I've just finished watching the 1963 World War II film The Great Escape, a daring, almost three-hour-long account of an attempted bust-out of 250 prisoners of war from Nazi confinement.
What a great cast, led by Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. With a score to remember from Elmer Bernstein and meaty direction from John Sturges, the guiding light behind the legendary The Magnificent Seven and Bad Day at Black Rock, the movie is an epic in the pantheon of classic war films. It joins another personal favorite POW film of mine, Stalag 17, as a thrilling portrait of men ensnared by brutal Nazis.
Both movies have it all, except one thing: There are no women in sight in either film. There is plenty of lusting after pinups (Betty Grable in the case of Stalag 17) and pining for the girl back home. But it is a man's world, as POW films tend to be.
These are big men, larger than life and full of the boldness and bravado that mark these types of films, from silent classics such as Wings all the way to Fight Club and beyond.
And all the way to this year's best pictures, where the line of red-meat nominees are the ones we are talking about. Let me present to you 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, Uncut Gems and Joker as the films that are being mentioned as top contenders.
Both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Academy Awards, thrust major honors on these films. They are all good movies in their own way and deserving of acclaim. But what about movies that feature women as leads? Do they play second fiddle to these films? Talk amongst yourselves.
You can argue that Jennifer Lopez and Renee Zellweger gave career-best performances in Hustlers and Judy. You can look at the recent adaptation of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig of Lady Bird fame, as the best filming of that classic, which says a lot. You can recite the virtues of Bong Jung-ho's great Parasite and its female leads, or Marielle Heller's fanciful portrait of Mister Rogers in It's a Beautiful Day. The list goes on.
But like the Globes and BAFTA, when the awards come out, the male-driven movies are most acclaimed. The female directors, such as Gerwig and Heller, are again shut out, only a year after the uproar in Hollywood over diversity and representation. And on that note, what has happened to the great films of 2019 with black-driven casts and directors, such as Us or Harriet or Queen & Slim?
They are barely making a peep, is what, now that they are competing against a Scorsese a Tarantino, a Sam Mendes (the director of 1917), a Safdie Brothers (Uncut Gems) or a classic Marvel villain. None of these films feature women of note -- you could make the case for Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but she barely speaks. The same goes for Idina Menzel in Uncut Gems, where she is given minimal screen time. Even Kirsten Dunst in The Irishman, playing the daughter of Robert De Niro's mob hitman, barely is given voice.
Maybe you can fault Hollywood. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University reports that of the top grossing 250 films of 2019, only 13 percent were directed by women. Less than 20 percent of these films had female writers or producers. Under the current celluloid ceiling in Hollywood, many of these voices are not heard. I imagine that similar or worse statistics can be found for that of black filmmakers and writers.
Or maybe it's the viewing public. As a certified white American male, I can admit to liking my Tarantino, Scorsese, war movies and Jokers.There is little subtlety in these films. The movie 1917, for instance, is almost one long shot of two GI's racing to save a squadron from annihilation. Joker feeds on nihilism and self-hatred, and The Irishman tells its grisly gangster tale like it's routine to shoot a turncoat at point-blank range.
Maybe it's the age that we're in, where our politics and our culture are both about who can talk the loudest and make the most outrageous statements. I just binged on the TV show You on Netflix, a highly popular series on a homicidal stalker that had me needing to shower off the grime when I finished the first season. Congress, social media, reality TV, you name it. We are consumed by the flamboyant, the shocking. We laugh and talk about the maddening and the showiest.
Pictures featuring strong women tend to be more finely drawn and understated, digging deeper inside a character instead of marveling of outsized actions. Take Judy, where Zellweger is a slow burn of disintegration as she attempts to maintain her image and her health. Little Women is replete with messages about independence and finding your own way instead of capitulating to men or society's will. It's a Beautiful Day, while centering on two male leads, has a female director who goes in deep to explore messages of anger and mistrust.
These are movies that at times reach to our souls instead of our guts. But they are not the movies we pay big money at the box office to see, no Rise of Skywalker heights. They are generally tagged as smaller independent films for a more limited audience.
I happened to look back to 1963, the year of The Great Escape. This was also the year of To Kill a Mockingbird, an iconic movie that is viewed frequently in schools today as a parable of racial problems and bigotry. It was the year of The Miracle Worker, the story of Hellen Keller that influenced our view of disability and featured strong women leads. It was the year of What Even Happened to Baby Jane, the still talked-about feature with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And it was the year of Days of Wine and Roses, with a bravura performance by Lee Remick as an alcoholic.
With those movies up for Academy Award contention, what won? The red-blooded action picture Lawrence of Arabia, that's what. What else was up for best picture? The male-driven Marlon Brando vehicle The Mutiny on the Bounty and war film The Longest Day. These other films were also-rans. To Kill a Mockingbird, with the pre-teen girl Scout at its epicenter, was barely mentioned except for a best picture Oscar for Gregory Peck.
Now, 67 years later, not much has changed. We still have a long way to go to make our great escape to diversity in movies.