Towards the end of 2012 a few mainstream films were released that mark a new direction in gender dynamics on-screen. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012), and the HBO production of Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012) are all untraditional bio-pics about famous men, whose wives are presented as braver, stronger, wiser human beings, who upstage their husbands behind the scenes.
This may be part of a larger Hollywood trend that started with Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female film director to receive an Oscar in 2009, and continued with this year’s Golden Globes hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and their homage to women in Hollywood.
What the three films have in common is perhaps what feminist scholars have been waiting for and calling for since Virginia Woolf’s 1929 Cambridge lectures: a type of re-writing of history and re-suturing of women’s lives, voices, point of views, perceptions, and talents into mainstream narratives. The three films show a shift away from male-centred protagonists’ point of view, and focus, at least partially, on the female experience.
In Lincoln, Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife. She steals the spot-light from Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant portrayal of the 16th American president who is trying to simultaneously end the Civil War and pass a constitutional amendment to end slavery. In several key scenes she becomes an emotional powerhouse, pushing the boundaries of emotional honesty for both her on-screen husband and the audience. Captivating with her raw insight and humanity, as well as a strong femininity, she communicates the female experience in light of loss after the death of her son, and thus reveals the destructive dysfunctionality behind her husband’s inability to show his emotions, as well as his inability to respect hers. In a film about human rights and equality, this scene is a key example of what second-wave feminists have been trying to prove for a very long time, namely that “the personal is political!”
In Hitchcock, Helen Mirren steals the show as Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s brilliant wife, without whose care, commitment, and talent Hitchcock could not have made a single film. He is presented as an overgrown old-man-child, unable to care for himself, abusive to women, and not as capable or talented as his wife, but still single-handedly reaping all the glories of their success in the public eye. Alma is quite literally his knight-in-shining-armour, rescuing him from failure, disease, and disgrace over and over again, but remaining uncredited. The film challenges the notion of the creative genius. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum; it requires organization, discipline, kindness, communication, and insight in order to be transformed from an idea to something tangible and presentable. In the film, these are the qualities that Alma has, and Hitchcock lacks. But in a patriarchal world-order, creativity is subjected to a hierarchical cast, and women’s talents are exploited to support the myth of the self-made man.
In HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, Nicole Kidman plays the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who falls in love and marries Ernest Hemingway, played by Clive Owen, during the Spanish Civil War. As their marriage starts to fall apart in peace time, Hemingway is revealed as an abusive brute and an insecure patriarch, in a constant power struggle with and simultaneously in awe of his courageous activist wife. Narrated from her point of view, this film differs from the others in that it is not titled and marketed to promote the lead male character, but starts and ends with a close-up of the female protagonist. Gellhorn is also shown divorcing Hemingway in the film, to preserve her own self and her identity as a war correspondent. Hemingway is portrayed as a gluttonous husband, stealing her position as a correspondent in Europe during the Allied invasion, and replacing her immediately after she leaves with a woman who looked just like her. The film’s underlying message is rather simple: to be married to a patriarch a woman cannot have any sense of self, self-worth, self-esteem, or any sense of identity of her own. And throughout history, most women were not independent and self-sufficient enough not to sacrifice themselves for patriarchal marriage. Unfortunately, there are still very few or almost no examples and role models of non-patriarchal marriages.
All three actresses were nominated for a Golden Globe for these roles, but the awards went to Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Julianne Moore for playing less subversive female characters. However, witnessing a new trend in the portrayal of women in popular media is a rare and exciting occasion! A small step for women or humanity, but a rather big one for Hollywood!