by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 4, 2004
THE WONDERFUL WOMEN OF FILM
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I think about women in film, I first think of Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, tall and impossibly gorgeous blonde women in tasteful couture gowns winning Oscars for making themselves ugly.
It would be easy to be jealous of so much perfection, so much money, so much success, so much lesť majesty. In the end, tho, the only emotion they evoke in me is boredom. But it would be hard to argue that they, and other actresses like them - cookie-cutter gorgeous blondes, one after at the Academy Awards last Sunday night until it was impossible to tell one from the other - represent women in film today.
Not with lovely young Keisha Castle-Hughes sitting there with her nomination for best actress for "Whale Rider," the amazing story of a girl who forces her Maori world to accept her (female) leadership. This popular film was written and directed by a woman, Niki Caro, and for me, the only problem was not enough whale-riding.
And not with Diane Keaton sitting there with a best actress nomination for "Something's Gotta Give," the film where we finally see an older woman fall in love with a man her own age. O.K, he was Jack Nicholson and the linens on the bed were more interesting than the script, but any Diane Keaton is better than what we've been getting for years, which is no Diane Keaton. The film was a box-office hit, and she revived her "Annie Hall" look for the ceremony - what could be better (if not odder) than that?
And not with graceful Sofia Coppola sitting there with her nomination for best director - the first woman to achieve that honor - for the stunning and haunting "Lost in Translation." She didn't win that Oscar, but she won one for screenwriting, and that will do - for the time being.
And not with Fran Walsh sitting there, whose only stylist seemed to be her own hippie self, and who won three Oscars for screenplay, producer and songwriter for "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," a film for which she also served as casting director, assistant director and actress. (And yes, she is married to the director of the film, Peter Jackson, and they seem to have a successful working partnership as well as a successful marriage. Maybe they can give us a film about that next.)
And not with Marcia Gay Harden sitting there, nominated for best supporting actress for Clint Eastwood's shattering "Mystic River." She and the non-nominated Laura Linney gave brutal portrayals of fierce, damaged women that held their own with those of Oscar-winning Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.
And not with Holly Hunter sitting there, who earned a nomination for her intense role in the raw, difficult-to-watch and rewarding "Thirteen." Her presence also reminded us of the two women who wrote the film, Nikki Reed - a teenager who also made an indelible impression as an actress - and Catherine Hardwicke, as well as the inexplicably ignored but impressive star of the film, young Evan Rachel Wood.
At all levels of the film industry, this was a great year for women. But it begs the question of whether we need to consider "women in film," as apart from "people in film."
Think of the converse if you want an answer: a men's film festival. It's all pretty much a men's film festival, isn't it? As long as Hollywood moguls target the majority of their films to the teenage boy, we need alternative avenues to explore the lives of women. Luckily, there are many to choose from; I've recently seen three wonderful ones.
The 2002 documentary "Heart of the Sea," is the story of Hawaiian legend Rell Sunn, one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen on film. Sunn dances on a surfboard as if doing an authentic hula; watching her takes your breath away. Besides being a single mother, competing in surfing championships around the world, and founding a surfing competition for children in Hawaii, Sunn fought a powerfully moving 14-year battle with cancer. Her story is told by filmmakers Lisa Denker and Charlotte Lagarde.
"Thunder in Guyana," a video by Suzanne Wasserman, tells the story of Wasserman's cousin, Janet Rosenberg Jagan, a left-wing Jewish girl from Chicago who fell in love with a charismatic Indian-Guyanese, Cheddi Jagan, followed him to his homeland, and worked for social change in this backward South American country. After helping her husband win election as the first president of the country and serving in his government, the Jagans were driven out of power first by Winston Churchill (when the country was a British colony) and then by the CIA. After brutal decades of house arrest and working behind the scenes, Cheddi returned triumphantly to power in 1992. After his death in 1997, Janet was elected president. She is considered the mother of her country.
Then there is the puzzling 2002 film "My Terrorist" by Israeli Yulie Gerstel. As an El Al stewardess, Gerstel was injured in an attack by Palestinian terrorists in 1978. Twenty-three years later, Gerstel began questioning the causes of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and began working to release the man who almost killed her, Fahad Mihyi. She even visited him in his British prison. Realizing that both Israelis and Palestinians play a role in perpetuating the cycle of hostility and bloodshed, she went through an agonizing self-examination and now stands for reconciliation.
Thinking about women in films, I'm reminded of a story I once heard about Queen Victoria. It seems that someone was explaining homosexuality to her, and after thinking about it, she said, "Well, at least women don't do that."
Well, Queenie, women do everything. Women can be evil, women can be powerful, women can lead, women can love, and most of all, women can be brave and passionate and graceful and fascinating. Bring on their stories. Bring them on now.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.