Documentary Review: For Women in Hollywood, “This Changes Everything”

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Damned data.

You can sit back — if you’re say, Hollywood — and claim that gender discrimination on the screen, behind the screen, writing the stories that fill the screen and signing off on the checks that feed the entertainment beast, “went away” with the culture-shifting movements and legislation of the past 50 years.

And then the hard, naked numbers stare you in the face and show you that’s just not true.

In 2018, 85% of the top 100 movies were scripted by men, 92% of the directors of the top 250 films were male.

Go on down the filmdom food chain — four of five narrators of TV and film are male, one in four lead characters in your typical movie are female.

Put down the data and watch those movies and TV shows. The vast majority of female characters are peripheral. On film and on TV, “the women are in orbit around the men.”

There has been progress. A few years of pro-active hiring practices raised the number of female members of the Directors Guild of America from one or two percent, to 15 percent. A burst, here and there, of “Let’s get more female screenwriting voices on the screen,” more women directors, etc., may last a year or three.

A movie like “Thelma & Louise” comes along, or a “Wonder Woman,” TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” blow up, and the media covering Hollywood use the magic phrase.

“This Changes Everything.” Only it almost never does.

Here’s a documentary that lays the whole problem out, from identifying the injustice to suggesting “action” steps that could rectify it. “This Changes Everything” features a sea of female faces and voices, Oscar winners in front of the camera, shakers and movers behind it, and many, many women who say their careers were curtailed because of the sexism that relegated them to second class citizens in a business that, in turn, passes that status on in the on-screen role models it serves up for America and the world to emulate.

Geena Davis, a president on TV, an Oscar winner and a driving force in gathering much of the data we have on the vast scope of this problem, opens Tom Donahue’s movie by remembering her first big screen break. She was up for a part where “She had to look good in her underwear” and Davis had been in Victoria’s Secret catalog.

That landed her in “Tootsie.” “”The very first thing I shot was in my underwear, with Dustin (Hoffman).”

Taraji P. Henson notes how she kept her mouth shut at the sort of subservient “in the hood” roles she was offered at the beginning of her career, how she’s never met a female cinematographer on the set.

Meryl Streep breaks down and critiques her somewhat self-scripted turn in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” trying to make more of a believable character out of someone who didn’t have the same gender as the writer, director or anybody else with authority on the set.

Actress turned #MeToo activist Rose McGowan notes how she can’t watch much of the work she was offered, and wouldn’t advise little girls to, either. She figured out, “This movie is not MADE for you…You see yourself through the eyes of the male camera operator…When I think I’m acting, it’s really the camera just panning across my ass.”

Natalie Portman acknowledges being turned into an object onscreen while footage of her first film, “The Professional,” plays over her complaint.

Reese and Marisa, Tiffany and Cate, Sandra Oh and many, many others echo the sentiment, “We have been ‘otherized’ by men.”

And on and on “This Changes Everything Goes,” a mountain of evidence presented that Hollywood has both had a huge hand in objectifying and marginalizing women in America, and that it practices that marginalization off-camera as well.

Most people will be shocked to discover that it wasn’t always this way. Women writers, directors and stars were consigned largely to the background, beginning with the very expensive advent of sound, when Eastern and Western bankers — all male — provided the money to convert the studios and got both a piece of the action and a big role in providing the direction the movie business went in.

The Depression Era rise of guilds and unions closed more doors, as those who were still working balked at letting women dilute their hiring pool.

But all that data and that history — a 1980s lawsuit to force change is remembered — takes a back seat to the tidal wave of women on and off camera who hammer home the point that as Davis puts it, “If she can see it, she an be it.”

Putting women in meatier roles provides role models for young women to look up to. Why are half the forensic pathologists in America female? Marg Helgenberger played the hell out of one in a big role on TV’s original “C.S.I.”

Davis recalls her archery instructor telling her about how business for teachers like him, and bow and arrow sellers, blew up when the Disney cartoon “Brave” and “The Hunger Games” movies burst on the scene.

You probably don’t need this film to remind you that women have been so thoroughly marginalized or sexualized, even in children’s TV and animated films, that little girls have become “self-sexualized” as early as six by being exposed to this, since birth.

“This Changes Everything” asserts that sexual harassment culture is built on this, and not just in Hollywood — McGowan declares that “there is no human resources department” when it comes to “protecting yourself on the set.”

The gargantuan disparity between male characters’ screen time and lines can be measured, now, film by film, TV show by TV show. There’s an algorithm that can apply the Bechdel-Wallace Test to any film or TV series, proving without a doubt, how included or excluded female characters are in a given project.

Donahue’s film goes down the rabbit hole on a few subjects, which cause the film to drift a bit, almost to the point of mission creep. It tends to lean most heavily on the directing ranks, even though actresses are the vast bulk of its eyewitnesses.

But then we’re forced to consider the careers circumscribed by talented filmmakers simply not being able to get work because the default mode of every network, studio and production house was to not give a Julie Dash or Kimberly Peirce a thought.

I watched Patty Jenkins direct the Oscar-winning “Monster” here in Orlando, got the sense that the producers were doing their utmost to limit her power, and wondered, for years, if she’d ever get another shot at big screen glory. Then “Wonder Woman” came along.

Examples of this have been out there in the open, all along. Maybe this moment and this movie about it will make being ignored or passed over for reasons that have nothing to do with experience and craft rare.

Maybe “This Changes Everything.” One can only hope.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Marisa Tomei, Meryl Streep, Sandra Oh, Tiffany Haddish, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Rosario Dawson, Mira Nair, Reese Witherspoon, Rashida Jones, Catherine Hardwicke, Heather Graham

Credits: Directed by Tom Donahue  A Good Deeds release.

Running time: 1:35

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