Commentary: Witherspoon, Ellison are changing movies |
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It will be a difficult to fill the slate of Best Actress nominees at the Academy Awards, given how few movies this year gave women significant screen time and rich, complex parts.

But two of the movies that have produced genuine contenders — David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” — have one thing in common: Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard.

Witherspoon, who was part of the Hollywood Reporter’s annual actress roundtable, told the magazine that her success as both a producer and a potential Best Actress contender (she stars as memoirist Cheryl Strayed in “Wild”) were the result of a recent decision: to stop waiting for other people to start making movies about interesting female characters.

“I can’t speak for other people. I just recognize that, about three years ago, I started seeing this complete lack of interesting female leads in film. First I got mad, really mad. And then I was like, “It’s nobody’s fault; if you’re not proactive about things …” I’d had a company before, but it was basically about trying to develop things that I would eventually be in,” Witherspoon said. “So I just switched the idea: If I can develop anything for any other women, I don’t care who it is; I just want my daughter to grow up seeing complex, interesting, nuanced women in film.

“So I started it with my own money — you know, the first thing people tell you is, ‘Don’t put your own money into anything’ — so I was like, ‘Is this really dumb?’ But I got a great partner (Bruna Papandrea) and the first two things I sent her were ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Wild.’ And those were the first books that we optioned.”

“Gone Girl” and “Wild” are tremendously different books, but the women at the center of both are undeniably different from almost anything anyone else in Hollywood regularly escorts to the screen. Lead female characters in each book — Amy Elliot Dunne and Cheryl Strayed — have gotten lost.

Amy, the brilliant, amoral creation of novelist Gillian Flynn, finds herself in Missouri, exiled from New York by an economic downturn that eliminated both her job and that of her husband, Nick, and Nick’s mother’s terminal illness, which drew him home. Cheryl, devastated by the death of her mother, wrecks her young marriage and loses herself in heroin and a series of doomed affairs.

“Gone Girl” is the story of how Amy finds her way back to herself by framing first her husband for her murder, and then her high-school boyfriend for rape. “Wild” is Cheryl Strayed’s rather more sedate story of a restorative hike on the Pacific Coast Trail, a trek that re-centered Cheryl in her own body and mind. Amy is a monster, while Cheryl is a literary book club heroine, but both books — and both movies — place their perspectives and opinions, uncomfortable and jarring as they may be, squarely at the center. It is women’s experiences who matter here.

Witherspoon is hardly the first woman to make this hike, of course. Her potential awards-season dominance recalls that of Megan Ellison (daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison), whose Annapurna Pictures production company has also turned out a reliable series of contenders and intelligent provocations. Annapurna Pictures movies tend to be less intrigued by the inner lives of women, and they are more likely than Pacific Standard films to have male main characters. But the women in movies Ellison makes never seem less than formidable and fascinating, even when they have to swipe the movie from a male co-star or lead.

Take Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”: Ostensibly it’s a movie about the relationship between the founder of a new religion, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his troubled acolyte (Joaquin Phoenix). Amy Adams makes an indelible impression as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s wife. Sexually controlling and theologically rigid, by the end of the movie, we get the sense that Peggy has not been sidelined by Dodd, but rather, that she prefers to exert her influence through him.

In “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s exploration of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Jessica Chastain turns in a similarly rigid, compelling performance as Maya, the lead analyst on the case. Maya is personally unpleasant and professionally excellent. At the end of the movie, it is impossible not to wonder what Maya will be without her quarry.

Even in less self-serious Annapurna-produced movies, women transcend stereotypes. The young hooligans of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” have turned an over-marketed college experience into a kind of consumerist religion that they pursue with fundamental zeal. And as Samantha, the artificial intelligence in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Scarlett Johansson provides a beautiful example of what it means to come intellectually alive, using only her voice.

That Ellison and Witherspoon’s companies have produced so many important movies so quickly says a great deal about the opportunities the rest of Hollywood is missing. And it is a sobering reminder of how little — and how much — it takes to make a quick and visible difference in pop culture. An actress’s long-percolating revelation, or the daughter of a tech titan’s good financial fortune end up being the difference between a Hollywood that has few good roles for women and one that has almost none. These are slim reeds on which to hang creative revolutions. If we want more good movies about female characters, it seems we are going to need more women with access to money and serious directors to get those projects rolling themselves.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

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