demand at iTunes and Amazon.

10. “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). While everyone tends to focus on Mr. Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti, this Jonathan Demme-directed horror/crime hybrid is less about the scene-stealing Hannibal the Cannibal and more about how a young female FBI agent outwits her male associates and uses her gender as an advantage to solve a case. Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is underestimated at every turn by most of the men she encounters as she hunts down a twisted serial killer suspected of kidnapping a senator’s daughter (Brooke Smith). The only one who takes her seriously besides her work mentor (Scott Glenn) is Anthony Hopkins’ fiendish psychopathic shrink, especially after they engage in a meeting of the minds in the confines of a prison. The film swept the top five categories at the Oscars, winning best picture, director, adapted script, actress, and actor, with nominations for editing and sound mixing.

Where to find: Netflix, iTunes, and other online outlets.

11. “Frida” (2002). This biopic directed by Julie Taymor doesn’t just capture the surreal splendor of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s paintings on the big screen, but also the intense passion that drove this feminist role model‘s lustful aspirations – for life, for art, for nature, for left-wing politics, for sex with both men and women, and especially for survival despite her physical disabilities. While the film too often settles for ticking off course-altering events, there is no denying that Salma Hayek exhibits just the right amount of sensuality, volatility, and charisma to avoid being upstaged by the colorful collisions of magic and reality that imaginatively elevate the story. “Frida” was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Actress, with wins for makeup and score.

Where to find it: Amazon, YouTube, and other online outlets.

12. “Whale Rider” (2003). Not your usual underdog story. The gracefully subdued though powerful coming-of-age story, enhanced by an infusion of Maori mysticism and an array of stunning New Zealand vistas, involves a 12-year-old girl named Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who wants to break the tribal tradition of male leaders and follow in her disapproving grandfather’s footsteps as a chief. In her film debut, Castle-Hughes – who, at 13, remains the youngest Best Actress nominee to date — relies on her deep, dark eyes and quiet strength to captivate, and director Niki Caro brings out the best of her natural presence and youthful vigor.

Where to find it: iTunes, YouTube, and other online outlets.

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