Saturday, August 3, 2013

In Praise of Women's Pictures

I have been looking over my iCheckMovies rating again this week, which always forces me to confront the fact that I just don't want to sit through some of the movies that make all of those official lists. As I peruse the highly ranked pictures, trying to will myself to buckle down to some of those films, I inevitably come away with a strong desire to watch some unranked classic from the 30s and 40s instead.

Why this reluctance to watch movies that all the critics say are great?

One reason is that almost all of those critics are men (God rest you, Pauline Kael!), and the movies that move them are not the movies that move me. I'm a 40-something wife and mother, and I'm practically a non-entity in those top dog films, unless I'm being bumped off to fuel the plot and create angst for the protagonist. I can be shot by a sniper, beaten to death by organized crime thugs, devoured by zombies, or beheaded by a serial killer, and naturally I see myself being sexually assaulted quite a bit, but I very rarely get to be the protagonist of my own story in modern movies. Chick flicks are no restitution, since these days they tend to be stupid, flaky comedies about women who like to shop, or who put off marriage and children to pursue careers until they are also 40-something but acting as if they were still 22.

I think those women live in New York, where they apparently worry a lot about sex and matching shoes with designer handbags. I'm not sure, though, because I live in Alabama, where I worry a lot about how my kid will turn out and whether that sound in the middle of the night is a burglar or just the cat throwing up on my one good rug. I worry about my husband, especially when he's away on travel, and I worry about what I'm doing with my life, whether I have given up too much for the benefit of others or if I'll still manage to make good on all of those promises and dreams I had for myself twenty years ago.

When I want to see women like myself, be they wives or mothers or single career girls, with serious stories about what it means to live and struggle through the world, I turn to Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Mary Astor, and a host of other great leading ladies who show us the rich emotional lives of grown-up women living grown-up lives. They don't make actresses like them any more, and if they did make them they still wouldn't have any movies to star in, thanks to a box office driven by CGI testosterone fests aimed at 17-35 year old males.

Sure, I enjoy a bread and circuses comic book action movie on occasion, but I don't see myself in them. You let me know when Black Widow and Hawkeye have to juggle their separate crime fighting careers and decide which one will miss the big villain fight to attend Junior's soccer tournament. Then we'll talk.

At least there was a time, once upon a Hollywood, when things were different. There was a time when Mrs. Miniver could be an Oscar queen, when Mildred Pierce could straddle the line between film noir and weepie with the dark force of a mother's love, when the world wept with Kitty Foyle over her little contender for the year 2000. The women in those films grappled with love and sacrifice, ambition and regret - all the same issues that define my own life more than 60 years later. They tend to be hopeful movies, all things considered; these women are survivors - intelligent, capable, and strong even at their most vulnerable. Their choices may at times seem a little dated, especially to those who are young and single, but to me they resonate powerfully.

We talk about the power of the "every man" in literature and film because people want to see characters who
reflect them and their concerns. We don't talk much about the "every woman," but we should. Women also want to see characters who are like them, but these days we very rarely do. I'm not a super hero, or a secret agent, or a sexy distraction. I'm not a victim, or a cheap thrill, or a mindless child. My story is not written in the margins of other people's lives. One of the greatest things classic movies do for me is to remind me of that.

Thank you, Bette. Thank you, Olivia and Joan. Thank you, Ginger and Greer. Maybe one day there will be enough women critics to balance the score in ranking all of the wonderful films you made, but until then you'll have me, languishing at the bottom of the iCheckMovies heap but getting so much pleasure from the films that speak to me.

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