It’s time (finally!) for Women in Film, where we take a look at the state of women actors in tackling the serious Hollywood box office – the “summer” blockbusters, tent pole special effects movies, high octane action films, suspense thrillers, horror flicks, big buzz dramas, children’s and animated major features and comedy adventure films. In this first part, we’ll take a look at the past year of 2015. In Women in Film, Part Two, we’ll take a look at what’s been happening so far and what’s still to come in 2016 (and a little about 2017 and beyond.)
I will admit that I did not, going in, have particularly high expectations for the movies in 2015 when it came to the “lady actors.” I thought, from the look of those revamped big boy franchises for that year, that 2015 would be something of a placeholder year , like 2013 and 2014 – a year that didn’t particularly lose the trickle, trickle gains for women set off in 2012, since it would have some women leads in films and women in major supporting roles in big ensembles, but didn’t dramatically advance them either, since the machismo looked to be coming out the ears of the summer and winter line-ups.
What I hadn’t really known about, however, was the full story on what was going on in some of the bigger franchises that were revving along in 2015. It wasn’t just the women in the Fast & Furious franchise, who always bring it as a prominent (and unusual) feature of those multicultural action smorgasbords, and who this time helped latest entry Furious 7 rack in over a billion and a half U.S. in world box office. There were also the strong performances of Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olson and Cobie Smulders in the otherwise kind of lackluster Marvel Avengers: Age of Ultron, which took in over 1.4 billion, and the larger than expected role played by Evangeline Lilly in Marvel’s B-side film Ant-Man (nearly $600 million box office,) which ended with her taking on the mantle of fan favorite superhero the Wasp. Actresses also did solid major roles in big money draws such as Minions, The Martian, James Bond’s Spectre, San Andreas, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Focus, Terminator: Genisys, Taken 3, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Goosebumps, Pixels, Paddington, Chappie, The Revenant, Krampus, Spotlight, The Gift, Straight Out of Compton and The Hateful Eight. Even in big budget flops like Fantastic Four, The Last Witch Hunter, Point Break, Pan, Seventh Son and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., women had major action roles.
But some of the big name franchises held bigger surprises when it came to women’s roles. In the hit Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, actress Rebecca Ferguson stole the movie whenever Simon Pegg wasn’t stealing it, playing a triple agent central to the plot with some actual emotional depth who also vaunted on top of henchmen and cracked their necks with her thighs. And then there was Mad Max: Fury Road, in which creator/director George Miller returned to his Australian post-nuclear dystopia franchise after decades, with Tom Hardy taking on the haunted Mad Max role. From the pre-launch press, we knew that Charlize Theron had a major role as a bad-ass warrior with an artificial arm called Furiosa, and that a bunch of young actresses were also going to be in the mix. But when the ultimate road battle movie hit the screen, the main story turned out to be about Furiosa’s attempt to bring a bunch of slave brides of a cultish warlord to the safety of the tribe of women from whom she’d been abducted as a child. Max, captured by the warlord’s army of dying berserker fighters, finds himself in the middle of Furiosa’s mission, rather than the other way around, and far from being the center of all, Max ends up supporting four generations of fighting women in a mobile battle which may be the most breakneck thing Miller has done. Fury Road shook up the whole discussion of women in film early in May and won both big box office and Oscar nominations. Even in something like Jurassic World, the returning dinosaur sequel that took in nearly 1.7 billion in box office, Bryce Dallas Howard’s sexist retro mess of a character ended up saving everybody in the end, along with the help of a pack of female velociraptors.
And then, at the end of the year, there came Star Wars: The Force Awakens, possibly the most anticipated movie ever. We knew that some women were going to have major roles in the new SW sequel, set thirty years after the original trilogy, including Carrie Fisher’s return as Princess (General) Leia. But director/producer J.J. Abrams’ track record on gender and sexism has been a little mixed. And it’s true that The Force Awakens isn’t dripping with female characters. Except for that there lead character — which turned out to be Daisy Ridley’s Rey, an orphaned scavenger who can’t entirely remember her past, and who has learned to pilot and rig crafts by searching and testing parts on a planet full of crashed spaceships and junk salvage. On top of that, Rey turns out to be strong in the Force, at a time when the Jedis are scarce once again. Rey is backed by Leia, small turns by Lupita Nyong’o as an alien info broker and Gwendoline Christie as a villain captain, and a decent number of actresses playing minor roles as tie-fighter pilots, politicians and military commanders. This totally freaked the media out, largely because scared guys online threw a roaring fit over it. The Force Awakens has taken in over 2 billion in box office so far and who knows how much in merchandising. (Even though the merchandisers assumed Rey was not the lead and initially left her out of a lot of the offerings.) While it will not kill the fake argument that a woman lead means less box office, it’s certainly making that argument look bad, and has provided a whole new idol for young girls.
But what about the movies where we knew going in that women played the leads? They also had a pretty stellar year, as it turned out. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, closed out its franchise in November with its biggest action scenes yet, earning over $650 million in box office and still counting. Smaller operation Divergent: Insurgent, the second movie in the Divergent YA franchise, starring Shailene Woodley, took in nearly $300 million on a moderate budget.
On the animated front, one of the biggest movies of the year not only starred a woman but was about a girl becoming a woman – Pixar’s Inside Out, about the emotions that try to manage the brain of an eleven-year-old girl whose family moves to San Francisco. Amy Poehler played Joy, the lead emotion in the girl’s head, with great supporting voice turns from Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Diane Lane and Kaitlyn Dias. Inside Out took in over $850 million world box office, joins the Pixar mega-empire where it will live forever, won the Oscar for best animated feature and will be the source for many university dissertations to come. Fox also scored with their animated movie Home, about a young girl who teams up with one of the aliens who invaded Earth to search for her mother. Home, whose lead was voiced by singer/actress Rihanna, earned over $385 million at the box office. Disney continued to also score by turning their animated classics into live action films with Cinderella, starring Lily James and Cate Blanchett, which brought in over $540 million. (Princesses have enduring box office power clearly.)
Melissa McCarthy, who appears poised to take over the decade in comedy, scored big with her action comedy film Spy, in which she plays a CIA tech support agent who has to go out in the field. Supported by the amazing Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart, Spy took in over $235 million on a mid-sized budget, and confirmed McCarthy’s status as an actress/producer who can reliably provide material for possible franchises. Emily Blunt also continues to position herself as a bankable action thriller lead by playing a FBI agent caught up in complicated drug enforcement operations in Sicario, which drew in over $80 million on a small budget and caught a lot of media attention. Ex Machina, a low budget SF thriller starring Alicia Vikander as a dangerous android, didn’t take in a huge amount of money, but made a profit and seems to have become a geek cult favorite.
Horror films are usually a reliable performing area where women are often allowed to lead the action due to the low budgets. The most successful one this year was The Visit, which starred Olivia DeJonge as a teen who with her kid brother goes to stay with her formerly estranged grandparents who begin acting strangely. It took in nearly $100 million on a miniscule budget. Unfriended, an ensemble horror with women leads, took in over $60 million, also on a little budget, while The Gallows, made for essentially what’s catering money in Hollywood, took in over $40 million. Shannyn Sossamon starred in Sinister 2, which took in over $50 million. Olivia Wilde led the cast of The Lazarus Effect to over $60 million. The lavish Gothic ghost story Crimson Peak, starring Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, took in nearly $75 million.
There were also some fails on big budget gambles that starred women leads, although they were all kind of interesting. Tomorrowland had Disney’s backing and George Clooney, but it had a huge budget, so even though the over-packed family SF film starring Britt Robertson made over 200 million, it went into the red. Robertson seems to have bounced back, though; she’s appearing in four films coming out in 2016. Jupiter Ascending, the hot mess of a movie from the Wachowski sisters of Matrix fame, was kicked around the schedule and finally dump released at the beginning of 2015. It made over $185 million, but also was stymied by its big budget. The space opera, starring Mila Kunis as Jupiter, seems to be turning into a cult hit, however, and got a little mobile gaming action tie-in. Hot Pursuit, the comedy adventure starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, failed to go much past $51 million on a mid-sized budget. The poor script with a lot of sexist and homophobic jokes was the major problem, although the chemistry between the two leads was good. The film doesn’t seem to have destroyed Witherspoon’s producing efforts, as well, as she has two t.v. series and several movies in the works.
Small budget thrillers with women leads were visible in 2015, (though some of them were moved off the year’s schedule,) but did not overall perform as well as perhaps in some of the previous years. There were some hits, however. In addition to Sicario, we had the psych thriller The Perfect Guy, starring Sanaa Lathan, which took in over $60 million, also on a small budget. The similar The Boy Next Door, starring Jennifer Lopez, took over $50 million on a tiny budget early in the year. Suspense drama Room took in over $35 million on a small budget and was also the sensation of the Oscars, earning star Brie Larson the Best Actress Award. So actresses continue to show that they can produce profitable returns in the low budget side of the action pool.
In areas that aren’t exactly the action tent poles, women-led movies still often also made big strides. Pitch Perfect 2, bringing back the singers of the acapella hit and produced/directed by Elizabeth Banks, racked in over $287 million on a low budget. Comedian Amy Schumer’s entry into the star/producer realm, the romantic comedy Trainwreck, scored as well, making over $140 million on a mid-sized budget. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey produced and starred in the party comedy Sisters, which took in over $105 million on a modest budget. Joy, the bio flick starring Jennifer Lawrence, took in over $100 million, though its budget wasn’t small. Blake Lively’s The Age of Adaline brought in over $40 million on a small budget. Oscar contender Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan, pulled in nearly $60 million, and the tiny budgeted high school comedy The Duff drew in a respectable $43 million. Woman in Gold, the historical film starring Helen Mirren, made over $60 million on a small budget, and sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with its ensemble of women led by Dame Judi Dench made over $85 million on a small budget. Carol, adopted from the Patricia Highsmith novel about a lesbian romance, also did really well at the Oscars and also made nearly $40 million.
And the critically reviled, fake-S&M, stalker romance Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the bestselling book and starring Dakota Johnson, did nonetheless make over $571 million on a medium sized budget and popped Johnson on the near A list. That one is not exactly advancing feminism, but these movies show the power of films that are often dismissed as “women pics,” and that the much wider audience than estimated could do with more offerings across the board. The usefulness of those markets – and that actresses can in fact build huge followings from them in our online world – is starting to make more in-roads in Hollywood, and also give actresses better shots at the action pictures as well.
This is not to say that 2015 led a new stage of revolution, exactly. Women still only have major roles in the 22-30% range – though there’s been a bit of a rise in that. A new study looking at how many lines of dialogue actresses got compared to men found that even women-led films like Frozen gave 57% of its lines to male characters. Behind the scenes, it’s even worse still, with women directors making only 12% of the films, a ridiculous statistic in 2016. We are still very much in a trickle, trickle situation, with film studios worldwide only grudgingly trusting that women can help them out as more than eye candy, and not liking the social status drop of backing female-led action movies.
But there was a definite change to the tenor of the conversation and attitudes being espoused by film-workers and media this past year. The slow but very noticeable success of women in television, the unexpected and successful focus on women leads in big films this year, the very loud demand for toys and merchandise featuring geek women characters, the attention to some prominent women-centered comics (on which films are still firmly drawing,) the willingness of filmmakers to talk about how neat their women players are to the media and the willingness of loud mouthed boys online to scream about women invasions and attract media interest in the question, and the efforts of actors and filmmakers of color to show how viable and critical the work of their men and women is in the industry – all this has drawn more media coverage, wide commentary and social pressure. The hack of Sony Pictures’ emails and files oddly also contributed to that discussion, as it provided hard confirmation of deliberate disparities in salaries between actresses and actors in major films. That news story let major actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Viola Davis keep bringing up the difficulties and prejudices that actresses and actresses of color face to the press, and gave their agents a chance to negotiate better deals on a number of films. Consequently, talk and attention about women in film (and t.v. and geekdom) went on steadily all year.
And while the movie world is still firmly clutching its machismo ethos so its studio heads can feel studly, money does have its siren effect over time. The hot spotlight on now big stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy, Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana and Emily Blunt is being backed up by a bevy of young actress talent who bring in cash. Some of them not even white, gasp! Older (slightly) actresses are producing and still bringing out box office as well.
But is it going to have a real impact on this year, 2016? It’s looking like we’re going to see more fruit bearing in 2017, actually, but hey, I was kind of wrong about 2015. So in Part 2, we’ll take a look at what’s playing/been playing and what that might mean for actresses this year.
*If you click on the links to previous years’ entries above, some of the photo images used in those may have disappeared because sometimes the source gets scrapped. I’m trying to build up better photo files, but apologies in advance. You all know how to use Google anyway, so you can look up new ones as you like.