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Heroines of Cinema: An A-Z of Women in Film in 2012

Heroines of Cinema: An A-Z of Women in Film in 2012

Since this column began in August, it has profiled a wide variety of women – fictional and real, contemporary and historic – whose achievements in film have been considered worthy of attention. Given the difficulty in characterising a single year in film, even through a specific prism such as gender, I have opted for the catalogue format of an A-Z review. Inevitably, there will be deserving omissions — though be aware that I have attempted to chronicle the bad and the ugly as well as the good. The film industry in 2012 remains entrenched in sexist practices, a fact which is readily apparent in the following article. Nonetheless, the wide variety of compelling characters, star performances and inspiring writers, directors and other creatives listed below give plenty of reasons to cheer 2012’s Heroines of Cinema.

A is for Ava DuVernay
“Middle of Nowhere” is one of the year’s best reviewed films, and its writer / director Ava DuVernay made history by becoming the first African American to win Sundance’s Best Director award in January. Black female filmmakers have faced a long struggle to get their voices heard, but along with Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky” and Amma Asante’s forthcoming period drama “Belle”, the future has never looked brighter.

B is for Brenda Chapman
Chapman hit the headlines when she was hired as Pixar’s first female director for “Brave”, but tongues wagged when she was fired from the project a year in. Keeping her directing credit (and her lips firmly shut) she shared the praise when “Brave” was released to strong reviews and became a $535 million hit this summer.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: Brenda Chapman’s Firing and the 5 Stages of Grief

C is for Catwoman
Halle Berry somewhat soured the Catwoman brand with her 2004 Razzie-winning flop. But Anne Hathaway proved its unlikely saviour this summer with her turn in “The Dark Knight Rises”. Despite a lukewarm reaction to her casting, she won the critics over, adding to a good year for female action heroines, as will be proved below.

D is for Double Standards
Helen Hunt bared all in her role as a sex surrogate in “The Sessions”. Unsurprising you might think – except for the fact that her co-star John Hawkes was not called on for full frontal nudity. The director Ben Lewin offered a lame excuse, claiming that there was no point in showing his character’s penis if not erect (which would guarantee the dreaded NC-17 rating). But for those who witnessed a clearly prudish shot of Hawkes attempting to combat his fears by examining his (not so) naked body in a mirror, it was clear that the infamous double standard was at play.

E is for Emmanuelle Riva
85 year old Riva gave one of the year’s most moving performances as a woman staring death in the face in Michael Haneke’s “Amour”. Though her performance hardly needs validating by the razzmatazz of the Oscars, should she pull off a Best Actress nod she would be the oldest actor ever to be nominated.

F is for Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach has written some pretty great female roles over the years, not least with 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding”, but this year he teamed up with Greta Gerwig to co-write “Frances Ha”. Gerwig’s writing and performance of the titular character drew rave reviews following its premieres in Telluride and Toronto.

G is for Ginger and Rosa
Sally Potter gave an inspiring interview to this column in October, detailing her triumphs and pitfalls over a wilfully unique career. This year she gave Elle Fanning a plum role as the star of “Ginger and Rosa”, Potter’s attempt to portray the epic scale of emotions common to what she sees as the perpetually trivialised experience of female adolescence.

H is for Hunger Games
It was the Twilight saga that proved the spending power of teenage girls at the multiplex, but Bella Swan was no match for “The Hunger Games”‘ action heroine Katniss Evergreen. Kicking off the franchise with a $686 million worldwide gross, Jennifer Lawrence announced her star potential and claim to the title of “the next Julia Roberts”, which were later cemented by her acclaimed turn in “Silver Linings Playbook”.

I is for Interview Bias
Helen Hunt may have suffered from the double standard on “The Sessions” but she wasn’t going to stand for it during a actress roundtable for the Hollywood Reporter with two male moderators. Mid-interview, she called them out for their clearly sexist line of questioning – which incorporated nudity, facing your fears and the paparazzi – comparing it to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, when “they were asking Obama about foreign policy and they were asking her, “How do you stay healthy on the road?”. When her fellow actresses agreed, the interviewers quickly changed their tune.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: The Life Cycle of an Actress

J is for Jennifer Lee
Jennifer Lee is not the first female director of a Disney film (step forward Jun Falkenstein, who helmed “The Tigger Movie” aged 29) but in a year when Brenda Chapman’s saga with “Brave” drew some rather mixed publicity to the issue, it was cheering to see Lee – a co-writer on this year’s hit “Wreck It Ralph” – announced as co-director of Disney’s forthcoming “Frozen”.

K is for Kristen Stewart
Twenty two-year old Stewart confirmed all the media’s worst practices earlier this year when her personal life saw her subjected to attention and abuse no man would have to face in her position. So let’s focus on the positives, namely her box office prowess – with starring roles in “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Breaking Dawn”, her films grossed nearly $1.2 billion in total, with even the terminally insipid Bella demonstrating some heroics in the last chapter of the Twilight saga.

L is for Lauren Greenfield
“The Queen of Versailles” was one of the year’s biggest documentary hits, chronicling the hubris of property magnate David Siegel’s attempt to build the largest private home in America. Director Lauren Greenfield won Sundance’s documentary directing award, which coupled with Ava DuVernay’s win made it a good year for female directors at the festival. Next year looks to be even better, with eight women among the sixteen directors in the Dramatic Competition.

M is for Marion Cotillard
Cotillard has used her 2007 Oscar win as a springboard for Hollywood success like no other recent victor, but it was a French language performance in Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” that won her a raft of critical praise this year. A likely second Oscar nomination could make history, with her becoming the first ever actor to win for more than one foreign-language performance.

N is for Nicole Kidman
All the headlines surrounding Kidman’s turn in Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” were over a somewhat attention-grabbing act performed on Zac Efron, but Kidman could be in line for a golden shower of her own if her recent awards momentum is anything to go by – her no-holds-barred performance has been recognised against the odds with Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations.

O is for Older Women
It is never easy for actresses of a certain age in Hollywood, but their leading lights at least have had a good year. 63 year old Meryl Streep claimed her sixth $100 million hit (worldwide) in as many years with “Hope Springs”, 77 year old Judi Dench led “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to a $134 million worldwide gross whilst showing the Bond girls how to do it in $900-million-and-counting mega blockbuster “Skyfall”, and the makers of “Hitchcock” were so confident of the star power of 67 year old Helen Mirren they placed her front and centre in their advertising, in favour of the more obvious (and less edifying) image of Scarlett Johannson naked in the shower.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: Can you be a Bond Girl and a good feminist?

P is for Paparazzi
Kristen Stewart’s woes are well documented, but this month it was Anne Hathaway who was forced to crown a triumphant year with the ignominy of an exposing up-skirt shot at the “Les Miserables” premiere that was rapidly beamed around the world. Worse than the suggestions that she had done it on purpose to help her Oscar campaign, or the female blogs instructing her to start wearing underwear, was Matt Lauer’s creepy questioning on the incident during Hathaway’s appearance on the Today Show. Her classy response – bemoaning “a culture that commodifies the sexuality of unwilling participants” – was the perfect antidote to his misjudged intervention.

Q is for Quvenzhane Wallis
Everyone loves a breakout star, and you don’t get much more breakout than Quvenzhane Wallis, the nine year old star of indie hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, who was just five when cast in the lead role of Behm Zeitlin’s debut. Wild critical acclaim was matched by eviscerating critiques from the likes of bell hooks, but few doubted the star quality of Wallis, which may yet make her the youngest ever acting Oscar nominee come February.

R is for Reed Morano
The paucity of female cinematographers on high profile projects did not abate in 2012, but look a little harder and one rising star stands out in the form of Reed Morano. After shooting the multi-Oscar-nominated “Frozen River” in 2009, she has seen multiple features released this year, including Rob Reiner’s “The Magic of Belle Isle”. Currently shooting Kristen Wiig in “The Skeleton Twins”, she is set to start 2013 with a bang when Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Alan Ginsberg in John Krokidas’ “Kill your Darlings” premieres at Sundance.

S is for Sally Field
Despite being among the elite field of two-time Best Actress Oscar winners, Sally Field had to fight tooth and nail to be cast as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating biopic. A decade older than her co-star Daniel Day-Lewis and two decades older than the character, she eventually convinced Day-Lewis to screen-test alongside her – unheard of for an actor of his stature – and got the part. Rave reviews and a dead-cert Oscar nomination are set to follow.

T is for Take this Waltz
It may not have won over all the critics, but there were many who insisted that writer / director Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” was among the best films of the year. Certain news outlets got all in a lather over a nude shower scene featuring stars Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman — a reaction somewhat at odds with the scene’s intensely natural, everyday nature.

U is for Ursula Meier
Though not a box office smash, one of the best-reviewed films of the year was Ursula Meier’s “Sister”. Since claiming the Silver Bear at Berlin in February, it has been picking up a steady stream of awards for its Swiss writer / director. By coincidence, Brenda Davis’s harrowing childbirth documentary of the same name has been doing the festival rounds to similar acclaim.

V is for Valdis Oskardottir
She may not have been a big name as far as this year’s releases were concerned, but one of my highlights of 2012 was the appearance of the legendary Icelandic editor of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” at the Reykjavik Film Festival. Her comments – which are transcribed here – gave short thrift to the many director egos she has had to deal with over the years, and make for highly refreshing reading.

W is for Women Audiences
Every year female audiences are ignored by studio executives, and every year they prove the market is there for the taking. It is a cliche to assume that all women want to watch romantic comedies, but it was a female demographic that drove Rachel McAdams weepy “The Vow” to a $125 million gross, despite being less than spectacular viewing. Meanwhile “Magic Mike”, produced for just $7 million, took home $165 million, whilst the successes of “Breaking Dawn”, “The Hunger Games” and “Brave” are documented above. Despite all this, the year’s offerings as a whole continued to be dominated by deeply male-oriented fare.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: Ten $100 million Hits Starring Women Over 50

X is for Project X
Anyone worried that misogyny was not alive and well in 2012 could do worse than watch “Project X”, a grotesquely sexist and depressing sleeper hit. Imagine a film displaying a similar attitude by women towards men, and you realise how far we have to go.

Y is for Your Sister’s Sister
Box office returns may have been modest, but writer / director Lynn Shelton delivered a compelling story and two brilliant, complex characters for stars Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt, inspiring Gawker to nominate her as the “next great American director”.

Z is for Zero Dark Thirty
Saving the best til last – if the critics are anything to go by – Kathryn Bigelow has succeeded in following up the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” with what many are calling a superior piece of work. The questions of gender that surround Bigelow and her ouevre are compelling and important, but Bigelow herself has always been understandably keen to be recognised as nothing other than a brilliant filmmaker. With “Zero Dark Thirty”, it appears the battle has been conclusively won.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire’s Lost Boys blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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