Women In The World of Film by Ada Pîrvu

Independent voice: Ada Pîrvu, author of Classiq, an online journal that celebrates cinema, style, culture and storytelling.

 

Actor, not actress. Director, not female director. In a time when feminism and gender gap seem to permeate every single discussion, every single film festival and every artist’s work, I want to talk facts, achievements, artistic vision.

I want to talk about women in the world of film, not about feminist movies made by women with women about the oppression, liberation or empowerment of women. There are no two separate worlds, the men and the women. Because this is exactly where contemporary feminism is heading: making feminism universally palatable, which can very well translate into a perfectly identical status quo with the patriarchal law and male order. 

To make things worse, all this is fueled by the online outrage culture, which has substituted analysis. The worst kind of all? Feminism in Hollywood, which works like a virus that spreads through ideas, opinions, reviews and award nominations. When they start altering classic fairy tales in order to please the feminist movement, that’s not right. When you stop reading traditional stories to your child because you are afraid they are too violent or that they present girls and women in discriminatory positions, that’s not right. That movies made by women become very marketable just because they are made by women, that’s not right. That originality is sacrificed for the sake of social correctness, that’s not right. That one’s point of view matters only if it is in tune with everyone else’s, that’s not right. When art is under severe censorship, that is not right. And censorship is the most dangerous thing that can happen. By trying to accommodate every opinion, by trying to be as tolerant as possible, by trying not to get anybody offended, they are creating narrow mindedness. This does not lead to liberation, but to manipulation. It does not lead to empathy, but to unidentified interior conflicts and dilemmas. It does not lead to freedom of expression, but to oppression. Isn’t this what feminism is supposed to fight against? So it is okay to live in a constrictive society, just as long as is it no longer ruled by men, but by women.

Strong, confident, driven, courageous women have always been a role model for me. But my kind of strong, confident, driven, courageous woman is the kind that does not feel that her world is destroyed by the intervention of men. She lives in harmony with them. What the hell is wrong with that? I would like to make myself clear. Women’s rights, equal wage rights, gay rights, immigrant rights are human rights. Everyone is entitled to the same rights. And, indeed, that significant change is still to occur is still hard to believe and accept, and worth fighting for, in the 21st century. But, modern feminism aims at something a little different than that. „Let men be men, and women be women, please!,” as one of my readers so simply and eloquently put it. If a man writes about women from his own perspective as a man, let him. If a woman director focuses on masculine characters, let her. It does not make him a misogyn, it does not make her an anti-feminist. It is his/her own artistic perspective, and we should defend artistic freedom with all our might, always.

 
 Ida Lupino and Edmond O'Brien in "The Bigamist" (1953), directed by Ida Lupino; The Filmakers

Ida Lupino and Edmond O'Brien in "The Bigamist" (1953), directed by Ida Lupino; The Filmakers

 

There are a lot of firsts when you think of the women I am writing about in this article. The first woman to direct a noir (Ida Lupino, The Hitch-Hiker, 1953), the first woman to direct herself in a film (Ida Lupino, The Bigamist, 1953), the first woman director to win an Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, 2008), the first and only actor, man or woman, to win four Oscars for a leading role (Katharine Hepburn), the first woman actor who achieved greatness on her own terms in the studio-controlled Hollywood system (Katharine Hepburn). But I want to leave the label woman out. I believe this should be the first step towards normality. Normality, I believe, is this: It all should come down to good work, without constantly bringing up the issue of gender into a conversation about cinema, about whether a film is good or bad. It should all come down to being a good artist, actor, director. It all should come down to being good at what you do. So what I want to do is to focus on the actual achievements of these actors and directors. Isn’t this what feminists should really strive for? Acknowledgment, credibility, objectivity. I don’t want to celebrate the woman. I want to celebrate the artist. I want to celebrate the work. 

 Ida Lupino directing "Outrage" (1950); The Filmakers

Ida Lupino directing "Outrage" (1950); The Filmakers

Probably one of the very first names that come to mind when talking about feminism in cinema is Katharine Hepburn. Despite common belief though, Hepburn was not what you would call an upstanding feminist. I believe she was too independent to be a feminist. And if feminism back then had the generalization tendency it has now, she certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be part of it. She had a distinct, definite personality, a liberal point of view, she did not abide the rules, she fought against convention, she stood up for herself. She was independent, willful, intelligent. She asked for a raise at the beginning of her career because she had confidence in herself, because she knew what she wanted, not because men earned more than she did. She wore trousers not because she was looking for empowerment, but because she felt good in them, and taught women the elegance and beauty of a woman in a pair of trousers. She carved out a space for her unique self. Individuality. It came rarely those days, now it’s almost extinct.

 
 Katharine Hepburn by Clarence Sinclair Bull for "Woman of the Year", directed by George Stevens, 1942

Katharine Hepburn by Clarence Sinclair Bull for "Woman of the Year", directed by George Stevens, 1942

 

Katharine Hepburn fearlessly and uncompromisingly set out to become a star in an industry that wanted greatness on its own terms, an industry that often tried to destroy the original few. Katharine wanted greatness on her own terms, she wanted to be an unconventional star, she wanted everything to be about her. And it was (no wonder she titled her autobiography „Me”) … That is until she met Spencer Tracy. „But more about Spencer later. Don’t be impatient. I wasn’t,” she asks of her reader in her book. Coming right at the end of her memoir, the story of her love affair with Spencer was the biggest reveal. „LOVE has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only with what you are expecting to give – which is everything. […] I loved Spencer Tracy. I found him – totally – totally – total. […] He and his interests and his demands came first. This was not easy for me because I was definitely a me me me person. […] It is called LOVE.” We already knew how fearless, smart, capable she was from her roles. Because her personality clearly came through on screen. But the human factor, that’s the most pleasant surprise in her lifestory. Reading how she proclaims her love for Spencer makes you fall in love with the real Katharine Hepburn. 

 Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Woman of the Year" (1942); MGM   

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Woman of the Year" (1942); MGM

 

In films, Katharine often played self-sufficient, spirited, outspoken, witty, thought-provoking characters. Her roles have indeed played their part in the emancipation of women. Her movies address feminist politics (Adam’s Rib, 1949, Woman of the Year, 1942), progressive issues (Stage Door, 1937), analyses of gender expectations, sex and marriage (Bringing Up Baby, 1938), women’s excessive liberalism and men’s excessive conservatism (Desk Set, 1957), but neither of them embodies anything like radical feminist position. On screen, Hepburn always embraced her position, her freedom, her independence, but when love struck, she was comfortable playing women who devoted themselves to love, tending towards a man’s needs and desires, letting men do things for her, letting love take over. As was true of her personal life.

 Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), directed by Howard Hawks; RKO

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), directed by Howard Hawks; RKO

The public became so used to seeing Katharine portraying strong women, and when she starred in Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), her performance was not received with much enthusiasm because it was considered a much too vulnerable character for her. I do not agree. First of all, we should appreciate diversity (the film was also the only noir Katharine appeared in). We need movies, old and new, to present us a variety of interpretations, characters, stories, to educate and inform through total freedom of artistic expression, not through stereotypes, limitations and interdictions. Maybe that’s the biggest misconception of an artist’s work. It is confused with their own persona and actions. Because Katharine Hepburn probably was more radical than her films. To contest her performance in Undercurrent would mean that you do not acknowledge her range and her gift as an actor. In films today, more than ever before, ideologies, thematic preoccupations and social concerns are expected to preside over acting ability, cinematic skill and technique. Substance should not exclude style. As François Truffaut wrote in his early film criticism, „whether conventional or demystifying, joking or preaching, American comedy constitutes essentially an exercise of style, it’s a genre where the genius of directors and actors asserts itself best.” It is a direct reference to George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib, to the director’s skill and comedic craftsmanship and the first-hand collaboration and perfect synergy between Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy (and Garson Kanin, one of the best scriptwriters in Hollywood), recounting the incident of „the tears of Spencer Tracy” (Tracy’s Adam Bonner starts to cry to make Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner – they are filing for divorce – come back) as one evidence of the style technique on display in the film. It’s the precise fact that it’s Tracy and Hepburn on screen and their power as actors on screen that makes the movie and attracts the audience. It’s about the how, not about the what.

Ida Lupino directed, wrote and produced films during the classical Hollywood period. Before she began directing and producing films, she composed music and wrote a symphony. She was also an actor, appearing in many films, including some of her own. She keenly understood the sway of her star power and took full advantage of the stardom she gained as an actor to demand different roles than what was offered to her, often protesting against the restrictions placed upon her by the system, which eventually lead to her being suspended from studio contracts and going into production and filmmaking. As a director, she lit the path towards indie American filmmaking. She was uncompromising in her vision to make pictures of sociological nature, imbused with neo-realist working class milieus, at times controversial, focused on issues such as rape, teen pregnancy, rehabilitation centers, post-war culture, bigamy, homes for unwed mothers (she wasn’t allowed to use the title Unwed Mothers for the film eventually titled Not Wanted, 1949, which she stepped in to direct after director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack on the set days before the production was set to begin, but she used the words unwed mothers as tagline on the film posters). Her films have a naturalistic, realistic, bleak style that reveal a documentarian’s eye, uncommon for mid-century American filmmaking. Her films are remarkable for their complexity.

She used the power of the unseen, the open ending, actual locations for shooting, neo-realist twists to noir narrative (the Italian Neo-realism had a great influence on her work, especially movies such as Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), directed by Vittorio de Sica, and Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), directed by Roberto Rossellini). Her films dealed with the decadence of man, but also with humanity and decency, and avoided melodrama stereotypes (Hard, Fast and Beautiful, 1951, was the closest to traditional melodrama that she directed and the title is a sign to that, as it was not her choice, but Howard Hughes’, who co-produced it with The Filmakers, her company). In the 1960s, she “earned the nickname ‘the female Hitch’ for her… talent at creating suspense” in television productions, wrote Mary Celeste Kearney and James M. Monran in Ida Lupino as Director of Television. She even directed episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

 

Ida Lupino produced her own films. She founded several production companies. She stood up in an attempt at autonomy from mainstream Hollywood. „We like independence,” she and Collier Young (writer and producer, and her second husband, with whom she formed the production company The Filmakers) wrote in a „Declaration of Independents” published in Variety magazine in 1950. “It’s tough sometimes, but it’s good for the initiative. The struggle to do something different is good in itself. We think it is good for our industry as well.” Her films were low-budget, utilizing second string cast and crew, featuring mostly unknown and inexperienced actors, using minimal set and costuming. 

 Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman in "The Hitch-Hiker" (1953), directed by Ida Lupino; The Filmakers/RKO

Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman in "The Hitch-Hiker" (1953), directed by Ida Lupino; The Filmakers/RKO

As a filmmaker, she avoided the appearance of female empowerment. Her movies do not typically feature strong, resourceful female characters. But her male characters are equally confused, doomed by fate and with no social constraints, trapped by low class limitations, evoking a post-war masculinity in crisis. In the book Film Noir: The Directors, Jans B. Wager remarks that scholars sometimes question her usefulness as a feminist icon. I question her categorization as feminist icon. She was a director. She made movies. She earned her place in noir’s canon as director, producer, screenwriter and actor. Where does the word woman fit in? In The Hitch-Hiker, which she also co-written with Collier Young, and which she considered her best film, she leaves homes, families, wives and women altogether off screen. It’s another story she wants to tell. A claustrophobic road movie, it’s Lupino’s most purely cinematic venture, a tough and singular noir vision, bringing consistency and humanity into neo-realist noir. A genuine, unique approach, not a studio- or society-dictated approach.

 
    Kathryn Bigelow on the set of "The Hurt Locker"; Johnathan Olley/Summit Entertainment

 

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of "The Hurt Locker"; Johnathan Olley/Summit Entertainment

 

Kathryn Bigelow is another director I want to bring into discussion. Her vision as a filmmaker is uncompromising, too. She does not deal with the liberation of women either, but with action-packed films and masculine characters. But these are not action movies just for the sake of the spectacle. The violence in her films is a representation of the real conflicts and traumas that shape our world. They move towards deeply researched docudrama, especially the films which she has collaborated on with journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal. Kathryn Bigelow is fearless in expressing not only her own artistic vision (the cinematic tone and technical proficiency of her films are remarkable), but in imbuing her films with social and political criticism, too, in showing the real America, which I can not say about many of her American peers. In her latest film, Detroit (2017), one of the best films of last year, Kathryn Bigelow delivers her usual clean, raw, pertinent, scrutinizing, unsentimental look at the 1967 Detroit street riots and the Algiers Motel Incident that resulted in the deaths of three black men at the hands of white police officers, later tried and acquitted. The documentary-like intimacy quality of this film makes it unpredictable, real, it’s like a shot of what the participants to the Algiers Motel Incident felt. But I think the most important thing to take away from it is not the emotional experience (and I assure you it is a strong experience which leaves you shocked and outraged and which provokes reflection and reactions), but that these are historical facts. This did happen, and, what’s even worse, this is still very much part of the cruel reality in America. If you have not yet watched Detroit, I suggest you do. Because, as one of the film poster tag lines writes, „This Is America”. It is one of the most important films about America made in recent years. Yet, the film received far less accolades than Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird last year. It does not feature substantial female characters, but, heck, the film recreates one of the darkest chapters in the American history. Can you blame it that it is less marketable than a feminist comedy-drama?

 
 "Detroit" (2017), directed by Kathryn Bigelow; Annapurna Pictures/First Light Production

"Detroit" (2017), directed by Kathryn Bigelow; Annapurna Pictures/First Light Production

 

Kathryn Bigelow’s films are often considered man-movies. Labels, again. She makes movies, period. And she makes them better than many American directors. Remember her cult film Strange Days (1995), that great piece of cinema making, at the confluence of futuristic landscape and 1940s noir, of science-fiction and crime thriller. What an experience! That’s what movies are about.

The word ‘actress’ or ‘authoress’ always struck me as condescending. A doctor’s a doctor, right? So I’ve always referred to actors and writers, regardless of their sex.
— Sidney Lumet, American director, producer, and screenwriter