We’re still picking through all the data that Hannah Anderson and Matt Daniels uncovered this month in their study of onscreen spoken words by gender. The short version is that men get to talk a lot more than women do in movies overall, and it’s a rare film indeed that gives women more time to speak than the men.
We thought it’d be fun and educational to take a look at the thirteen films (among the thousands of notable examples they surveyed) whose original screenplays were most female-focused. We found a few relationship dramas, naturally some lesbian stories, surprisingly only one out-and-out comedy, and a whole lot of horror. (Offhand, we’re not sure how the survey missed The Women, but we’ll follow its lead.)
We’ve already taken a look at movies where women lead, but men still do all the talking, but here are 13 Movies Where Women Rule The Screen.
13. The Craft (1996)
Last year, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that The Craft was up for a remake, and that this time it’d have a female director. It’s understandable that producers would look to this movie to help sate the growing demand for female-centered stories, and not just because the only male character (deservedly) dies halfway through: it’s a horror cult classic with a relatable hook.
The story is set at a Catholic girls’ school where a new student falls in with three would-be witches. While all four practice magic, power soon overwhelms whatever moral fiber the other witches ever had, making their deadly three-on-one battle with Sarah all but inevitable. Think Melissa Joan Hart’s Sabrina, but with an R rating.
12. Grandma (2015)
Grandma features Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in 27 years as Elle, a lesbian poet who recently lost her life partner, driving her granddaughter Sage around in a 1955 Dodge Royal. They’re seeking $630 for Sage’s abortion, or about 0.15% of what it cost to make the movie, which it made back about 12 times over. (It helped that Tomlin actually owned that car.)
Along the way, they interact with the baby daddy, Elle’s ex-husband, Sage’s mother and Elle’s more recent fling, but this is chiefly a study of the relationship between the two of them and how such a relationship can enrich both young and old lives. And don’t worry, nobody spends too much time reciting actual poetry.
11. Easy A (2010)
It may be inspired by The Scarlet Letter, but the teen comedy Easy A is more interested in the rumor mill that Hester Prynne had to face than anything like what Dimmesdale and Chillingworth got up to. When Olive is slut-shamed, she decides to lean into the new identity her classmates have assigned her, not by sleeping around (she’s still a virgin) but by pretending to for unselfish reasons, mostly to give bragging rights to boys who are shy losers or closeted homosexuals.
The story is an interesting twist on the usual teen-rumor satires and its 18th-century source material, and it cemented Emma Stone’s star status, even though it does borrow more than a little from teen comedies older than Stone was.
10. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
The first feature film directed by a black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman is a pretty autobiographical effort from Cheryl Dunye (who also wrote and starred), with the awkward triangle between the main character, her lover and her best friend making up most of the story.
But the main character’s obsession – a black lesbian from Philadelphia like herself who starred in 1930s cinema – is entirely fictional. “The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.”
9. 3 Women (1977)
Roger Ebert’s favorite film of 1977, 3 Women got its story, locations and casting from a series of dreams Robert Altman had, and the director-writer-producer had a powerful enough friend at 20th Century Fox to make his dreams reality. Even so, it’s the kind of film that wouldn’t have gotten made if Fox hadn’t been rolling in Star Wars money just then.
The film focuses on assertive, talkative Millie and shy, awkward Pinky (Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek) with a little side interest in their landlords, the ex-cowboy Edgar and his wife Willie. By the time it’s over, Millie and Pinky have swapped personalities a couple of times, Edgar is out of the picture due to a “gun accident,” and the 3 women are living together in an apartment apparently made entirely of 1970s lesbian subtext.
8. Heavenly Creatures (1994)
It didn’t quite make Peter Jackson’s career, but Heavenly Creatures proved he could do something other than snarky gore. This true-crime story involved two teenage girls falling under each other’s spell until, when one of their mothers gets ready to move the family out of state, it seems like the most sensible thing in the world to murder Mom so they can stay together.
Despite the lurid, Lifetime-y central plot, the movie is hallucinatory and almost lyrical in its approach and captures – to both gentle and horrific effect – how much one person can come to mean to another in the awkward adolescent years. Most of the locations are accurate to the real-life events, though when they got to the location of the murder, the filmmakers got a little freaked out and shot it a few hundred feet away instead.
7. The Help (2011)
The highest-grossing (and highest-profile) movie on this list and the second to star Emma Stone, The Help deals with being black and female in Civil Rights-era Jackson, Mississippi, which often meant being a maid, and the maids’ efforts, hand in hand with a white journalist, to promote their better treatment. The civil-rights struggle plays out almost entirely in the social strata only women occupied at the time.
Viola Davis could’ve carried the movie all by herself, but she has plenty of (don’t say “help,” don’t say “help”) support: she, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer were all nominees, with Spencer taking the prize. Was this really just four years before #OscarsSoWhite?
6. Agnes of God (1985)
A dead baby showing up in a nun’s bedroom sounds like the setup to a bad joke, but Agnes of God has loftier ambitions, even if it never quite achieves them. Jane Fonda, as court psychiatrist Martha Livingston, has the uncomfortable job of deciding whether Sister Agnes is fit to stand trial, with the nuns’ Mother Superior trying to block any investigation that might compromise Agnes’ innocence. Considering someone must have killed that baby and Agnes gave birth to it, it seems likely that ship has already sailed.
When the story was a well-regarded stage play, its ambiguity left critics feeling challenged; as a film, though, those ambiguities don’t really translate. Fonda’s best interaction as an actress is with the non-toxic, tobacco-free reed cigarettes she uses to play a chain-smoker.
5. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)
Maybe don’t see this one just before or just after hiring any nannies. Or if you do, make sure your nanny isn’t secretly the widow of the monster whom your testimony, broadcast without your knowledge, helped drive to suicide. That’s the mistake Claire makes, and her new hire, “Peyton Flanders,” AKA, Mrs. Mott, AKA The Aforementioned Hand That Rocks the Cradle, has great fun trying to wreck her relationship with her kids, her gardener, her would-be fiancé, and the best friend.
4. Martyrs (2008)
It’s somewhat disturbing how many of these films are horror films (How many times does Hollywood only pass the Bechdel test with flying colors if one of those colors is blood red?), but none are more disturbing – or polarizing – than Martyrs. Like the first Saw and Hostel, Martyrs is either torture porn, violent victimization as high art, or somewhere in between, depending on who you talk to.
It involves a cult that thinks the way to unlock the secrets of heaven is to create martyrs on Earth (via torture, naturally). One of their victims, grown to adulthood, seeks revenge and, in a sense, gets it. But as the title implies, there are no real winners in this movie. Except the studios: this French film is being remade for an American audience this year.
3. Precious (2009)
Suppose you don’t have time to see The Help, Martyrs and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and you want your uplifting tale of female black identity, horrific abuse and twisted domestic life all in one 110-minute package. If you want it ultimately uplifting like The Help but with an opening act that seems almost as nihilistic as Martyrs, then Precious is the film for you.
Precious has never known a life without physical, mental and sexual abuse from both parents, and is on her second pregnancy when she learns to read, learns what her mother really is, and learns that her life doesn’t have to be this way. Formerly known as Precious, Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, but everybody agrees that was a bad idea now.
2. Now and Then (1995)
At last we come to the two films whose scripts were 100% female-spoken (although that’s rounded: guys still get a line or two.) In this paean to youth, four kids (including a token overweight one) who grow astonishingly close in a very short span of time discover a dead body that changes their views of life forever. If that makes Now and Then sounds just like Stand by Me, well, you’re not the only one to think so.
Reviewers weren’t too kind: it has a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, the worst score of any of these films (compare with 96% for 3 Women and 100% for The Watermelon Woman). But then, Hollywood just hasn’t released too many examples of this sort of film that’s focused on girls growing up together, so those who came of age with this coming-of-age story still fondly remember it 20 years later. (#90skids)
1. The Descent (2006)
Six women (including Sarah, marked by tragedy, and her seemingly fearless ex-best friend Juno) go spelunking in an unmarked, unmapped series of caves and discover… things below the surface. Hungry things. Yep, it’s another horror flick, but The Descent is at least a skillful example of the genre, not least because of the complex web of relationships the six get to show off before the “crawlers” – and their own distrust and panic – start to whittle their numbers down.
The Descent got great reviews for a horror movie and easily made back its budget, so a disappointing (and more gender-balanced) sequel was as inevitable as rocks falling.
Let us know if we missed any great female-focused movies in the comments!
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