With the long awaited release of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity finally approaching, the award-season buzz has started to swell around Sandra Bullock. The best actress winner recently reflected on the experience of taking home her first Academy Award (“I did not feel worthy of it“), and there’s no reason to suspect she won’t be nominated, if not gracing the stage again later this winter for the science-fiction film James Cameron described as “the best space film ever.”
The reflections Bullock offer portray her grace and humility, traits to be prized in one of the few actresses in Hollywood who can star in and lead a major studio release to box-office success. She did so earlier this summer with the police comedy The Heat, and before that in her Oscar winning performance in The Blind Side. Bullock is among the highest paid actresses working in Hollywood, and has been for years. Which makes her experiences in the industry insightful and worthy of consideration.
As Gravity pulls itself closer to theaters, then, it’s worth returning now to a story that deserves a little more weight than it received earlier this summer. That science-fiction cinema has been dominated by men is beyond obvious. The genre has struggled throughout its history with equally capturing the male and female human experience. There are exceptions–Ripley in Alien, being the most frequently cited–but there’s no denying that when Hollywood produces a sci-fi/action adventure, the preference remains for male actors in the lead.
Such was the case with Gravity. At Comic-Con in July, Alfonso Cuaron discussed the lengthy and complicated development of Gravity, and the pressure he received to alter his script to feature a male in the lead, and create an all-male on-screen cast (of two).
“When I finished the script, there were voices that were saying, ‘well, we should change it to a male lead.’ Obviously they were not powerful enough voices, because we got away with it. But the sad thing is that there is still that tendency.”
This is a remarkable admission, and one that, as Cuaron states, is very sad to hear remaining in the industry.
That Cuaron need defend the gender of his lead character in a major Hollywood sci-fi production of his own creation and starring Sandra Bullock, serves to remind audiences of the importance of deliberately seeking and supporting quality films with diverse casting choices. The lack of female-led genre films has been a recurring subject this year. Other than Cuaron, highly successful directors of sci-fi/fantasy and superhero genre films in Hollywood have spoken out on the subject. And the curators of popular cultural in internet media have made the theme a constant and important part of the rise of superhero and genre film in recent years.
But the disparity remains, and continues to be a reminder of why cultural indicators like The Bechdel Test (a test Gravity fails, by the way), remain just as important today as it was when it was created in 1985.
When our most successful actresses, successful at the box-office and awards ceremonies, are still discussing the elephant in the room for female roles in Hollywood, we know we have not arrived at a balance of human experience in our cinema.
Here’s Sandra Bullock, at the same event: “The elephant in the room is that roles for women haven’t been as vast and many as the men have. But I do feel that there is a definite shift that has happened. In the end it’s about making money, and if studios see that a female can bring in audiences, they’re going to make movies with that person, and hopefully that will become the norm.”
As we look forward to Gravity, a film which by all early measuring should be a stunning experience, let us also look forward to the day when the world of genre cinema has left behind its fear of the woman in charge, and the only value studios concern themselves with is the telling of powerful stories.