Something’s Missing in Hollywood
With all the beautiful and inelligent role models out there, why don’t we ever see them on the screen?
By Richard Schickel
The American woman has come a long way, baby—to the point where that phrase elicits no more than a wry and contemptuous smile. But all the way? No way! Just about every time she goes to the movies she is reminded of that fact. Even television understands her better: advertisers are at some pains to attract her interest; a refracted image of her is often to be seen swinging through their commercials, brisk, bright, and cheery—all problems solved by resort to the American Express card. Even the network programmers take a decent interest in her: all kinds of made-for-TV movies feature some representation of her current moral dilemmas. But when it comes to pictures made for theatrical release, forget it. As far as the moguls are concerned, the new American woman is all dressed up with no (movie) place to go.
Yes, I know, every once in a while there is a picture she can relate to (as the saying still, unfortunately, goes). To take a terrific instance, there was The Big Chill last year. Lawrence Kasdan’s film took up the most general of the generational issues, confronting people in their thirties—that rough, inevitable passage between the time it seems possible to reinvent the world in a more pleasing shape and the time when it must be, reluctantly, accepted in its shocking condition. Better still, among the eight people gathered to mourn the suicidal passing of one who could not ride out this change of tide, Kasdan placed a woman called Meg, wonderfully played by Mary Kay Place. Her face is pouty with secret thoughts, her eyes are narrowed by a private conviction that desperate measures are required if she is to secure her heart’s desire, a child. She’s funny about her professional compromises, moving from a public defender’s office in Philadelphia (where her idealism had been ground down by her quite indefensible clients) to an up-scale firm in Atlanta (“The offices seemed so clean and the clients were raping only the land”). She’s funny, in a more ferocious way, about the men she has dated, who are afraid of either intimacy or commitment or both, and who keep telling her that she reminds them either of some woman they still love or of one they’ve learned to despise. Forget it! She’ll settle now for a one-night stand with a good piece of breeding stock, which she’s hopeful she can find among her old college pals at this lugubrious reunion.
I thought this character was the most realistic representation of her generation I’d ever seen in a movie. In her career path she was like so many women I knew in my dating days, who moved from directing off-Broadway to television, or from public broadcasting to the networks. And Meg’s speech about Men? I’d heard it a dozen times before, though not, perhaps, quite so well put. As for the radical proposition that the need for motherhood may have to be satisfied, by some women, without the self-sacrifice that a long relationship with a not-so-wonderful guy entails, that did not ring preposterous to me. For a woman I once knew—an able, successful woman who, like Meg, was beginning to hear the biological time bomb ticking ominously—once flattered my genetic profile by asking me if—as her last resort—I’d stand at stud for her. I made some weaselly reply (and I’m happy to report that she found someone to marry and that she finally has her baby). In short, though Kasdan and Place play Meg for intelligent laughs, some of them are, for some of us, the best and rarest kind of movie laughs—those of rueful recognition.
Rare, in fact, is too feeble a word. For though The Big Chill is a sweet, smart entertainment, no one would argue, I think, that it makes a major statement, that it is a work that is likely to characterize our time for future times. It owes much of its success to its utter lack of competition. I’m not talking only about themes and characterizations here, but about a tone of voice that is appropriate to the subject. Movie people these days are good at concepts—bold, flashy, marketable—but essentially insensate to common experience, male or female.
Think about it a minute. Setting aside The Big Chill, when was the last time you saw a professional woman in a movie who was persuasively trying to cope with just one of the issues a professional woman deals with almost daily in real life? And don’t tell me Jane Fonda in Rollover. You have seen comedies that witlessly, grotesquely assault male assumptions of superiority, and that you feel found to laugh at because they are tyring in their stupid ways to make fun of the right things—Private Benjamin, for example, or Nine to Five, or, heaven help us, Mr. Mom. But only if misanthropy is heavy upon you can you claim that anything intelligent is being said about men, the workplace, or the proper female response to either in these frantic farces.
Well, you might say, that’s unfair. Those aren’t serious movies. To which I reply, neither was His Girl Friday or Take a Letter, Darling, but they were at least acute, and genuinely funny no matter what your gender happened to be. But all right. I’ll concede the point. There have been some serious movies that feature working women in a central role and try to treat them with a certain sober respect. But notice this about them: the women are not doctors or lawyers or businesspeople in the conventional sense of the term. Invariably these women are seen doing things that most people think of as enviably exotic, even mysterious. The allegedly glamorous, potentially perilous media world is about the only locale in which we are likely to encounter them. One thinks of Faye Dunaway in Network, Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, Sigourney Weaver in Eyewitness, Sally Field in Absence of Malice. It is certainly true that in these films we see these women confronting the practical problems of their professions—at least, in the odd scene or two. The people who make these movies, being of a liberalish persuasion and vaguely well-intentioned in their show-bizzy ways, want us to know that a young professional woman indeed confronts issues—some of which have moral dimensions—that are different from, and more intensely felt than those a man generally faces. All that anxious primping that Jane Fonda does before she faces the TV cameras in her role as a reporter in The China Syndrome, for example: it makes the point, and with a certain amont of humor at that, that however good she gets at her job, a certain standard of sexy self-presentation is requisite for her, as it need not be for a man. Similarly, Absence of Malice implies that a woman, attempting to overcome sexual bias and get ahead in the mannish world of daily journalism, may feel she has to charge harder and with less regard for the unintentional hurts she may inflict than a man in the same job. In Under Fire war correspondent Joanna Cassidy has a daughter back home, and we observe that she actually misses the child, has moments of professional-personal conflict, but only when she is not otherwise occupied dodging bullets or sorting out love affairs with her reportorial colleagues. Still, most of these movies have their minds elsewhere, and ultimately the play of melodramatic ideas—nuclear catastrophe, journalistic ethics—tends to conventionalize the female character, even if she is functioning close to the center of the plot. One is left with the memory of woman-as-concept, woman-as-exception-to-the-rule, but with no recollection of her at all as a paradigmatic figure or as symbolic figure to whom a woman in the audience might directly respond.
There is, of course, a tiny category of films in which women holding down difficult and/or distinctly unrewarding jobs come to rebellious consciousness of the inequities under which they labor. Norma Rae was such a film; so was Silkwood. And in its curious way, so was Heart Like a Wheel. End of category. I don’t for a minute question the sincerity with which these movies were made—except perhaps for parts of Silkwood, which is very tricky in its handling of a “controversial” issue—but there is something disquieting about the way these films work on a significant portion of their audience, which is composed of up-scale working women. To them, I think, these lower-class women are as exotic in their way as the media heroines are in quite another way. A woman I know who is a wife, mother, and advertising executive told me what fascianted her about Silkwood. “Imagine, a woman whose job ends after eight hours,” she said. “She didn’t have to take it home with her. She could just drink beer or smoke grass or get laid—anything she wanted.” My friend was kidding—but on the square, I thought. This cut of life was genuinely strange to her. (She added, by the way, that she didn’t have any great desire to see The Big Chill.)
[This article does continue, but without any further reference to Ms. Place or The Big Chill.]