Women of the Movies: Winner and Shakers

This winter season, Hollywood has given us several movies by and about women, movies. These unusual women of the movies have heart and spirit, strength and sympathy, brains and fortitude, empathy and perseverance. Who’d a thunk it?

Oprah Winfrey, Golden Globe Awards, It's Time

Oprah Winfrey at Golden Globes

I guess, as actresses have recently pronounced, #ItsTime. Time for a change from scripts where the only female character is described as “Hot 20-something blonde with a Southern accent.” It’s past time we get to see plots that revolve around  something more grown up than (1) men shooting guns, (2) men beating one another up, (3) men dealing drugs or getting drunk, (4) men saving the world from aliens/demons/zombies/Transformers/monsters (4) a visit to a strip club or bar.

If you want to see an intense thought-provoking movie for adults that sends you out of the theater talking about meaning and message, any of the following will do. I have put them in order of my preference, however. If you want to read a full  review or a synopsis, go to IMDB (use the link) or Rotten Tomatoes. Here I simply discuss the women’s roles.

The Post

Wow. Meryl Street shines as Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post—and the first female newspaper publisher—in 1971. She didn’t ask for this job; it was dropped on here after the death by suicide of her husband, Philip Graham. A graduate of Vassar, she worked as a reporter for a few years before marrying. Her father willed the newspaper to Philp Graham, not to his daughter, and she settled into the life of a society matron who enjoyed hobnobbing with rich and powerful people.

The Pentagon Papers, Kay Graham, The Post, The Washington Post, women of the movies

Kay Graham makes the big decision

The decision on whether to follow the lead of the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers thrust her into a leadership role beyond anything she had ever experienced. Lacking in self confidence because of a condescending mother, Mrs. Graham had never been trained for either the job of publisher or such a momentous decision.

I cheered for her every time she walked into a room filled with men in suits who ignored her, condescended to her, spoke for her or told her what to do. Every working woman knows what that feels like.

You can see every emotion run across Meryl Streep’s face as she confronts the gravity of her choice to publish in the face of a furious and vindictive President Richard Nixon. Hope, fear, uncertainty, doubt, determination, anger, and sheer terror show themselves in a virtuoso display of acting.

Behind it, however, is the story of a woman stepping into a tough spot for which she was never prepared—and coming out it stronger and better. Hats off to both the late Kay Graham and Meryl Streep for this portrayal and for the role model it provides.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Frances McDormand rocks as Mildred, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered in a horrific fashion. Hell hath no fury like a mother whose child suffered great pain before being taken from her and Mildred harbors an all-consuming, barely controllable rage. The police have not, to her mind, done enough to find her daughter’s killer and bring him to justice.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbins Missouri, women of the movies, Frances McDormand

Mildred confronts authority

Both driven and haunted, Mildred keeps upping the ante in an effort to get action from a sheriff’s department that doesn’t seem to take her or her daughter’s murder very seriously. Like Kay Graham, she didn’t ask for this job and she takes no pleasure in it. Still, Mildred goes from pushing and prodding to breaking the law herself. She is willing to do whatever it takes, regardless of the consequences to her personally.

Not often do we get to see such a depiction: a warrior woman on a mission without sword or lance. Mildred is Ellen Ripley bent on justice. She is Wonder Woman in jeans and a bandana. She is an inspiration to us all.

The Shape of Water

In this sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, we meet Elisa Esposito, a woman silenced by trauma, who still manages to make her voice heard loud and clear. A maid on the night shift in a laboratory, she observes both man and monster but it’s difficult to tell which is which. The movie forces us to consider this proposition: If man is made in the image of God but behaves like a monster, while a creature that looks like a monster behaves like a god, where do good and evil reside?

The Shape of "Water, Sally Hawkins, the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Elisa and the Monster

The answer is that the divine spark lives within a person who looks like neither god nor monster.  As portrayed by Sally Hawkins, Elisa confronts authority in the form of Michael Shannon’s angry Richard Strickland, as he emphasizes that she fits the image of God somewhat less closely than he does.

Yet she is the one who extends the hand of goodness while he wields a “good ol’ Alabama cattle prod.” She sees intelligence where he finds an animal. And she steps in to save the monster from destruction wielded by a man who holds the ultimate authority.

Where Strickland acknowledges only her lowly job and her lack of speech, the monster sees the goodness within her. In return, she nourishes him.

Again, we have a woman who is unprepared for the task but who finds the readiness to act when the crisis arrives. I can’t say I understand the end of The Shape of Water but I found the journey—and the woman—fascinating.

Lady Bird

Here were have a high-school girl forging her own path to a greatness that may happen someday—and causing a truckload of upheaval as she does. Saoirse Rona’s Christine McPherson is very much a work in progress, insisting on being called Lady Bird for no particular reason and flouting authority in any form and at every turn.

Lady Bird, Marion, Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalfe

Marion confronts adversity

The critics and many viewers enjoyed this coming-of-age movie because they identified with Lady Bird’s struggle to find herself. I liked it somewhat less because I really identified with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Marion is doing the best she can to support her family in the face of a bad economy and a husband who is out of work. She gets no help from anyone, much less the self-absorbed Lady Bird.

For me, this movie was about a woman dealing with adversity, trying to keep the wheels on and terrified that every day will bring another bad thing to her family. Pulled in multiple directions by demands from all sides, she simply lacks the energy and attention span to deal with her rebellious daughter. She also can’t provide the guidance that Lady Bird doesn’t want but actually needs.

While most people applaud Lady Bird’s growth and success, I empathized with Marion. She kept the family together and did the best she could in difficult times. She was my hero because that’s what heroes do.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Who is the last Jedi? Is it remote and depressed Luke Skywalker or Rey, the abandoned orphan pulled into in the Rebellion by fate or necessity? Daisy Ridley’s Rey, like Mildred and Kay Graham, has not been prepared for the choices she has to make, the skills she must learn, the mantle she must wear or the conflict that engulfs them.

And yet, somehow, she does it all. She needn’t adopt an affectation, like demanding the people call her by a different name. Her challenges are all very real ones that force her to rise to the occasion.

Nothing stops Rey. Granted, SW:TLJ is space opera with no foundation in reality whatsoever. In space opera, one can operate a spaceship without any flight training, hold off a trained fighter using an unfamiliar energy sword, go from desert to freezing cold without putting on a coat, and talk with legendary figures without being tongue-tied.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rey, light saber, Luke Skywalker

Rey practices her light saber

Still, one must admire her tenacity, persistence, and determination. She does practice her light saber and confronts both Adam Driver’s mini-Vader and Mark Hamill’s defeatist Luke Skywalker with pluck and spirit.

All this may be over the top but I do love Rey. I just wish she would get something warmer to wear. A Jedi-in-training needs more than cropped pants, a tunic and a vest to save the galaxy, however far away.

Message to Hollywood: More movies about women like this, please.

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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