I had an e-mail the other day from my good friend Bob Dolman, enclosing this link to an L.A. Times article by Mary McNamara, which represents a prevalent state of perplexity in both the critical and moviegoing public community:
Watching Katherine Heigl attempt to inject life into yet another
cardboard cut-out of a controlling, manic working woman in "The Ugly
Truth," you have to wonder: For this she wants to leave television?...
There are more and better roles for women on one season of "Brothers and Sisters" and "Big Love" or "Damages" and "Desperate Housewives" than there will be in an entire year of Hollywood films. Roles that require depth and wisdom and boundless energy, that demand of their performers the dramatic flexibility and exploration of character. Roles that don't seem to punish them simply for being women.
Unfortunately, an actress who wants to be a movie star doesn't have that kind of choice, especially now that bromance has replaced romance and so many comedies seem happy to dispense with women altogether.
Bob's e-mail went on to query: "What is it I wonder that makes so many movies so bland in the romcom department? It’s as if the TV execs are saying 'more like movies' and the movie execs are saying 'more like TV' ...But then there’s a TV crowd who want their TV lives to be spicier."
How I see it is that studios sell "situations" when they pitch and develop movies - then they try to write characters into them. On the other hand TV series, particularly on cable, tend to write and develop character-driven material, precisely because such concepts have to feature substantive characters to sustain a series. You tune in to see what happened to Jane/John (i.e. What terrible fix have they gotten into now?), not because there's a new "event," necessarily, but because you want to see how this character responds to a given situation.
Note that when a long-running TV series is feeling low on character-driven developments, they a) introduce new characters or b) go for the event, e.g. ER having a chopper crash into the hospital, or a criminal take hostages, etc. By contrast it's usually not characters that pull people into a multiplex to see a movie, unless it's an "event-driven character" (Spiderman, Batman, etc.) who wouldn't be of any interest unless they were, in fact, facing some major world-threatening crisis.
The problem with women in cinema and to a lesser degree TV strikes me as analogous to the current Obama/Gates/police flare-up, i.e. We pretend that Obama being elected means we've dealt with/ transcended race, only to find that of course we haven't. McNamara criticizes "Heigl playing a woman like this in 2009?!" as if our society had somehow dealt with/ transcended sexism, when obviously it hasn't (We're shocked, shocked, to see gambling in Casablanca).
Here's the disjunct that confounds me: With both The Ugly Truth and The Proposal doing so well at the box office this summer (i.e. trad-stereotypical, formulaic rom-com chick flicks) and women being the target demographic (btw, three women wrote Truth and a woman directed Proposal), apparently women are just fine, thanks, with everything that McNamara (and Bob and me) are decrying. I don't really believe that, mind you, but the evidence is there in box office ducats.
These days it seems a challenge to find a reasonably recognizable human being, female or male, in American romantic comedies - you know, just like it is when you go looking for any in Congress. I'm actually in the midst of musing on the stereotypical representation of men on the big screen (meet me here next week for a look at Funny People), but this Woman Thing - the terribly dated, stereotypical portrayals of them v. the seeming widescale acceptance of same - is a head-scratcher, so I turn it over to you. Tell me, dear readers: What's up with that? Living the RomCom wants to know.