If Hollywood is to change, it's women who'll change it

One of the year’s funniest lines comes from the movie Band Aid.

A woman (Zoe Lister-Jones) goes to the home of her creepy neighbor (Fred Armisen, at his out-there best), the sort of fellow whose demeanor suggests a backyard full of buried hitchhikers, and finds two gorgeous women relaxing in his living room.

When he’s out of earshot, she leans forward and asks: “Are you here of your own free will?”

I think of that line as I survey the bulging portfolio of reports alleging that powerful Hollywood men like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, and Brett Ratner — all of whom have denied the accusations — have used their positions as a springboard for the serial abuse of young women. The stories have depressing consistency — young women looking for a foothold in the industry, effectively (and sometimes literally) captive to male gatekeepers.

Are you here of your own free will?

Apparently, for women in Hollywood, the answer is often no.

Actor/writer/producer Brit Marling described the adverse economics that contributes to the power imbalance that feeds predatory behavior. Marling, who said she was harassed by Weinstein, wrote in the Atlantic: “Weinstein was a gatekeeper who could give actresses a career that would sustain their lives and the livelihood of their families. He could also give them fame, which is one of few ways for women to gain some semblance of power and voice inside a patriarchal world. They knew it. He knew it. Weinstein could also ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile — that’s also economic exile.”

In the face of these stories of alarmingly widespread abuse (recent names include Dustin Hoffman, who has apologized for his behavior), it’s perhaps helpful to note there is good news, and it starts, appropriately enough, with movies like Band Aid.

It’s one of three dozen or so movies, by my count, directed by women to be released on Philadelphia screens this year. That’s a depressingly low number of movies, but what’s key is that it’s a growing number, and that growth is encouraging. Even more encouraging, women like Lister-Jones (who not only starred in Band Aid, but directed and wrote the “free will” line) are using their positions of power and influence to hire other women. Lister-Jones aimed to hire an entirely female crew, and when she couldn’t find a woman for a technical job, she asked that a male employee mentor a female worker in the job.

It’s a trend.

For Novitiate, opening Friday, writer-director Maggie Betts hired a female editor, female cinematographer, and a largely female crew.

For Betts, making a movie about women at a convent, her reasons for hiring more women were artistic as much as economic.

“It wasn’t necessarily something I pursued for political reasons,” she said. “I was making a movie about a community of women, and it just seemed right to have a community of women making the movie. And it turned out to be the appropriate environment. It turned into a safe space for collaboration. There was a lot of camaraderie. Frankly, it’s just a lot of fun to work with other women.”

Whether by design or by chance, it’s happening more often. This year, Their Finest, directed by Lone Scherfig, featured a female screenwriter, editor, and composer for a story about a woman making her way in the men’s world of movie-making in wartime London.

Men are part of the movement, too – director William Oldroyd, making Lady Macbeth, worked to ensure that half of the folks hired to work on the film were women.

Betts is even rarer in the directorial universe, as an African American woman, as is Dee Rees, whose Mudbound opens Nov. 17 and will stream on Netflix. Betts said a more diverse talent pool was bound to make movies better.

“Women are minorities in the film business, and that motivates them,” she said. “I get that, because you have this kind of drive that makes you want to work harder, push yourself farther, because when you fail, you feel like your gender is failing.”

She cites her female director of photography, Kat Westergaard.

“If you think women are underrepresented as directors, believe me, they are even more underrepresented as DPs,” Betts said. “It’s a really tough job to convince people that a woman can handle what is perceived to be such a physical job. A camera is a big, heavy thing, and Kat is about 5-foot-4. But she does some of the best handheld work I’ve seen because she is so determined to convince people that she’s as good as any guy.”

Betts adds that it is not about pitting women against men — Westergaard works with a crew of devoted colleagues, all “big, burly guys,” and “they worship her. Because she’s so wonderful to work for, and with.”

There are more women like Betts and Westergaard taking control of their economic destinies.

Marling, for instance, now runs her own show, The OA, for Netflix. Good for her. And good for Sarah Polley, who wrote of her own run-in with Weinstein in the New York Times; after her tenure as a child actress, she has successfully transitioned to the director’s chair. Her most recent project finds her adapting Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace for Netflix. Angelina Jolie, who has said she was one of Weinstein’s victims, now writes and directs and produces her own movies. She’s executive producer of the animated movie The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey (The Secret of Kells), opening here Dec. 1.

“I kind of like the fight,” Betts said. “I don’t like inequality, but in a way I like the fact that people underestimate me, or the people I’m working with. Because you want to work extra hard to counter their biases about our capacity to do the job.”

Hollywood has a long, sorry, chronic history of “casting couch” abuse. So long and so chronic, you wonder about the efficacy of rehabbing away the psychosexual compulsions of certain men in positions of power.

Those men probably can’t be changed.

But they can be replaced.

Are you here of your own free will?

On more and more movie sets, run by more and more women, the answer is yes.

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