Glance back through the last century and name some really strong women from the celluloid realm. Can you list a dozen without straining? Mary Astor (née Langehanke), perhaps, and Lillian Gish. Katharine Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve, Ingrid Bergman and Eartha Kitt. Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Sophia Loren, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor and Lucille Ball. Fair enough. Some others, too. But sometime shortly after the initial impact of powerhouses like Jane Fonda and Sigourney Weaver, the general expectations and offerings of women in popular cinema changed shape. Apparently forever.
Looking back at the movies of 2003, it is fairly obvious that history as we've known it is coming to an end, and herstory is finally grabbing the movie world by the . . . um . . . lens. Some people were instructed to find depth in Scarlett Johansson's dull moping in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, and succumbed. More adventurous thinkers turned to the morbid yet life-affirming work of the awesome Sarah Polley, directed by Isabel Coixet, in the splendid My Life Without Me. Or we got Parminder Nagra struggling not only for racial, cultural and gender acceptance, but fair billing along with Keira Knightley on the white-market ads for Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham. Girls freaked out in Catherine Hardwicke's fictional thirteen and Liz Garbus' not-fictional Girlhood, and a girl killed herself in Christine Jeff's Sylvia. A girl saved Thailand from the Burmese in The Legend of Suriyothai, a girl saved True Love for a later date in I Capture the Castle, and the list went on. Girl movies were in no short supply.
Consider also this last year in feminine violence, when we likely observed more female movie characters walloping people than ever before. In the first installment of the Kill Bill saga, Uma Thurman slaughtered, what, about a hundred people? Angelina Jolie returned as adventuress Lara Croft, not only kicking everyone's ass in sight, but blowing away her would-be lover in the Tomb Raider sequel's climax (how romantic). In X2: X-Men United, the curvy likes of Halle Berry and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos teased and thrashed in equal measure. And rising above them all was the sensational and criminally underrated So Close, wherein screen sisters Shu Qi and Vicki Zhao executed balletic moves while, of course, executing people -- men, to be specific. Intriguing fact, though: All of these movies were directed by men -- possibly, probably, employing their female characters for some sort of vicarious venting that simply wouldn't fly in what remains of the civilized world.
Is this empowerment? Hard to say. But the contemporary cinema can vastly enhance one's views on the complex subject.
Take, for example, one of 2003's top films, the sublime Dirty Pretty Things. This tale of illegal immigrants struggling on London's harsh periphery (a subgenre unto itself) was written by a man (Steve Knight), directed by a man (Stephen Frears) and features a male hero (Chiwetel Ejiofor, perfection), yet there's not a cliché in the house. Even France's luminous Audrey Tautou, who made a name for herself playing deranged ingénues, offers a surprising, inspiring mix of vulnerability and determination. Her Turkish immigrant leans on Ejiofor's Nigerian one with increasing desperation, yet never appears weak. How did Tautou feel about having to be saved?
"What I really liked was [my character's] humanity, her strength, and yet at the same time, despite her strength, she's also very defenseless. Because she's in such a situation, that despite all of her efforts, she can't get out of this by herself, on her own."
Tautou, speaking in French about her Turkish character fighting to avoid enslavement in London, continues. "Then there's her desire, and her courage, to try not to live the same kind of life that her mother lived. One finds the same courage in her struggle to become free."
She explains, "When I read the script, she seemed a much weaker character, and so I told Stephen [Frears] that was coming out for me. First he said yes, that's very good, and then he thought about it and said, 'No, I think you need to play it exactly the other way.' And I said all right, because I really trusted him. Then I played her with much more strength, and I think that they sort of adapted the character that way, and it made it richer."