In the BFI’s new Girlfriends season, women’s friendships are celebrated in all their various cinematic forms – from 1950s classics to contemporary indie film. And at a time when they’re being showcased, it’s worth noting how lukewarm the critical reception for many of these films was at the time of release.
Regardless of genre or directorial star power, middling to negative reviews from largely male critics confined many movie ‘girlfriends’ to a narrowly defined audience of middle-aged women or teenage girls.
In retrospect, reappraisals of these films have revealed vibrant, well-observed portrayals of women’s relationships, with underappreciated performances therein. Stars such as Karen Black, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Bette Midler sparkle in these sorts of roles, often carrying flawed films on their shoulders through force of character.
When Dorothy Arzner – the only woman director at work in Hollywood during the 1930s – made her 1940 film Dance Girl Dance, she had already completed more than a dozen features. Her work rate, while astounding by today’s standards, matched the regular working schedule of the factory-line (male) studio director, proof both of Arzner’s industriousness and her power within a system so unfriendly to women.
That’s why it’s strange that in Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of Dance Girl Dance, he makes absolutely zero mention of Arzner. While panning the film as predictable and flimsy, he attributes fault to the RKO producer Erich Pommer, unwilling to even afford Arzner the dignity of her own apparent filmmaking failure. It’s fair to say that in the Hollywood of old, producers had more name recognition – and power – than directors. But to fail to mention the director in a review of her own film seems nonetheless suspect. Even as early as 1940, Crowther, veteran film critic that he was, must have been aware that certain filmmakers were distinctive and worth discussing. Reviews of other films from that year show that he breathlessly praised directors such as Leo McCarey and Alfred Hitchcock. So what gives?
It’s been true for most of film history: if a woman makes a film, a man reviews it. The people in the press most often given the task of evaluating artwork – even if it is deeply and inextricably female in its making and intent – have overwhelmingly been male. Although much has changed since 1940, many of us are still talking about the same things – and the gender disparity between mainstream film critics remains notable.
Reporting from Sundance Film Festival this year, Buzzfeed film critic Allison Wilmore noted the wide variety of female-led films there, including The Tale, a harrowing account of a young teenage girl’s sexual abuse. Yet a notable member of male establishment media at Variety disdainfully called it a “Lifetime movie”, referring to the American cable channel targeted at women. Wilmore summarises perfectly when she writes: “Femininity is treated as a sign [of things which are] lightweight, disposable, and lacking in artistic substance.”
Unfortunately, this is a long-held critical tradition, where dismissive attitudes and thinly-veiled disdain permeate reviews of female-led work. Steel Magnolias (1989), a warm southern tale of small-town women and the vicissitudes of their lives, was critically savaged at the time of its release. Its OTT southern belle style and teary-eyed sentiment seemed to specifically annoy male reviewers. “It’s like you’ve been airlifted onto some horrible planet of female impersonators,” Hal Hinson quipped in his Washington Post review of the film. Vincent Canby literally echoes the same idea in his own review at the New York Times – as if the traditional femininity of the women on screen is somehow grotesque. “Are we supposed to laugh with these women, or at them?” he writes.
The derision toward ‘chick flicks’ or films that heavily featured female friendship seemed particularly fierce in the 1980s. When Beaches (1988) – a weepie about a lifelong friendship between two opposites-attract pals (Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler) – was released, the response was pitiless. Yet when NYT critic Janet Maslin was tasked with reviewing some of the same subject matter, she offers an even-keeled, thoughtful approach. Beaches may have been imperfect, but Maslin notes: “As opposites, C.C. and Hillary do make an appealing if pat combination. […] Together, they make the friendship convincing and the story a lot more interesting than it otherwise would be.”
In spite of the strength and insight of powerful women critics like Maslin, Molly Haskell and Pauline Kael, who reigned at the New Yorker through the 1960s and 70s, this condescending tone remained in place for far too long.
When Dolly Parton had her breakout role in Nine to Five (1980), a male writer for the Toronto Globe & Mail said: “She is a sweet little thing, but no thespian.” Like many of us, Roger Ebert thought Parton was a natural film star. But for some male figures, the brassy blonde was out of her depth in the serious business of cinema. In the NYT, Canby wrote that Parton performs “with a modesty that doesn’t quite match her figure”. Nine to Five, a comedy with serious feminist overtones about workplace harassment, was apparently too ambitious for the “sweet little thing”.
Even when beloved male auteurs turned their attention to female friendship, their films were often not spared. When it comes to women, objectification is more common than nuance. In Howard Hawks’ classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the gold-digging comedy-musical sees its two showgirls turns men into ineffable fools. But a Time magazine reviewer misses the subtext in order to celebrate what he calls “the three-dimensional attractions of its two leading ladies”.
Unbelievably, the same kind of ogling seemed par for the course decades later, as reviews of Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1983) crow about Cher’s breasts rather than acknowledging the empathetic viewpoint Altman takes on her insecure obsession with her own body.
Thankfully, these days, there are greater numbers of female critics at work, and just as importantly, women-led programming initiatives that celebrate works that were once dismissed and ignored. Widespread critical appreciation for director-stars like Greta Gerwig – who has shown ample interest in the subject of female friendship throughout her career (Frances Ha, Mistress America, Ladybird) reveals some kind of sea-change. Unabashed adoration of Tiffany Haddish for her hilarious turn in last year’s Girls Trip also confirms a certain blurring of the line between films with female-heavy casts and supposed critical ‘seriousness’.
In 1978, Claudia Weill – director of sub-genre cornerstone Girlfriends – told NYT reporter Judy Klemesrud her thinking behind the making of that film. “What I tried to do was show that female friendship is as fragile, delicate, supportive, complex, nourishing, painful and difficult as a love affair,” she says.
Screening films that reveal those relationships is still a burgeoning process, and hopefully the critical perspective can diversify enough to match the artistry of the films being made. As for the ‘middlebrow’ feminine entertainments of times past, the current season should help to elevate these works for a younger, more switched-on set of viewers and critics.