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I’ve often complained to John (who else?) about movies that give short shrift to women characters: buddy movies or comedies or action films where the women are merely decorative, warmly supportive of their men, and/or sexually available at convenient times. They get no funny lines and have no particular personalities. Talented actresses are always complaining about this — so few meaningful roles. 

I argue that creating weak minor characters should go in the debit column when we’re evaluating a film. It’s the screenwriter’s and the director’s responsibility to make all the characters as interesting and individual as possible. Vapid, cardboard cutouts in the place of living breathing women weaken a film, but too often critics and viewers don’t seem to notice.

Two recent movies demonstrate what I mean by developing  secondary characters effectively. It can be done! George Clooney is the centerpiece of Up in the Air, but the two female supporting characters, played by Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, get lots of screen time, and they’re funny and individualized and complicated. They help make the movie as entertaining and effective as it is.

Julie and Julia has, of course, two women characters at its center. Here the men take the supporting role. I would argue that in a typical popular film, where the men take center stage, their wives would be either treacly-submissive or witchy and unsympathetic. Nora Ephron’s screenplay (and, I assume Julie Powell’s book, though I haven’t read it) offers supportive spouses with amusing lines; they’re sympathetic, and they also have their own issues. This isn’t an art film with lots of complications, but these minor characters are beyond one-dimensional. They help make the movie partly about marriage. They’re not cliches, and male screenwriters could take a lesson from Ephron’s example.

One Comment

  1. This reminds me of The Rule, aka The Bechdel Test, aka The Mo Movie Measure. In a comic in 1985, Alison Bechdel had a character describe how she only watched movies that met three requirements: “One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” It’s depressing how few movies pass the test once you start thinking about it. I’m not sure if Up in the Air met the third requirement.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 1:59 am | Permalink

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