Nomadland, Chlo Zhaos’ portrayal of the traveling life, explores themes generally ignored by mainstream narrative films. How often does Hollywood examine the scars of the Great Recession, the fragility of the odd-job economy, or the gaps in the social safety net?
But it’s almost as unusual to see an American film centered around an ordinary older woman, according to film historians and gender equality advocates in this case a fiercely independent vagabond named Fern, played by the Oscar-winning actress. Frances McDormand, 63 years old. the film debuted on Hulu and in select theaters Friday.)
It is extremely rare to see a woman in her 60s in the lead role, especially a woman who is allowed to watch her age onscreen, said Alicia Malone, host of Turner Classic Movies who has written two books on women. At the movie theater.
Hollywood has always been a very old place, certainly since it became a commercial enterprise where men were at the helm and women were sidelined once they reached a certain age, said Malone, who recently co-organized a TCM series highlighting 100 films made by women.
The film industry routinely throws out older men as romantic characters or action heroes. But women over 50 tend to be relegated to supportive or one-dimensional roles, and big stars such as Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman could be exceptions that prove the rule, Malone said.
When we see older women, they play secondary roles with a lot of stereotypes around them and a lot of jokes are made against them, Malone said. They are rarely portrayed at the center of stories as viable and complex characters.
In recent years, TV shows and limited series have become havens for women over 50 looking for interesting roles, such as Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder); Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (Grace and Frankie); and Catherine OHara (Schitts Creek).
In a report published in September, the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only three of the top 100 films of 2019 featured a lead or co-lead role played by a woman over 45, and only one of those roles went to a woman of color.
The year before, USC researchers found that 11 of the top 100 films starred a woman over 45, while nearly a quarter (24 films) featured a man over 45. years in a leading or supporting role.
We don’t have enough films about women to begin with, let alone women over 45, said Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, an organization that advocates for greater inclusion in the industry. cinematographic. It’s a really hard thing to find, and it’s a problem.
Nomadland breaks dramatically with norms with her candid and deeply empathetic take on the character of McDormands, who hits the road in a van after her husband’s death and the collapse of the Nevada factory town where she worked and lived. for decades.
The film tells the character of McDormands with an invigorating documentary-style intimacy. We see her working in an Amazon warehouse; clean the washrooms at an RV campground; connections with other vagrants (some of them non-professional actors playing versions of themselves); savoring the beauty of the natural world as you travel through the American West.
I don’t think I’ve * ever * seen a movie about an older woman talking about herself in relation to herself rather than as a mother, grandmother, wise aunt, etc., cultural writer Jenna Scherer recently tweeted. It is such a joy to watch Frances McDormand take the time and space to wander, think and, frankly, play.
McDormand, who co-produced Nomadland, is part of a group of prominent actors who have advocated for greater inclusion and fairness, on and off screen. (The film is an independent production that was acquired by Disney-owned distributor Searchlight Pictures.)
In March 2018, when McDormand accepted the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she rallied behind the Inclusion Riders, a contractual provision artists could use to demand more diversity. in productions.
The relative lack of fulfilling career opportunities for women and people of color has been under particular scrutiny since at least late 2017, when the #MeToo and Times Up movements began reshaping work cultures in the world. entertainment and media.
Gender imbalances also persist behind the camera. Nomadland director Zhao, who was hailed for the neo-Western drama The Rider in 2017 and will make her Marvel Universe debut with the upcoming Eternals, is one of the few top filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood.
Zhao, who is Chinese-American, is also one of the few female directors of color with a growing presence on the studio circuit. In one analysis published in January 2020USC’s Inclusion Initiative found that only 13 of the 1,300 highest-grossing films released between 2007 and 2019 were directed by women from under-represented racial or ethnic groups.
McDormand, for her part, said she felt lucky to have collaborated with Zhao, who was also committed to building a project around an authentic American woman rarely seen in the media.
What if I had looked at myself in the mirror, unable to recognize myself as the women portrayed in fashion magazines and movies? What if that had stopped me? It’s a lot of guesswork, but part of the American dream that I realized was working with people like Chlo Zhao, McDormand said at a press conference in September.
Nell Minow, film critic and expert on corporate governance, said she believed there was more cultural oxygen available for small-scale, female-led projects during the coronavirus pandemic, as major studios have been forced to postpone the release of many male blockbusters. .
This has been a boon to more intimate films like Nomadland in many ways, said Minow, citing Channing Godfrey Peoples Miss Juneteenth and Radha Blanks The 40-Year-Old Version as examples of female-focused projects that have received attention. welcome last year.
I realized that a lot of the media I consume forces me to translate from a male perspective into something that speaks to me more directly, Minow said. When I see these movies, I can relax. I have nothing to translate.
It’s a cliché at this point to say that representation matters, but it makes me feel connected and listened to because I have something in common with these characters, she added.
Malone, the TCM host, said viewers should reflect on how they have been deprived of valuable human stories due to gender imbalances in the film industry.
When you think about how many older women have been erased from Hollywood, it also makes you consider how much we have all lost by not experiencing their stories on the big screen, with all of their life experience, their wisdom, their humor and vitality. , she said.
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