Attention, please, gentlemen: 2017’s Best Actresses are not taking any more of your shit.
It wasn’t planned this way. No one could have predicted the seismic events that hit Hollywood in the last quarter of 2017, beginning with Harvey Weinstein and continuing with seemingly everyone else. It’s much too soon for awards hopefuls to incorporate direct responses to these widely publicized reports of sexual misconduct in Hollywood. But it’s definitely not too soon for these movies to be about talented women who have been abused, crucified, or shoved aside by powerful men and even more powerful institutions. Because that’s been going on forever.
This awards season, Meryl Streep has Oscar buzz for her role in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. That’s hardly surprising, because she garners Oscar buzz even when the movie she’s in is awful (and sometimes, even wins an Oscar for it). This year, though, her role is particularly in step with newsy events, both surrounding female subjugation in male-dominated industries and the political role of the American press. Frances McDormand, meanwhile, portrays a woman who takes on the local police department and a sexual predator in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and she certainly doesn’t play nice.
Both women are all but guaranteed Oscar nominations this winter. But in a particularly stacked race, it’s too early to know if Meryl will go home with her fourth Oscar, or McDormand with her second. Set aside these Academy-beloved frontrunners, and there are still plenty of award-worthy female performances this year, from Sally Hawkins playing mute in the fish-out-of-water romance The Shape Of Water to the simmering Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread. Or, if the Academy is looking to continue the themes of women fed up with The System, Frances and Meryl may share the wealth with the leading ladies of Lady Bird, Molly’s Game, and I, Tonya.
Jessica Chastain has been nominated twice, for The Help and Zero Dark Thirty. It’s only a matter of time before the right role comes along for her win — and in many ways, Molly’s Game feels like that sort of role. Molly Bloom is an Olympic skiing hopeful who takes a nasty fall, dashing her dreams. Instead, she ends up doing bottle service at a swanky club in Los Angeles, which leads to a gig as an assistant to… some asshole. (The movie fictionalizes several real-life assholes.)
As a side hustle, Molly manages her boss’ elite poker game for movie stars and other Los Angeles power players. When her boss tries to fuck her over, she makes off with his players, setting up a cushy club in a Four Seasons suite. Molly runs her business well, and legally, though at a high risk to her financial security. Eventually, some of the young Hollywood bad boys in her ranks start to get greedy. (Michael Cera plays an amalgam of them, supposedly based primarily on Tobey Maguire.) Then Molly ups the ante with a higher-stakes game in New York, where some of her players are Russian mobsters. Molly attempts to stay out of their business, but it’s not that easy.
That’s why she needs Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a high-priced, highly moral lawyer who rejects her because she’s written a pulpy tell-all book about her dealings. Charlie thinks Molly is sleazy — because her book was sold that way, and the media ran with it. What Charlie soon discovers is that Molly has serious scruples despite her somewhat provocative attire. She was done wrong by the media and the FBI. It’s on him to keep her out of prison and save her from financial ruin.Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, and you can tell. The heavily fictionalized biopics The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs were Sorkin’s words filtered through a filmmaker’s vision. His tics and trademarks were evident, but there was a little something else in the mix. Molly’s Game is pure, unadulterated Sorkin — so unadulterated, you can practically hear him chuckling at his keyboard after every clever line. (There are many.)
That sounds more obnoxious than it is. Sorkin’s recent films have centered on men, though all had at least one sharply-written female character. In Molly, Sorkin has found an even more fitting protagonist to channel his words through, one who feels like she’d be right at home on any one of Sorkin’s TV shows. The men of Sorkin’s recent output are “problematic,” which is a nice way of saying they’re jerks. Molly isn’t much softer, but her edge is justified by all the shit she’s had to put up with at every turn of her life. Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Beane, and Steve Jobs were privileged white men who could get away with being complete assholes to a whole lot of people. That’s expected of a man with a vision. Women, however, have to play nice on the way to obtaining a position of power. Even then, they must choose their battles. This is Molly’s.
There are three patriarchal antagonists in Molly’s Game — the Russian mafia, the United States government, and the boys’ club of Hollywood. (Timely much?) Molly tosses off one triumphant zinger after the next, clearing a place for herself in a man’s world. This is bound to elicit laughter and cheers from moviegoers who are fed up with white men abusing their power in law enforcement and/or the entertainment industry, which is a hell of a lot of people right now. With vile supervillains like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein dominating 2017’s news cycle, it’s easy to root for an intelligent, ambitious woman and her savvy but conscientious black lawyer. Today’s headlines are basically served up on a silver platter throughout the film.
At the same time, Molly’s Game wasn’t written in reaction to today’s politics. It was made months before Weinstein’s dirty secrets came spilling out in the national news, which holds Molly’s Game back from being the rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing “fuck you, Harvey” we’d all like to see. Watching Molly’s Game in the era of movie star op-eds calling out Hollywood monsters, it’s easy to feel a little let down that Molly doesn’t go for vengeance where vengeance is deserved. Ultimately, it’s probably a good thing for Molly’s Game as a film overall — if there’s a film about a strong woman taking on Washington and/or Hollywood, I’m not sure I want it to be written and directed by Sorkin — but it’s landing in theaters in a weird moment.
The real clincher is a double-dose of Sorkin’s trusty father-daughter issues, mercifully absent from The Social Network (Sorkin’s best film to date). Steve Jobs and Moneyball both centered on flawed genius fathers and their precocious daughters. Their endings were layered in schmaltz that felt shoehorned into “true” stories. Daughters helped to humanize the demanding dads in Steve Jobs and Moneyball, but they were our protagonists; arguably, we had to like them at least a little bit. When the story comes from the daughter’s perspective, however, we don’t need Dad swooping in to make things right. Kevin Costner plays Molly’s father, who provides a good catalyst for Molly’s ambition and a not-so-good jumble of exposition to wrap it up near the end. Like Sorkin’s Jobs and Beane, Larry Bloom is kind of an asshole. Molly would probably be better off without his intervention. (There’s also a bit about Larry filming his teen daughter in a bikini on her birthday that goes strangely unremarked upon.)
Molly’s Game is a fantastically funny dramedy with a handful of tender moments thrown in. It’s great entertainment, and if you squint, you can see the Oscars it might have won in another year. Chastain’s performance has an Erin Brockovich bravura, which is only somewhat diminished by the fact that she played an identical character in last year’s would-be Oscar bait, Miss Sloane. In a year of great female performances, Chastain’s is likely to fall just outside the Oscar endzone. Sorkin has written a terrific female character, but in Molly’s Game he has dipped into the well of daddy issues one too many times. It’s a bad time for a film that asks its heroine to protect and forgive her abusers, even if Molly’s Game does so with a great deal of panache.
I, Tonya tells another story of an Olympics hopeful who gets screwed over by the men in her life, but it takes a much clearer stance on how we’re supposed to feel about these jerks, and that helps. I, Tonya has a rather shocking amount of plot points in common with Molly’s Game — both are stories of young female athletes, pushed by a demanding (and sometimes even cruel) parent to be the best of the best. Both girls grow up to be strong-willed women who refuse to bend to society’s expectations of the fairer sex. Both find themselves in a legal quagmire that is, according to these filmmakers, only kind of their fault. Both scripts are full of punchy one-liners. Both are based on real women who were ridiculed and scorned by the American media. Both shrewdly meld drama and comedy, defying classification. Both protagonists directly address the audience through the film. Tonya and Molly would either really get along or kill each other, based on how they’re portrayed in these films.
I, Tonya, of course, is based on a more famous media villain than Molly Bloom — Tonya Harding, who was implicated in a vicious (but bumbling) attack on her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. The story was everywhere in 1994, and Harding quickly became a punchline. Ask most people what went down between Harding and Kerrington, and they’d probably still say it was a catfight, a jealous rage. That’s the kind of story that sells newspapers (in 1994, anyway). But guess what? The truth was not accurately reflected by the 24/7 news media, shockingly enough. I, Tonya makes the brilliant decision to eliminate Kerrigan from its narrative. We catch glimpses of Kerrigan, but nothing hints at enmity with Tonya. Instead, Harding’s on again, off again husband Jeff Gillooly and his dim bulb buddy Shawn Eckhardt are the hapless masterminds behind an operation Tonya barely knew or cared about. All she really wanted was to skate.
Steven Rodgers’ screenplay doesn’t turn Tonya Harding into a victim, permitting other characters to contradict her version of the truth at every turn. (It’s based on real-life interviews with Tonya and Jeff, who disagree on many points.) The film refuses to pity Tonya Harding, though it humanizes her better than media clips of the real-life Harding ever did. This woman had literally everything working against her, and still fought her way damn close to the top. I, Tonya puts us in the position to admire Tonya’s grit and determination, even if we don’t necessarily like her.
As directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya has as much energy as the rebellious skater herself. The skating scenes are dazzling, trading any sense of prettiness or propriety to show us Tonya as a true athlete. The scenes are as electrifying as any football or boxing scene in a male-centric sports film. At the same time, I, Tonya comes off as intentionally messy with its ADD-soundtrack and sporadic fourth wall-breaking. It’s almost as if scrappy Tonya and her not-so-competent companions made the movie themselves (which, in a way, they did, since so much of it is based on actual footage — even the parts that seems too funny to be true).
Tonya’s husband Jeff veers wildly between clueless and monstrous. Sebastian Stan plays the character as a good-hearted, sensitive dude even when he’s beating the shit out of his wife. He’s charming enough to let us understand how Tonya can stand living with him, and how he can live with himself. (Jeff would probably consider himself a feminist.) Paul Walter Houser, as Tonya’s self-proclaimed bodyguard, is a riot in the film’s second half. Both Jeff and Shawn are idiots — so stupid that they’re actually dangerous. As they go forward with the plan to harass Kerrigan, neither of them even considers the repercussions for Tonya. They expect everything to go smoothly, because they’re men intervening in a sissy sport. It’s not hard to see how any self-centered domestic abuser might stumble down this path to worldwide infamy. (And over 20 years later, he still mostly feels sorry for himself.)
As Tonya’s mother LaVona, Allison Janney is terrifying, tragic, ruthless, delightful, and a frontrunner to win Best Supporting Actress. I, Tonya shows us how LaVona both drove her daughter to be the fighter she is and set her up to be a perpetual victim. She creates a competitor in Tonya who won’t take no for an answer, then constantly tells her she’s not good enough to succeed. Tonya is doomed to forever fight her hardest and still wind up feeling like a loser. It’s LaVona who willed men like Jeff and Shawn into her daughter’s life. We see her watch Tonya skating on TV, but we never learn whether LaVona wants her daughter to win a gold medal or fall flat on her face. Confrontations between Tonya and LaVona are some of 2017’s most riveting scenes. Tonya nails the landing of its parent-child dynamic, where Molly wobbles a bit.
Margot Robbie thrills from start to finish — her Tonya is one of the most lived-in, authentic screen characters of 2017. She plays Tonya like a rock star robbed of her moment — which is more or less how the real Tonya depicts her downfall, when we hear it in her own words. Tonya Harding had every reason to believe that she was trash — her mother beat that into her, and so did Tonya’s peers and the judges who preferred their skaters dainty with disposable income. Jeff Gillooly briefly made her feel like she deserved something better, before he started hitting her. She rarely caught a lucky break.
Tonya is, in part, to blame for returning to Jeff, over and over. But where else could she go? A poor young woman without an education in the 1980s and 90s doesn’t exactly have a wealth of options available, so she tried to make so with the one thing she could do better than anyone else. But being the best isn’t always rewarded. Tonya is told she doesn’t have the right “image” for an Olympic medalist, though her skating is unparalleled. (She was the first female to land a triple axle.) No one ever listens to what she has to say. Even when she becomes one of the most famous people in the world (for all the wrong reasons), she’s voiceless. I, Tonya corrects the error we collectively made and finally lets Tonya tell her side of the story in her own fucking words.
The film is smart enough not to accept everything Tonya Harding says at face value. It pokes fun at her version of events sometimes, and Gillooly gets his share of the narrative (though neither portrait is very flattering). I, Tonya was never meant to set the record straight on what did or did not happen behind the scenes of Nancy Kerrigan’s attack, though some pretty stupid men are largely responsible any way you cut it. I, Tonya‘s Tonya is tough as nails even when she’s playing the victim. Like Molly Bloom, Tonya stands to lose everything she’s worked so incredibly hard for thanks to the carelessness and greed of a few shitty men. But Tonya’s much more flawed than even “edgy” female protagonists are allowed to be, rendered with warts-and-all humanity not attempted in Erin Brockovich or Molly’s Game. Maybe Tonya deserves Olympic gold, maybe she doesn’t — Rodgers and Gillespie allow that to be complicated, when most female-led dramas will make it clear that our protagonist is in the right.
Women who seriously fuck up and don’t apologize for it are too rare on the big screen. I, Tonya sheds some light on a media villain, showing that the human beneath is both better and worse than we’ve seen on TV. Capable of extraordinary things and restrained by ordinary prejudices, Tonya Harding is so many women in America, scrutinized and scorned thanks to the hypocrisy of privileged white men. Though on its surface it feels a bit less topical than Molly’s Game, the correlation rings truer here, especially as it throws issues of class into the mix. Tonya is as much a victim of her “poor white trash” status as she is of her husband or the media. Even in this moment of tremendous confrontation with male abusers, the voices we’re hearing are those of famous, wealthy, powerful women. The attack on Kerrigan is the only reason we still know the name Tonya Harding.
Too many Americans refuse to listen when a woman speaks, and choose not to hear her story. They prefer the narrative they’ve been fed. Women have to play nice to avoid being crucified — and even then, that’s no guarantee. The collective voices of 19 women accusing a presidential candidate of sexual misconduct weren’t loud enough to drown out one very obnoxious male voice. Harvey Weinstein would have lost his job decades ago if the playing field were level. Check out the comments of any story related to Weinstein for proof. They’re filled with vitriol for the women he blacklisted, belittled, and raped. Men and women refer to the actresses speaking out against Weinstein as “sluts” and “whores” who got what they deserved. That’s the same treatment Tonya got from the American public.
I, Tonya serves up a story of a woman being abused — by her mother, by her husband, by us — in a way that forces us to pay attention. It’s snappy and smart, with Tonya addressing the audience directly to make sure they’re hearing her words. The film’s rapid-fire pacing and laugh-out-loud comedy disguise how different and daring this subject matter is, how rarely we get to see a film like this. Robbie and Janney are serious threats in the Oscar race, ironically giving Harding one last shot at the gold.
If she’s serious about winning, though, Robbie might want to consider breaking Saoirse Ronan’s kneecaps, because few films have more Oscar potential than the glowingly-received Lady Bird. I, Tonya is a step up from Molly’s Game in its depiction of a flawed female, telling Tonya Harding’s story using her own words — but Lady Bird is the 2017 film that checks all the boxes.
That’s because Lady Bird is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and though it isn’t a “true story” in the way that Molly’s Game and I, Tonya are, itis based heavily on Gerwig’s own upbringing. Lady Bird doesn’t just use Gerwig’s own words as inspiration. It is comprised entirely of her words, viewed through her eyes; it’s her story.
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has rechristened herself “Lady Bird,” and insists that the new moniker be taken seriously. It isn’t. (If you’ve ever tried changing your name, you’ll appreciate her struggle.) She’s a typical high school student who doesn’t realize she’s typical yet. Lady Bird believes she’s destined for adventure and romance merely because she wants those things — or at least more excitement than a lower-middle class upbringing in Sacramento circa 2003 has provided. Lady Bird puts little effort into schoolwork and is rather fickle in her passions, but she figures that the mundanity of her current life means there’s a better one waiting for her elsewhere. She’s every teenager yearning to break out of the suburbs, and while this feels like an outrageous rebellion in her own tiny world, her story is a lot more common than she thinks.
That’s what makes Lady Bird such a gem. Gerwig has no pretenses about reinventing the coming-of-age film. She’s aware that, on paper, the story she’s telling is average in every way. Though specific to her own experiences, Gerwig’s teen proxy is also universally relatable to anyone who’s ever been ashamed of where they came from, dreamed of a better life in a far-off city, given a longtime best friend the cold shoulder for no good reason, fought with their parents, or invested way too much emotion in the wrong guy. So, yeah… everybody.
Lady Bird sets her sights on the bright lights of New York City, of course, as many young girls do. She gets into musical theater at her all-girls Catholic school based on a suggestion from Sister Sarah Jane (the delightful Lois Smith). Lady Bird takes the school’s Sondheim production seriously on the surface, but that’s more about the aesthetics than dedication to the craft. She doesn’t really want to be an actress — she just wants to be on stage, with an audience listening to what she has to say, enabling her to feel like she’s transcended her unassuming roots.
Anyone who knows Gerwig’s previous work will find plenty of familiarity here. In some ways, Lady Bird is a prequel to Frances Ha and Mistress America, the movies Gerwig co-write with Noah Baumbach (she starred, he directed). It’s always been clear that Gerwig puts a lot of herself into these characters — her love for (and disappointment with) New York, her enthusiasm for vibrant experiences, a sly self-critique about the perils of being too ambitious. The characters Gerwig creates come up short on humility, but the matter-of-fact way Gerwig presents them means she’s got enough.
Frances Ha was amongst my favorite films of 2013. Mistress America was my favorite film of 2015, an uncomfortably funny examination of a woman at an awkward stage in her life — the uncertain moment between her careless twenties and a begrudging acceptance of adulthood. Frances Halladay is grinding through the last few years of a reckless youth in Frances Ha, fumbling through life while it’s still cute. In Mistress America, she’s Brooke, a few years older but no more accomplished, still desperately clinging to her youth without realizing it’s gone already. In that film, Brooke is examined through the eyes of an eighteen year old girl who both worships and pities her. Gerwig clearly sees herself in both characters — it’s almost as if her self-examination has gotten so precise that she needed to invent the younger Tracy to voice critiques she has of herself.
I feel more comfortable now giving Gerwig most of the credit for these characters, because Gerwig has now written and directed Lady Bird all by herself, and it’s the same vision that’s been channeled through Baumbach all along. Frances and Brooke and Lady Bird aren’t literally the same character, but it’s obvious that parts of Lady Bird will evolve into Frances and then devolve into Brooke. Gerwig observes each of these phases so sharply, it’s impossible to believe she didn’t live them herself. As much as I love Baumbach’s portrayal of these Gerwig-esque women, there’s something awfully refreshing about Gerwig finally telling her story on her own.
Lady Bird McPherson doesn’t defy gender norms or challenge the system in the way Molly Bloom and Tonya Harding do. The boys of Lady Bird are emotional obstacles to overcome, no more or less significant than cutting words from your mother or a squabble with a lifelong friend. Lady Bird‘s meta-narrative, on the other hand, is Gerwig stepping out of Baumbach’s shadow and declaring herself a true artist, which she’s been all along. It’s not Lady Bird, but the real-life Gerwig, who ascends so triumphantly from this story.
Lady Bird is deceptively simple in its writing and direction. It’s casual to the point of feeling tossed off, but on closer examination this story is crafted oh-so-carefully, without missing a mark. Laurie Metcalf, as Lady Bird’s tough love mother, is the favorite to win Best Supporting Actress, though Janney’s much worse mother won’t go down without a fight. Ronan has the best shot at swiping that fourth Oscar from Meryl Streep. Best of all, Gerwig will almost certainly be nominated for her screenplay, and stands a good chance at breaking into the male-dominated Best Director category. Kathryn Bigelow is still the only female winner in those rinks, and she earned it by making movies a man would make. Lady Bird, on the other hand, is decidedly a female’s vision of a female’s world, though easily accessible by men, too. It feels like the perfect year for a woman to finally tell her own story, and have everyone in Hollywood listen up.
Are you listening?