It’s time again for Women In Film, where we look at blockbusters, action films of all types and big buzz films to see how actresses are doing in terms of prominence, box office moolah, and improving the state of female movie stars in the business. In this part, Part 1, we’ll be looking back at the films in 2014 to see what happened, and in Part 2, we’ll look ahead at what’s playing and up-coming in 2015 that we know about so far. *
This analysis of mine has been going on since 2012, which media up-played as the year of the woman in film, because there were quite a few movies that year headed by women, including big action ones. As we know, part of that media coverage was simply hype – studies show that women are still hugely behind in grabbing major roles, and behind the camera it’s even worse, except for maybe producers. But it was also a valid reflection of shifts due to the trickle, trickle progress of getting Hollywood to accept and happily exploit the box office power of women, to an audience that largely doesn’t really care if it’s a man or a woman, (or even another gender,) helming a film. The year 2014 was, like 2013, a year mainly of sequels, old action franchises and superhero films, with Marvel dominating again (more on that later,) none of which tend to favor women as leads. So it wasn’t a ground-breaking year for actresses, like 2012, but it was a consolidating year, which did confirm that women can bring the box office themselves and are increasingly useful in ensemble action films. The bulkhead that was established still remains, with some interesting trends shaping for up-coming years.
Women had high impact roles in many successful action films this last year in which they weren’t the leads. In the superhero arena, Marvel again made good use of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in the hit Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, and employed go-to geek movie star Zoe Saldana and Doctor Who favorite Karen Gillan, plus a cameo from Glen Close, in the big summer domestic winner, Guardians of the Galaxy. In their ancillary franchises, we had Emma Stone in Amazing Spiderman 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past making key use of Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, and Ellen Page. Women were front and center in most of the big sequels: 300: Rise of an Empire, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Fast and Furious 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Rio 2, The Purge 2: Anarchy, Horrible Bosses 2, Muppets Most Wanted, Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb, and the biggest movies globally: Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. They also had critical leading roles in hits Gone Girl, Interstellar, Hercules, Monuments Men, Non-Stop, The Equalizer, The Maze Runner, the rebooted Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Lego Movie, Big Hero 6, Noah, The Imitation Game, Selma, Neighbors, The Nut Job, Dracula Untold, Into the Storm, Blended, The Boxtrolls, and The Book of Life, and Emily Blunt bluntly stole hit sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow from Tom Cruise.
But while women have become an ubiquitous if not always powerful component of the big action films, playing more than just “the Girl,” how about when they lead the movies? The proven player this year again was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the next to last installment of the mega-franchise, starring red hot Jennifer Lawrence. Hunger Games 3 won the U.S. domestic box office for the year, and is still making the rounds of foreign box office for over $751 million worldwide so far. That didn’t make the billion club or yet beat installment #2 of the franchise, Catching Fire, but it definitely made its makers happy and sets the stage for the last film in the story to be quite huge.
The other big female led movie of the year was Disney’s Malificent, a live action alternate version of their animated film Sleeping Beauty, showing the cursing fairy’s side of the story. Starring Angelina Jolie — because who else could have done it that perfectly — Malificent was a big budget film that has taken in nearly $760 million in world box office and will live on television forever probably. (Jolie also got her director on in 2014, with her third film Unbroken, the war bio of Olympian Louis Zamperini, a modestly budgeted action picture that has earned over $160 million and is still opening globally.)
Divergent, considered to be The Hunger Games’ little sister of sorts, was put out as a mid-budget film in the relatively quiet period of March, starring Shailene Woodley. Other recent YA series adaptations had done only middling, and the female led The Vampire Academy, out just before Divergent, had flopped, but Divergent’s high action dystopia brought in over $288 million. Another YA adaptation with a female lead, If I Stay, brought in over $78 million on a miniscule budget, and the buzzy YA romantic drama, The Fault in Our Stars, took in over $305 million on only a $12 million budget.
The surprise hit of the year, however, turned out to be a film called Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson. The mid-budget, largely under the radar sci-fi martial arts thriller ended up with world box office of over $458 million, cementing Johansson’s rep as a star in action films and praised indies. It also meant more interest in inexpensive action flicks featuring a female protagonist, a house built by the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises and recent smaller budget successes like Colombiana and this year’s In the Blood. Melissa McCarthy continued her streak by producing and starring in the comedy caper picture Tammy, with Susan Sarandon, which took in over $100 million on a small budget. At this point, McCarthy has become almost a franchise unto herself with an enviable track record. The revenge comedy The Other Woman, featuring Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton, also did well, ringing up almost $200 million on a mid-level budget. Other lower budget comedy adventures also focused on women – Moms’ Night Out, The Single Mom’s Club, Walk of Shame, etc. Call it the Bridesmaids’ legacy, but the increase in these films indicates that Hollywood is more willing to keep panning for gold with female-led stories in this part of the pool.
Animated and children’s movies were more male-centered this year, but the alternate version of the musical Annie featuring young star Quvenzhane Wallis was a modest hit with over $132 million in box office and holiday film standing. Horror films continue to be a good field for women to get the lead, even if the budgets are usually small: spin-off Annabelle pulled in a whopping $255 million plus on a tiny budget, Ouija took in over $99 million, and the trippy little film Oculus, starring Karen Gillan again, did a successful $44 million on a $5 million budget.
Neither Oscar contender bio movie Wild, starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon, or Australia’s slightly similar bio Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska, had big budgets or did large box office, but both did well and got a lot of media attention, signalling an increasing interest in Hollywood of women as biographical subjects, including adventures. Into the Woods is an ensemble fantasy musical adaptation with a decent dollop of action, but the film was dominated by women, including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick, and it took in over $172 million on a mid-sized budget. Recent study results were bemoaned in the media about how 2014 had fewer films with a female protagonist than in 2002, twelve years ago. It’s good that this is getting media coverage, as it pounds home to Hollywood (as part of trickle, trickle,) that they are under-using their talent pool and under-serving their audience. It is worth taking a look at, however, what sort of films had the female protagonists in 2002. Here’s a hint: it largely wasn’t the big budget action films. 2002 did see the launch of the influential Resident Evil franchise, starring and co-produced by Mila Jovovich with her husband, which followed in the wake of Jolie’s Tomb Raider the year before. But at that time, Resident Evil was a low mid-budget, martial arts “B” movie zombie thriller based on a video game with international funding. It was the sort of film expected to do most of its money on DVD and a tie-in game unit, rather than as well as it did. And there was also action comedy Miss Congeniality, starring Sandra Bullock as a federal agent who can only solve her case and get a guy by embracing dresses and make-up. That movie did cement Bullock’s A-list status, and she was also a producer on the film. And there was The Powerpuff Girls in animation. That was about it.
That’s not to say that women led action movies didn’t get made in the early oughts (Underworld would launch the next year, etc.,) and women did supporting roles in big action movies and sometimes those involved kicking ass. But the real presence of women as protagonists in 2002 was in romantic comedies – women’s movies, chick flicks, mid to low budget films believed to interest only a niche female audience. Movies like Sweet Home Alabama, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Maid in Manhattan, The Sweetest Thing, Crossroads, Blue Crush and Bullock again in Two Weeks’ Notice gave us a fair number of female protagonists that year, (and some opportunities for female directors,) but did not give female stars a lot of clout in the major action films and summer tent poles.
So again, shifts in the landscape of 2014 look promising. Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore confirmed their status as beloved geniuses who can do action roles as needed. Angelina Jolie is building an empire, while Melissa McCarthy is developing the same sort of producing vehicle shop as male comic stars like Will Farrell and Adam Sandler. Reese Witherspoon is also working the acting/producing ropes not only with Wild, but by producing buzzy hit Gone Girl.
Jennifer Lawrence confirmed her A-list status and role as Jolie’s heir. Emily Blunt had a banner year to end up on at least the A- list, and Shailene Woodley added herself to the pool of bright young rising female stars like Emma Stone and Anna Kendrick with two buzzy and successful films (even if she doesn’t understand what feminism is.) Cameron Diaz suffered one flop, Sex Tape, but her other film’s success means she can still open films as a name. Scarlett Johansson has now established that she also can open action films as well as being immensely popular in a big franchise. And Zoe Saldana has become the leading sci-fi utility star, playing key roles in giant franchises – Avatar, Star Trek, and now Marvel’s Guardians, as well as providing a voice in the animated The Book of Life, and headlining smaller thrillers like Colombiana successfully.
And while she isn’t an actress, Ava DuVernay’s directing of the wonderful historical film Selma took trickle, trickle to a new art form. To no one’s surprise, she and largely her film were snubbed by the awards run by white old guys. (After all, 12 Years a Slave had done well the year before and that’s enough of a nod for the black people for awhile as the powers running Hollywood see it.) But that a mid-budget biography about black people and the civil rights movement directed by a black woman did well and was widely covered by media, starts to carve a potential path for the more marginalized folks in the business, (at least providing visible role models,) and highlights what is hopefully a new push of female producers and directors in Hollywood. (Though we won’t count our chickens early.)
So once again, 2014 shows clearly that the female movie star isn’t dead nor blocked from the big films that can lead to big paydays and attention. And the indications are that women can and are playing a much bigger role in action films than they got to do in the early oughts. In the end, 2014 wasn’t a banner year, but it was a powered year at minimum. Can the actresses expand that bulkhead in the wild developments of 2015 and beyond? That is going to be the interesting question, and I will attempt to examine it in Part 2.
*Movies do get pushed around and delayed or pulled, so a lot of the 2015 coverage will be subject to change.