Hallelujah! In the fight for gender equality, Hollywood has finally advanced to the position it occupied in 1958. For the first time since then, the three highest-grossing movies in the US over a calendar year have women in leading roles. Brave Rey kicks bottom in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Belle is certainly the protagonist of Beauty and the Beast. Wonder Woman is about, well, Wonder Woman. We have come so far to get to where we once were.
Wonder Woman, which did less well outside the US, made it to only No 9 in the worldwide chart. Still enormous in China, Fast & Furious 8 – which, to be fair, had Charlize Theron towards the front of an ensemble – joined The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast in the global top three. Never mind that. Let's focus on the stat that's making all the headlines.
In 1958, Mitzi Gaynor bossed South Pacific, Rosalind Russell boomed through Auntie Mame and Elizabeth Taylor relegated Paul Newman to second billing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Yes, there was a time when Tennessee Williams adaptations made it into the top three.) Few analysts would have found this remarkable.
In the years around the second World War, actors such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Ingrid Bergman drew enormous audiences. There were, in 1958, no bigger movie stars than Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe. In the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Brothers made millions from the slippery nongenre that was the "women's picture". Future classics such as Now, Voyager and Mildred Pierce allowed their protagonists – often after a struggle – to be tougher, more resourceful and more charismatic than the men around them. The unfairly maligned Doris Day was, in Pillow Talk, encouraged to represent the modern career woman with ambitions beyond marriage (until Rock Hudson dragged her to her bedroom, anyway).
Unhappy hippy truths
What the heck happened? It took a while for the world to recognise what a firm hand the patriarchy kept on the counterculture. Speaking to The Irish Times this writerrecently, Karina Longworth, creator of the You Must Remember This podcast, described a female friend's experiences in the radical left during the hippy years. "At the end of the day I can't get him to do the dishes," she said of her hairy boyfriend.
That relatively trivial complaint reflected a wider attitude that ran through the film school generation in the 1960s. The men remained in control and expected their "old ladies" (who could be of any age) to make the coffee and clear away the roaches. Female actors did find some great roles in the cinema of the New Hollywood. Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist. Jane Fonda in Klute. But this remained more of a male universe than ever. Just look at the best picture winners from 1967 onwards: In the Heat of the Night, Oliver!, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather (and it goes on). Thanks a bunch, so-called postclassical Hollywood.
Just two years before the supposed revolution arrived, the winning picture was The Sound of Music. You can say what you like about that musical – by far the highest-grossing film of the decade, by the way – but you can't say it doesn't have a female lead. Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and George Cukor were rarely mistaken for feminists. They were, however, interested in women and, more businesslike than their successors, they understood that women's stories sold tickets.
The men who ran mainstream cinema over the following 40 years failed the female audiences and female talent. Last year, as the Weinstein revelations oozed about the media, we learned the depths of that betrayal. Nora Ephron revitalised the romantic comedy, only to see it degraded into the patronising "chick flick". Cinemagoers soon turned away and one of the great genres practically vanished. Now terrified by new media (an old story for Hollywood), the business seemed more wary of perceived risk than ever.
The success of the three behemoths listed above has confirmed what would have been obvious to Hawks, Cukor and Wilder. There is no greater risk in telling stories about women than there is in telling stories about men. A lesson has been belatedly relearned.
This is, however, no time for complacency. An emotionally challenged, weepy-eyed gang of boy babies is always ready to wet their nappies at any lurch towards gender equality. They organised a campaign to vote down The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes because it favoured female characters. They reacted to the all-female Ghostbusters as if Melissa McCarthy had shoved Lego up each of their orifices. They're online now, whining about men's rights and feminazis and Mary-Sues.
There are challenging, dangerous, painful ways of fighting back. There are also some less demanding strategies. Just go to the movies.