Recently, I asked for topics on which you might like to hear my thoughts. In my dual roles as recovering film nerd and Resident Ordinary Gentlewoman, Patrick suggested a list of top movies that deal with women’s issues. So here are my chick flicks. Not necessarily the best movies, but ones that strike me as gynically interesting in one way or another. (I note with interest how completely male-oriented movies of the 1970s are.)
[Update: I feel compelled to state that it should be obvious that this nothing close to an exhaustive list of either movies or issues women face. I am obviously more interested in psychological issues than cultural issues.]
In no particular order:
All About Eve (1950) Captures with no small degree of sympathy the pain for a woman of getting older and losing her looks. Bette Davis risks losing everything – her job (actress) and her younger husband – to a younger, prettier up-and-comer and becomes terrified that the younger woman is deliberately sabotaging her. Really gets at that jealousy of the younger woman, and the viewer is on Davis’s side. Contrast with another movie of the same year, Sunset Blvd., where the aging actress jealous of a younger, prettier up-and-comer is painted as a monster.
The Apartment (1960) One of my favorite movies. Really a movie about a man (Jack Lemmon), but the interesting quality of this man is that while he allows himself to be taken advantage of by men who simply use women, he himself can’t use women. He idealizes them. One of the more moving and unusual moments in the movie is the moment when Lemmon realizes the idealized woman of his dreams has been sleeping with a married man. You see him assimilate that information and still be in love with her, not reject her. Also interesting is the ending. (spoiler alert) Girl of his dreams ends up with Lemmon, but she seems almost contemptuous of his continued respect for her.
Dirty Dancing (1987) All right, all right. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. Not the world’s best movie. But thematically, this movie is really interesting. Not only does it have the young girl’s sexual awakening, which is not all that uncommon (I’m guessing a google search would turn up a few hits). But there are other things going on at the same time which complicate the sexual awakening. Jennifer Grey’s father’s insistence on infantilizing and desexualizing her as the price of his paternal love and trust, her lying to him, her learning about abortion and how men can use women for sex.
The Awful Truth (1937) Totally adore this movie. But something is really striking about it. This is a screwball comedy about a marriage gone wrong. Of course you know will they’ll get back together in the end. However, the wife’s infidelity is treated with just as light a touch as his. Just sort of with a wink-wink, you-know-how-it-is. I can’t think of another movie, including recent ones, where this is the case.
Vertigo (1958) An unusual sympathy from Hitchcock toward women. Lots of the movie is about how it’s problematic for women when men in their lives have some sort of idealized woman vision. First, Midge, the Jimmy Stewart’s female-just-a-best-friend-but-who-is-totally-in-love-with-him, paints her own face on the painting of a woman Stewart has been fixating on. He rejects her and the painting, and she gets so upset she tears at her hair. Not many moments in Hitchcock that you really call moving or that ring emotionally true, but that is one of them. Later, Stewart tries to remake Kim Novak into the image he wants, and get pretty violent in the process.
His Girl Friday (1940) Another awesome Cary-Grant-gets-remarried comedy. It’s singular in that Rosalind Russell, newspaper reporter, is ready to marry someone else after her divorce from Cary Grant and settle down and just be a wife. Cary Grant tempts her away and back to him by encouraging her to follow a great scoop and showing her she does not want to give up a career. He’s the guy who won’t ask her to.
Breaking the Waves (1996) Really affecting movie that raises the question whether the somewhat simple-minded Bess (Emily Watson), who gives up everything for her husband, is kind of pathetic or capable of the truest kind of personal/religious love. The movie itself suggests the latter, the other works of Lars von Trier perhaps suggest the former, but it’s an interesting question. Women in general tend to err on the side of too much sacrifice for love, or at least more sacrifice than men.
Mildred Pierce (1945) Not the greatest movie, but certainly worth seeing. An outsized clownish version of the fear of being abandoned by your children. Mildred, who has two kids, gets divorced. One kid dies, so Mildred clings all the harder to her living child, who becomes a rotten spoiled brat who cares only about social status. Mildred builds up a huge successful business in an attempt to satisfy her rapacious daughter, but nothing can make her daughter love her back. (spoiler alert) And in the end, her daughter ends up seducing husband the second and ruining the business, and Mildred is left with nothing. Children really do take a lot out of you, no?
Raising Arizona (1987) In the midst of being a totally hilarious comedy, there is a real story for Holly Hunter’s character here. She simply wants a life with husband and children and can’t seem to have either. She is infertile and they cannot adopt. Her husband loves her, but chafes at being tied down. I actually never fail to choke up at the end of the movie.
Auntie Mame (1958) Seriously, how can you not love this movie? So a woman is thrust into adoptive motherhood when her brother dies and she takes in her nephew. She breaks every single rule, especially by 1950s standards. She drinks, sends him to a ridiculous experimental school, gives no consistency, etc. etc. Yet she is obviously a wonderful, amazing mother.
Imitation of Life (1959) Whole buncha stuff going on here about moms and daughters. One daughter can’t get enough attention from mom, who is focused on her career. The daughter feels closer to her nanny. This daughter ends up with a crush on mom’s boyfriend. The nanny, who is black, has a daughter who is light-skinned enough to pass for white. She does pass for white to her mom’s dismay. She rejects her mother and her race.
Johnny Guitar (1954) This is an odd duck of movie in several ways. I wouldn’t say it actually deals with women’s issues except that it is a Western, and the protagonist and antagonist who end up in the final showdown are both women. Can’t think of another where that’s the case.
Juno (2007) I found the main character annoyingly and implausibly precocious. But it was nice to see adoption from both sides – the birth mother and adoptive mother. I was really taken aback by something specifically. Jennifer Garner’s character is seen obsessing over paint colors. I was expecting this to end up in a criticism of her superficiality. This happens a lot in movies (e.g., American Beauty), and I think it’s something of a misogynistic trope. But it’s the husband who is superficial – she is just obsessing because she cares.
Heavenly Creatures (1994) Really nice movie, and interesting about how just how obsessive teenage girls can get. These two get more obsessive than most, of course (based on a true story, though).
Silence of the Lambs (1991) Forget the girl suit made out of real girls. Lots in here about women and work, but it is all very subtle, which is nice. Jodie Foster is picked for the job initially perhaps because she is attractive. There is an affecting scene where her boss dismisses her in front of a room full of men and they all stare at her. There are relatively few movies where a woman who solves the case isn’t a total hottie. I mean, she’s very attractive, but we’re not really supposed to be ogling her.
Casino Royale (2006) I think this movie tried to expiate previous sexism sins of James Bond films. It poked fun at the objectification of Ursula Andress by objectifying Daniel Craig, M is a woman, Bond’s feelings for the Bond girl seem actually sincere.
Men’s movies that think they are about women’s issues but are not: Repulsion, Belle de Jour