"I usually maintain a fairly even temper about Hollywood because I couldn't do my job otherwise," Manohla Dargis told me today. But the formidable NY Times film critic has fighting words for Hollywood and how it treats women. Dargis' "fuck them" - the first of several - refers specifically to a fact she highlighted in her piece this weekend on the lack of progress in Hollywood films for and about women: Two major studios, Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, didn't release a single movie directed by a female, even in a year of renewed prominence for women in film. One bright spot: The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow (pictured above) is sweeping the early critics'awards: in the past two days alone she and her film have gotten top accolades from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the American Film Institute, The New York Film Critics Online, and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
In a wide-ranging conversation this morning on women in Hollywood, Dargis, who has been a chief New York Times film critic (a title she shares with A.O. Scott) since 2004, had similarly strong words for Hollywood conventional wisdom and the studio system overall. "My tendency is not to talk in sweeping terms, but one thing I can say in sweeping terms is that there's a lot of sexism in the industry," she says. Here are some of the other highlights from the conversation.
On why women in Hollywood aren't faring any better: This business is really about clubby relationships. If you buy Variety or go online and look at the deals, you see one guy after another smiling in a baseball cap. It's all guys making deals with other guys. I had a female studio chief a couple of years ago tell me point blank that she wasn't hiring a woman to do an action movie because women are good at certain things and not others. If you have women buying that bullshit how can we expect men to be better?
On working within the system: For me the most sobering thing of the last ten years is that there really was a point where four of the studios were run by women… and you would have thought that would lead to an uptick of women directors. I'm not saying I've done a systematic analysis, but it doesn't look like it changed very much… Working within the system has not worked. It has not helped women filmmakers or, even more important, you and me, women audiences, to have women in the studio system. … I think the studio system as it exists now is a no-win situation for women filmmakers.
On director Kathryn Bigelow's success (achieved in part by getting funding outside of Hollywood, detailed in Dargis's June profile of her): Something like a woman winning best director for directing an action movie and not a romantic comedy is symbolically important. Whether it then leads to a lot of women doing things outside of the pathetic comfort zone of romantic comedy – and I say that as someone who loves romantic comedy – we'll see. We know that because women are allowed to make romantic comedies that they can make romantic comedies. That's in everyone's comfort zone. The idea that a woman can be a great action director is not is everyone's comfort zone. That's [Bigelow's] exceptionalism.
On Bigelow's chances for Oscar or future commercial success: The only thing Hollywood is interested in money, and after that prestige. That's why they'll be interested in something like The Hurt Locker. She's done so well critically that she can't be ignored.
Let's acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them. But they are important commercially... I've learned to never underestimate the academy's bad taste. Crash as best picture? What the fuck.
On male and female directors being held to different standards, as Dargis suggested in comparing Bigelow and Michael Mann in her piece: Do you think that a woman would have been able to get forty million dollars to make a puppet movie the way that Wes Anderson has been able to make, bringing to bear all the publicity and advertising budget of Fox? After two movies that didn't make a lot of money? I think this is true for a lot of black filmmakers too – they're held to a higher standard. And an unfair standard. You can be a male filmmaker and if you're perceived as a genius – a boy genius or a fully-formed adult genius – that you are allowed to fail in a way that a woman is not allowed to fail.
On whether there's an essential difference between male-made and female-made movies: Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary. That's all we need to say about that. But I do think as 51 percent of the population we should be given a chance… It's very boring to watch the same people coming from a certain kind of background make the same kinds of movies.
On Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron: I personally don't think either of them is a good filmmaker — they make movies for me that are more emotionally satisfying but with barely any aesthetic value at all. I really like Something's Gotta Give, but I don't think it's a good movie…. I'm of two minds. Sometimes I think what women should do what various black and gay audiences have done, which is support women making movies for women. So does that mean I have to go support Nora Ephron? Fuck no. That's just like, blech.
On Sandra Bullock, whom she recently wrote should use her production company to "start giving female filmmakers a chance to do something other than dopey romances": Use your power for good, Sandy!
On why so many romantic comedies are so terrible: One, the people making them have no fucking taste, two, they're morons, three they're insulting panderers who think they're making movies for the great unwashed and that's what they want. I love romantic movies. I absolutely do. But I literally don't know what's happening. I think it's depressing that Judd Apatow makes the best romantic comedies and they're about men. All power to Apatow, but he's taken and repurposed one of the few genres historically made for women. ….We had so few [genres] that were made specifically for the female audience and now the best of them are being made by Judd Apatow. But what are his movies supposed to be about? Nominally about the relationship between a man and a woman, but they're really buddy flicks. Funny People was supposed to have an important role for a woman, but she was uninteresting and an afterthought.
On representations of women onscreen: There's a reason that women go to movies like Mamma Mia. It's a terrible movie… but women are starved for representation of themselves. I go back to Spike Lee and She's Gotta Have It. I remember going to see it at the Quad in New York, surrounded by a black audience. People are starved for representations of themselves.
On women being taken seriously as moviegoers: It's a vicious cycle. We're not going to movies because there aren't movies for us. Therefore we're not seen as a loyal moviegoing audience. My point is that if there are stories about women, women will come out for that…
That's why [women] go to a movie like The Devil Wears Prada and make huge hits. They want to see women in movies. People in the trade press constantly frame that as a surprise. This, gee whiz, Sex and the City's a hit, Twilight, hmm, wonder what's going on here. Maybe they should not be so surprised. In the trade press, women audiences are considered a niche. How is that even possible? We're 51 percent of the audience.
On this quote from a box office analyst for Hollywood.com, in The Washington Post: Fuck him. What an asshole. Yes, that's what I want! That's exactly what I want. If Angelina Jolie had been cast in a movie as a good as The Bourne Identity with a filmmaker like Paul Greengrass, I would have gone out to see it, and I'm sure I wouldn't be alone. That is absurd. That's blaming female audiences – you get what you deserve? Is that what he's saying?
On being a female critic reviewing and featuring women's films: I wanted to get [Bigelow] on the cover of 'Arts and Leisure'. I wanted this fantastic woman director to get her face on the front of the New York Times…[But] I am an equal opportunity critic. I will pan women as hard as men. I've had testy people imply that I should go easier on women's movies. I find that incredibly insulting. Are you kidding me? I don't want to be graded on a curve. None of us want to be good woman writer.
I don't want to be the woman critic. I don't want to be the feminist critic. I don't want to be the shrew. What I want to do is talk about the art that I love and point out, every so often, inequities….It's a weird balancing act and I'm not saying there aren't contradictions.
On whether the prominence of women-directed films in 2009 will change anything, even if they're not statistically significant compared to other years: It's pretty shitty right now. Anything positive can only help a little bit. How's that for optimism?