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Women can be killers, not adulterers: Hollywood's heroine problem

Women can be killers, not adulterers: Hollywood's heroine problem

Women can be killers, not adulterers: Hollywood's heroine problem Books Women can be killers, not adulterers: Hollywood's heroine problem

After two decades of film producers fretting over her taboo-breaking book Layover, novelist Lisa Zeidner asks if Hollywood is finally ready for a bed-hopping woman

On the road … Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.
On the road … Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise. Photograph: oldwyn-Mayer/Sportsphoto/Allstar

When my novel Layover was first optioned for film in 1999, my agent joked: “It’ll be cheap to shoot. All you need is a bed.” That’s not entirely fair. You also need an airport, a couple of hotel lobbies and a lingerie shop dressing room.

Layover follows a travelling saleswoman who uses her sexuality to challenge expectations for middle-aged women and to propel herself out of grief. The novel has been optioned for 19 straight years, by five different teams. This latest attempt is slated to start in early 2019. What has remained constant over these years is the small number of movies that feature a female protagonist, and the shockingly stringent limits on how she can be portrayed.

The Time’s Up movement has not changed much in this regard. For all the hoopla about gender equity at the Academy Awards and Cannes, women still have trouble finding roles as anything other than the girlfriend of the action hero â€" or, these days, the action heroine herself, complete with curve-clinging breastplate and superpowers. And it seems to me that one of the bi ggest obstacles is the aversion to thinking about women as sexual beings, the strident oversimplification of their imaginations and libidos.

When I was hired to write the screenplay for the first option, the producer encouraged me to make my heroine, Claire, an outlaw in the vein of Thelma and Louise, which was her example of the kind of “edgy, female-driven story” I should emulate. But she had several further requests. One, she didn’t want Claire to have had her child die. Dead children, she said, were a downer. Did I mind rethinking that? I did not mind! After all, people manage to have affairs all the time without their children dying. So Claire’s dead five-year-old son became a living teenage daughter, away at summer camp.

Dastardly doings … Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread (2017). Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Dastardly doings … Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread (2017). Photograph: Features/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Next, the producer objected to the adultery â€" it made the character unsympathetic. Forget the dead kid and the husband’s own infidelity â€" women simply should not cheat. And to cheat while grief-stricken? Unthinkable. This was the point when I wondered what exactly had appealed to her about Layover, in which sex â€" even casual sex â€" is portrayed as not dangerous and repulsive, but potentially healing, transformative. The taboo against sexual pleasure is even more intense for mothers. You can tell the good mothers in movies because they leave their hubbies in bed, mid-coitus, with a rueful sigh the second their babies cry off screen. With notable exceptions, working women remain deeply suspect. In Up in the Air, we admire the driven yet soulful career woman who meets George Clooney on the road â€" but when we learn she isn’t single, that she has a family back home, complete with rug rats, we are asked to recalibrate our evaluation of her.

Indeed, for female protagonists in movies, being a killer is much more sympathetic than simply enjoying sex without guilt, or with a respectable dollop of guilt, as almost every male heartthrob is permitted to do. In Thelma and Louise, the killing is justified, of course, since a woman has been raped. Add sadistic rape and brutal murder in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the heroines have good justification for resorting to some picturesque, Dirty Harriet-style revenge. Movies and TV series deemed feminist for featuring strong female characters seem to argue that a woman needs to become a psycho killer before she warrants our attention. Even period pieces such as Phantom Thre adoften feature women doing something dastardly, like poisoning their beloveds. Not coincidentally, female killers tend to be promiscuous. They are also very nicely dressed â€" see Atomic Blonde, Gone Girl or Killing Eve. Evidently, psychopathology comes with a killer fashion sense.

European films have historically had more latitude in the portrayal of sexuality, since their audiences are less prudish. Filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar and Mike Leigh are more willing to feature three-dimensional, flawed people, more interested in transgressions that stop short of requiring an autopsy, more likely to make films that focus on motivation and relationships than action, where the characters have conversations in between jump cuts.

Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. . Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Confronting injustice … Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photograph: Merrick Morton/AP

Over the next three options, I heard the same comically short list of female stars (Julia Roberts! Sandra Bullock!) deemed big enough names to greenlight a movie. The stars who were a little too young for the part in 1999 are now a little too old â€" Claire, 41, has been attempting to get pregnant â€" so she probably shouldn’t be too far into her 50s, no matter how marvellous her plastic surgery. Things have not changed much for women in Hollywood since 1959, when Jessie Royce Landis was cast as Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest â€" even though she was only seven years older than him.

I’ve got to know Toni Kalem, the actor turned writer-director who adapted and directed the film based on Anne Tyler’s novel A Slipping-Down Life, and who will be at the helm on Layover. She read none of the earlier screenplays and answered to no requirements from her producers about the portrayal of Claire in writing her own version. She has garnered strong support for the project from powerful talent agencies, the gatekeepers to stars who were out of reach for previous attempts to produce an independent movie of this scale. So it appears we are actually almost there, despite the fact that a lot of stars will now only consider doing big action movies, with their large PG audiences and major payola.

While there must be some, I can’t think of another recent film that would be comparable in tone to Layover. The celebrated US movies with female leads tend to cleave to the Alien or Gravity formula of loners struggling against formidable odds, not ordinary women confron ting recognisable, thorny problems. Or they’re comedies with big ensemble casts like Ocean’s 8, which features an octet of famous female actors rather than just one (you probably need eight women to equal one George Clooney), and which cleverly mocks its own raison d’etre as a female reboot. As Debbie Ocean says, when psyching up her crew for the heist: “Don’t do this for me. Don’t do this for you. Somewhere out there is an eight-year-old girl lying in bed, dreaming of being a criminal. Let’s do this for her.”

Big Little Lies Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Murderous melodrama … Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. Photograph: HBO

The one area where the situation has improved for women in front of and behind the camera is in TV. There are more women with their own production companies developing shows, so they have the power to create for themselves the kind of dark, complicated roles that Hollywood has denied them. See the success of Big Little Lies, which, of course, features a murder (again justified), and like Ocean’s 8 further raises the likability quotient with an upbeat, sisterhood-is-powerful message. On premium cable, no woman is ever lonely. They always come with a supportive gaggle of compadres, Sex and the City-style. But with so many film stars now committed to so many TV shows, the odds of finding an available time to shoot a smaller independent movie become even more daunting.

You’d think that all the recent talk about inclusion clauses would give a movie with a female lead and a female director, about women’s issues, a better chance of beating the usual odds . This is especially true since 2016 statistics reveal women â€" not teenage boys â€" now comprise fully 52% of cinema audiences. (Of course, some of those women are probably taking their kids to The Lego Movie.)

I’m assured that the film adaptation of Layover will happen, and soon. But at this point, with my fifth novel, Love Bomb, also under option, and my second and third novels having cycled through their own failed movieâ€'making attempts, I’m grateful to be a novelist: the “product” is under my sole control. In a novel, you have access to the full panorama of a character’s thoughts. Voice, not plot, is the strongest element in the works of the female novelists I respect â€" writers including Lorrie Moore, Deborah Levy, Rachel Cusk, Rachel Kushner and Joy Williams. And with that lush, deep interiority, you don’t need a murder to make things lively.

• Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel is Love Bomb. A new edition of Layover is published by Pushkin Press. She teaches creative writing and film at Rutgers University.

  • This article was amended on 30 July, 2018. An earlier version referred to Angela Lansbury playing Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest. That role was played by Jessie Royce Landis.
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Source: Google News Hollywood

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