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Q&A: "Strong Female Characters" and Future AFI Honors

Okay last round of reader questions before we have to ask for a new batch. These are culled from the last "Ask Nathaniel" column as well as the open thread. Let's talk Wonder Woman and Oscar, "Strong Roles for Women," and more.

MARIE: Who are the next 3 women that should win the AFI Life Achievement Award?

NATHANIEL: A timely question since Diane Keaton just won hers. But I had to look back at who has previously been nominated to come up with an answer. Living female winners number only five: Diane Keaton (2017), Jane Fonda (2014), Shirley Maclaine (2012), Meryl Streep (2004), and Barbra Streisand (2000) with the other twelve winners in this new century being men (both actors and directors have won). It's actually a tough question because they have to be alive and *really* famous to get this honor and also elderly (though Streep was young for this honor taking it when she was 54ish I think). They also have to be American (for the most part) so I looked only at people who are almost 60 or older and this is what I came up with...


I would probably choose from among these five next:

  • Julie Andrews (81 years old. Yes she's British but AFI has made exceptions before with Liz Taylor who was also a Brit but was so closely associated with American classics)
  • Annette Bening (59 years old)
  • Faye Dunaway (76 years old -- less respected than she should be and such a great filmography
  • Liza Minnelli (71 years old, Miss Showbiz!)
  • Michelle Pfeiffer (59 years old. Young for this but SOMEONE has to start recognizing her as one of the all time greats and we will keep proselytizing until the media does)

But I suspect AFI will next choose:
Jessica Lange who is still an awards darling. Or...
Sally Field who is still challenging herself and working hard to prove her mettle in her sixth decade of fame despite ample evidence that we should have long since learned to respect her gift.

Still with us and old enough: (though I have doubts that they'd go there for a wide variety of reasons)...  Glenn Close, Angela Lansbury, Cloris Leachman, Lee Grant, Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Stockard Channing, Bette Midler, Cher, Kim Novak, Terri Garr, Bernadette Peters, Kathy Bates, Dianne Wiest, Pam Grier, Kathryn Bigelow, Kim Basinger, Kathleen Turner, Debra Winger, Whoopi Goldberg, Sissy Spacek, Goldie Hawn, Sigourney Weaver, Piper Laurie, Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson, Glynis Johns, Olivia de Havilland, Joanne Woodward, Tippi Hedren, Sharon Stone, and Anjelica Huston

READY: With so much love out there for Wonder Woman, does that give the film any better odds of picking up an Academy nod in the tech categories like special effects or costumes?

NATHANIEL: I already freaked out with judgment on twitter over a THR clickbait headline two weeks back about "can Wonder Woman be Best Picture nominated?" because we have seen that headline for literally every single blockbuster that performed above expectations for the past 8 years. I think this trend started with Star Trek (2009) and has even landed on films as obviously never-gonna-happen as Fast and the Furious, you know? So it would be hypocritical of me to make a big deal about this.

Let it suffice to say that it will get one or two nominations if the fates are kind and it has a strong campaign... which we should remember is pretty good for a superhero picture! Much of its Oscar fate probably depends on what the reaction to Justice League is in November. If that team-up is greeted as viciously as Batman v Superman, some of the glow from Diana's tiara will wear off. If it's better than anyone is expecting and Wonder Woman is the MVP yet again (being the only bright spot in the previous Bat & Supes show) I'd say her film has got a decent shot at nominations. The film is probably not a serious contender for visual FX (since there's some WB/DC sloppiness and always a ton of competition in that category) but I think the costumes are a vague possibility given Hemmings skill and reputation. If it were ever possible to understand what the makeup and hair branch is looking for, that would seem doable, too, given Gadot's perpetually awesome locks, the period hair elsewhere, and Dr. Poison's disfigurement.

ELLSWORTH: The phrase 'strong roles for women' is often used by critics, talent & media in general, when describing what is really a complex character. Personally it drives me a little crazy because 'strong' seems like a lazy word. Female characters should be messy, complex, funny, weak, dominant, cruel, insecure ..and yes, strong. But strong seems to be the go to word that equates to the ideal. Maybe I'm being oversensitive - but I'm curious - do you see this trend in using the word strong, and what are your thoughts on that?

NATHANIEL: I absolutely hear what you're saying and agree from a semantics perspective -- there are a ton of complex characters that are nothing like role models. But I think the use of the word "strong" boils down to a combination of the word's actual flexible meaning (which can denote a superior example of anything really) and a instinctual gauntlet thrown down at the fact that sexism has often deemed women "weak". So, we should probably let it slide but be thankful for anyone with a larger vocabulary or a thesaurus who thinks up other ways to describe great opportunities for female thespians.

Monty in "Red River"COREY: What is the most significant gap in your film experience knowledge that you want to remedy at some point in the future? Any directors, genre, era you should get to know better?

NATHANIEL: Westerns and Noirs are my weak spots in terms of genre. I love noir but I've always felt that it's such a specialty of so many cinephiles and critics that I'd never really be able to "catch up" as it were and even if I could, what could I add to a conversation already that robust? So that kind of killed my desire to really study it.

With westerns the problem remains a lack of interest though I'm sure there are multiple great ones out there that I haven't seen. The westerns I do unequivocally love, like Red River and Johnny Guitar, suggest that other westerns worth loving exist.

V: I have been thinking about female directors and second chances, or the lack of. Karyn Kusama came to mind this week after Wonder Woman became such a hit. Karen did this great indie and went to do a big Blockbuster that was a stinker, but unlike male directors who share the same fate never got a new chance to play the game and works mostly in TV. A common story sadly. Do you think Jenkins breaking records and ALL that she's accomplished will change the state of things at least a bit?

NATHANIEL: I dont want to be a killjoy but as with the revival of musicals, it's really hard to change perceptions when perceptions don't want to be changed. It usually takes more than one big winner for people to be all like "yes, this is feasible / marketable!" We've seen Hollywood deny the obvious about the female audience for a couple of decades now (it's weird how sexist the movies got in the past two decades because when I was a kid there was more gender parity in leading roles and hit films and even in Oscar's Best Picture lineups). We've also seen them deny the obvious fact that your gender does not determine your ability to direct something audiences might like either. 

Penny Marshall directed three big hits in a row from 1988 through 1992, two of them joining the $100+ million club and it still didn't convince Hollywood that women could be successful helming mainstream studio pictures.

Notice how nobody ever brings up Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World), or Amy Heckerling (Clueless) who each directed multiple mainstream hits between the mid 80s and mid 90s in this discussion; it's like we have to have the same conversation every decade with new test cases.  Hopefully Jenkins success will not be a standalone. If DuVernay can manage a big hit with Wrinkle in Time and we can get a couple more hits, too, then we will see a noticeable change. But Jenkins can't change the world alone. It always takes multiple heroes to save the day. 

YOUR TURN READERS. Sound off on your dream AFI recipients, Wonder Woman's Oscar chances and more...

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Reader Comments (25)

Nathaniel have you seen "The Furies" ? A great Western starring Barbara Stanwyck. " Wonder Woman" is one of the best movies of the year - it would be foolish for the Oscars to ignore it.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I have never gagged on a magazine cover as hard as I'm gagging on that Esquire cover.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Ellsworth's question is a question I'd like to have asked too; your response is wonderfully clear and sensible.

Re: Corey's question about gaps and your answer: I feel your pain regarding noir. I too feel that it's hard to get a foothold on it, given the sheer amount of critical work that has been done on it already. But, I would say, don't let that put you off! There are some wonderful noirs, and if you find some you like, then you will feel that you are a part of noir after all. Here are five that come to mind immediately that I like a lot:

Double Indemnity
The Killers (1946 version - haven't seen the 1964 version)
The Big Sleep (1946 version)
On Dangerous Ground

As for Westerns: don't forget, as well as some fantastic stories, great scenery and gripping gun battles, there are also oodles of men to be found in leathers, jeans and stetsons! Here are some of my fave Westerns - if you haven't seen these, do!

Bend of the River (and every other Western that Anthony Mann made with James Stewart)
High Noon
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (you love musicals!)
The spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone - and given that everyone recommends The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time In the West, I'll give a shout-out to the excellent For a Few Dollars More
Cat Ballou (see it for Lee Marvin's Oscar-winning performance[s] and for Jane Fonda!)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
High Plains Drifter (one of Clint Eastwood's best-directed films - uncompromising and unforgettable)

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Thanks for answering the AFI question. There are so many great women to choose from. My predictions (not necessarily based on merit) are that AFI will honor Julie Andrews, Jodie Foster and Julia Roberts. Jessica Lange only has a couple of films worth noting (All That Jazz and Tootsie). Otherwise it's a very thin night of film clips for her. But with Ryan Murphy sponsoring her career now maybe he will pull strings and she will get through. I would honestly rather see Nicole Kidman be honored by AFI over Jessica, but any of these women honored would be welcome since it so often goes to men.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

I can very much see AFI going for Sigourney Weaver at some stage. What's your thoughts as to why they wouldn't?

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrady95

@Marie's Q: Angela Lansbury seems like an easy choice for AFI. Legendary for more than one reason, imitable for a few, memorable for many. Of the five, Julie Andrews seems really iconic, but also so BRITISH in a way that Taylor wasn't

@ V's Q: I don't think it'll change much, but we have to be hopeful, right?

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

My preference -
Ellen Burstyn
Liza Minnelli
Lee Grant
Faye Dunaway (is she liked in hollywood?)

But most likely are -
Sally Field
Sigourney Weaver
Gena Rowlands

For the guys, give it to Robert Redford for god's sake!

Based on history, they tend to want major movie stars, iconic leading ladies (keep in mind the event is a benefit & they have to sell tickets).

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJM

One great Western no one has mentioned yet is The Big Country, a William Wyler epic starring Gregory Peck and the underrated Jean Simmons which carries a pro-peace message. It was supposedly Eisenhower's favorite film and is just lovely to watch.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I'd like to see a costume nomination for Wonder Woman. As great as the film is, I can't imagine it deserving much more (although i can see the production designers going for it thanks to its mix of Diana's homeland as well as the WWI scenes, however sparsely designed they may be - that branch often doesn't care).

Jessica Lange is so getting the AFI treatment. Think of all the gays that Ryan Murphy would bring with him, although maybe her move to TV will make the AFI wait.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I vote for Sigourney

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

The Furies is a masterpiece, a movie ahead of its time. I love Stanwyck in everything, from The Lady Eve to There's Always Tomorrow, but in The Furies she reached her peak. Astonishing performance.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Lily Tomlin for AFI

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNewyorker27

Western:. The Searchers

AFI:. Not Minelli. She will eat the entire scenery. Angela Lansbury right now. Julie Andrews is a
Fine choice, also.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commenternatalie

It seems like most of the women who are awarded are iconic and have had careers that have spanned decades. I could totally see Jodi Foster, Julia Roberts, and Jessica Lange getting in. Perhaps Sally Field. Divisive as she is, I could totally see Nicole Kidman being awarded this honor later in her career. She's divisive with audiences, but she's an icon and she seems very well-respected, well-connected, and well-liked within the field.

I LOVE Michelle Pfeiffer, but her more substantial film work is relegated to such a short period of time, with few exceptions. If she has a career renaissance, maybe. Otherwise, I don't see it.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

What would they do withJessica? Show lips from American Horror Story?

Sigourney and Faye would be great but they too is way out of the movie game.

Angela Lansbury ... Yes!

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSister Rona Barrett

Roberts, Bullock, Foster, Mirren

I say "strong role for women" a lot and I almost never mean Ripley.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue


June 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I've been really impressed by the coverage of female directors from The Ringer.

They did a piece on Heckerling: https://theringer.com/amy-heckerling-fast-times-at-ridgemont-high-clueless-female-directors-ee9568144c24

Mimi Leder: https://theringer.com/mimi-leder-director-the-leftovers-deep-impact-1725f67b26de

and even some missed gems like Bachlorette: https://theringer.com/bachelorette-movie-leslye-headland-kirsten-dunst-overlooked-comedy-37bd44cc6c87

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I strongly second THE BIG COUNTRY (so underrated/overlooked) and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (one of my all-time favorite musicals - funny, I never thought of it as a Western but I guess it is!).

Hollywood's myopia when it comes to female directors is really infuriating.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I can understand the lack of interest in Westerns because there just aren't a lot of "strong" roles for women. :-) Can someone suggest one that features a great female role? The best I can think of though it's been years is McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Noir on the other hand almost always has a great female role, usually the lead. Have you seen Leave Her To Heaven?

And I guess that Julie Andrews should win the award since they're not giving it to Doris Day at this point. But Julie really only has a minor handful of movies to choose from.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

Ask me anytime about Westerns, they're a favorite. I love the raw American machismo. Sexual politics can be very interesting. The two you named are probably the two most homoerotic ever made -- except ANY version of the OK Corral story, since Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are always homoerotic. GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL is very sexy between Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and Val Kilmer is very gay in TOMBSTONE.

But also check out the complex sexual politics of STAGECOACH.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

I see Denzel Washington getting it soon.. and maybe Tom Cruise in a few years.

Dunaway could get in due to iconic films- but Lange, Sarandon, Close, and Field- despite great work are long shots- I think.

The women they've honored this century are all iconic- actresses who have not only produced great work but have also cemented their place in film pop culture.

So based on that prerequisite, I'm sorry to say but La Pfeiffer is out. She has not been part of a great/popular film since 1993's The Age of Innocence (What Lies Beneath is an outlier- since it was long after her last hit and didn't generate another hit or a critically loved film after that)- almost 25 year ago, and her time in the spotlight didn't last long enough in Hollywood to be considered an icon. (Although, I did find her performance in White Oleander great!)

Actresses in the future I see receiving this award are Jodie Foster and Julia Roberts - n just in case they're not disqualified for not being Americans (Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett)

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel

Dave in Hollywood: It's not easy to come up with loads of strong female roles in Westerns, but here are some that come to mind pretty quickly - all of the films, and all of these actresses in them, are very good:

Katy Jurado as Helen in High Noon
Anne Bancroft as Corrina in The Last Frontier
Katharine Ross as Etta in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Mary McDonnell as Stands With a Fist in Dances With Wolves
Frances Fisher as Strawberry Alice and Anna Thomson as Delilah in Unforgiven
Sharon Stone as Ellen in The Quick and the Dead

And Jaragon mentions The Furies with Barbara Stanwyck - I have yet to see that film, but I've heard elsewhere too that it's excellent and that Stanwyck is excellent in it.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

The Big Country is simply great. The story has a lot of echos from aour current political landscape. Heston detractors will be shocked by his nuanced work. And that Oscar-winning score, goddam it's terrific.

June 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I think Debra winger and Pfeiffer if they have a renaissance could get it. But then again winger is not liked very much. I mean winger is part of movie history I think for now Dunaway, Weaver, Spacek, Burstyn and lange should get it.

July 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSAgman

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