The idea of performers becoming producers to find creative fulfillment is far from new—see Jane Fonda, George Clooney, Brad Pitt to name a few—but Witherspoon and Kidman’s collaboration on HBO’s star-studded limited series “Big Little Lies” may be the most overt expression yet of Hollywood’s top actresses demanding complex leading roles for women. Teaming up to option Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel, under the aegis of their respective Pacific Standard Films and Blossom Films labels, Witherspoon and Kidman are taking matters into their own hands.
Neither shingle is without prior experience in this realm—Pacific Standard brought us both “Gone Girl” and “Wild,” starring Witherspoon and directed by “Big Little Lies” helmer Jean-Marc Vallée, in 2014, and Blossom produced the challenging “Rabbit Hole,” with Kidman, Dianne Wiest, and Aaron Eckhart, in 2010—but the HBO project has something of a “perfect storm” quality to it, and not only because the two actresses have joined forces. Coming after a year in which women in Hollywood pushed for meatier roles, more
behind-the-camera opportunities, and equal pay more loudly than ever before, culminating in a
federal investigation and a New York Times Magazine cover story, “Big Little Lies” suggests a tipping point.
In part, that’s because it’s on TV, to which big-name actors (Matthew McConaughey, Rachel McAdams, and Colin Farrell, in “True Detective“) and esteemed filmmakers (such as Steven Soderbergh, with “Behind the Candelabra” and “The Knick“) continue to migrate as cable, premium, and streaming outlets create space for ambitious, idiosyncratic passion projects the studios too often ignore. As the old-fashioned hierarchy that deemed movies “art” and TV “trash” break down, it becomes increasingly apparent that the creative freedom offered by the likes of HBO is well-suited to the kinds of roles that Witherspoon and Kidman want to play. And there’s no longer any outspoken prohibition on bankable stars moving back and forth between film and television as they please.
Co-starring Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgård, James Tupper, Adam Scott, Zoë Kravitz,
and Kathryn Newton, “Big Little Lies”—described by Variety as a “darkly comic drama”—sounds exactly like the sort of female-led project, unafraid to mix it up in terms of narrative or tone, that led Witherspoon and Kidman to create their production companies in the first place. Or led Sandra Bullock to take on a role written for a man in “Our Brand Is Crisis.” Or led Angelina Jolie to pursue a career behind the camera, most recently in “By the Sea.” Or defined Dern’s performance in HBO’s short-lived “Enlightened,” one of the best TV series of the decade so far.
With writer-producer David. E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal”) on board, one can be confident that “Big Little Lies” will fly its freak flag high, even if it’s not a success. (There’s an element of “The Slap” in the premise that I, for one, find worrisome.) And isn’t that the point of women creating production companies and gender-swapping roles and ditching film for TV and becoming their own directors? To carve out opportunities to be weird and surprising and in control in a Hollywood ecosystem still dominated by machismo?
On the heels of Shonda Rhimes’ success at ABC, or Jill Soloway’s acclaimed Amazon series, “Transparent”—or Lisa Cholodenko, with “Olive Kitteridge” (HBO), or Amy Seimetz, with “The Girlfriend Experience” (Starz), or Ava DuVernay, with “Queen Sugar” (OWN), or countless others— it may be that, at least for now, TV is the place that best allows women, as producers, writers, directors, and stars, to take matters into their own hands. “Big Little Lies,” with two of the biggest names in the business behind it, is an emblem of several larger trends, but it’s just the leading edge of the blade.