MIKE AT THE MOVIES: Four New Films, Four Female Directors

It wasn’t that long ago when the only place you’d find women on a Hollywood movie set was in front of the camera acting, not behind it calling the shots. 

There were some notable outliers: Ida Lupino parlayed her success as a tough, sexy leading lady during the 1940s into a role as director of eight films, beginning with 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker. Penny Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own) and Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless) successfully navigated studio politics during the 1980s and ’90s to find work directing, but their options were limited and their employment sporadic.

International cinema offered more opportunities for women to make the movies they wanted. Lina Wertmüller went from assisting Federico Fellini to writing and directing a series of provocative films of her own, and in 1977, she became the first woman ever nominated in the Best Director category for Seven Beauties. New Zealand’s Jane Campion became the second for her 1993 film The Piano. Neither woman won.

Since then, only five other women have cracked that exclusive club: Sofia Coppola for 2003’s Lost in Translation, Kathryn Bigelow for 2009’s The Hurt Locker, Greta Gerwig for 2019’s Little Women, Emerald Fennell for 2020’s Promising Young Woman, and Chloé Zhao for last year’s Nomadland. Two of those women – Bigelow and Zhao – have won. 

Still, the numbers aren’t pretty: Out of a possible 509 nominations for directing since the Academy started handing out awards in 1928, only seven have gone to women, and no woman has ever been nominated a second time.

That might change this year. Campion is back in theaters (and streaming on Netflix) with her strange, moody “Western,” The Power of the Dog (R). Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee, the story, set on a Montana cattle ranch in 1925, concerns two very different brothers, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons); the widowed woman Mary, whom George impulsively weds; and Mary’s gangly, effeminate son Peter, whom Phil relentlessly bullies. Phil seemingly resents Mary for marrying his brother and despises Peter for openly displaying behavior he senses in himself.

Campion, working from a novel by Thomas Savage she co-adapted, is a master at creating an atmosphere of violence simmering beneath the surface. This isn’t a Western of shootouts and showdowns, but of seething looks and cutting remarks that can maim and kill just as effectively as a bullet or fist. 

She gets award-worthy performances from Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee especially, and solid supporting work from Plemons and Dunst (who are husband and wife away from the set, too). As in most films Campion has made, the setting becomes a character itself, adding to the mystery of the tale she spins. Never have wide, open spaces felt so malevolent and confining.

Two acclaimed lead actresses, Rebecca Hall and Halle Berry, have made their debuts in the director’s chair and delivered films that are surprisingly accomplished. Passing (PG-13) and Bruised (R) are both available on Netflix, and both examine the problems women of color face as they struggle to make it in a white-dominated society.

Passing, adapted by Hall from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, sets its story in the 1920s, when hemlines were shorter and women had more freedom to move. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are two Black women whose complexions allow them to “pass” for white in certain situations. Thompson’s Irene, proudly married to a Black doctor in Harlem, takes advantage of her ambiguous shading in small ways that allow her to occasionally shop in certain stores or dine in exclusive restaurants. 

Her childhood friend Clare (Negga), whom she re-encounters during one of her excursions to Manhattan, has used her light skin to completely reinvent herself as a white woman. She has married John (Alexander Skarsgård), an outspoken racist, who considers his wife’s “dusky Mediterranean complexion” sultry and alluring. What transpires as this deception plays out is grimly predictable, but Hall handles it with such sensitivity and intelligence that Passing distinguishes itself as one of the most powerful dramas of the year.

Berry’s Bruised, set in contemporary Newark, tells the story of Jackie Justice, a onetime mixed martial arts fighter who’s hit the skids after forfeiting an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout four years earlier. Her abusive boyfriend/manager Desi pimps her out in no-holds-barred basement bouts for chump change. 

During one of these, against a Russian behemoth called The Werewolf, Jackie goes blind with rage following a cheap shot and catches the eye of a promoter who’s slumming for possible talent. He recognizes Jackie as the “Pretty Bull” of the past and convinces her he can revive her career and score her a major payday. 

He wants her to train with one of his associates, a woman named Buddhakan (Sheila Atim in a fine supporting performance), who will force Jackie to confront and overcome the personal demons that have sabotaged her career.

Working from an original script by Michelle Rosenfarb, Berry follows the Rocky formula to successfully craft a violent story of personal redemption in the ring. She also coaxes out of her star-self a realistic, compelling performance that is the best thing in the movie. 

Beautiful actresses – and Berry might be the most beautiful actress in movies – often find the only way to be taken seriously is to glam down and ugly up. She followed a similar strategy to earn an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001’s Monster’s Ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if her raw performance here isn’t similarly lauded.

Sandra Bullock also glams down in her newest movie, The Unforgivable (R), available on Netflix, directed by Nora Fingscheidt. She plays a battered and bitter woman named Ruth Slater, a parolee who’s just been released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence for killing a cop during an eviction dispute. 

Set in Seattle, the world Ruth reenters holds grudges and little promise for redemption, personal or spiritual. Her parole officer (sharply portrayed by Rob Morgan) tells her to forget her past life and the people in it, especially the younger sister Katherine, who was adopted out when she went in. 

“This is your new reality,” he tells her: hard work, no contacts and weekly meetings with him – or back inside she goes.

Young German director Nora Fingscheidt, making her Hollywood debut after establishing her credentials overseas, piles on the angst and misery, forging a mystery-thriller from Ruth’s story that relies a bit too heavily on coincidence and incremental flashbacks for my taste. 

But she gets from Bullock an authentic performance that is, by turns, harrowing and heartbreaking, playing a woman so hollowed out by life that there’s nothing left to lose. Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal and Richard Thomas round out an excellent cast that makes whatever missteps the movie takes more than forgivable. 

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.