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MOVIES | Commentary

That's No Lady--That's Our Nightmare

In a disturbing trend, several new films vilify women who aren't just tough, they're terrifying.

March 18, 2001|STEPHEN FARBER | Stephen Farber is a critic for Movieline magazine and regular contributor to Calendar

A backlash against feminism has been brewing for years, and now it seems to have reached its full, rancid flowering. You can find plenty of evidence of this misogynistic spirit in a number of prominent pop culture events--in the lyrics of Eminem, in the Hillary Clinton-bashing books that have tumbled off the presses lately, and in a brutal new style of pornography that Martin Amis documented in a recent article in Talk magazine.

In his troubling new book, "Killer Woman Blues," cultural critic Benjamin DeMott expresses alarm over the growing army of truculent women visible in movies and TV. A distinct whiff of misogyny suffuses many current movies, from edgy independent pictures to splashy studio products.

Killer women run rampant in these movies; they are raging egomaniacs and ruthless control freaks. Not only do they stomp on the meek, henpecked men in their lives, but they prod their mates to commit murder and mayhem.

Prejudice against women is hardly a new spectacle on the silver screen. In the '30s and '40s career women were often (though not always) presented as neurotic ice maidens, while in the '50s Hollywood enshrined the cheerful, subservient housewife. But there was something more innocent in these movies' biases; they blindly perpetuated widely held cultural stereotypes that few people thought to challenge. In today's climate, when filmmakers have lived through a clamorous feminist revolution, movies that malign strong women have a shriller reactionary undertone. There's a more blatant political agenda in these pictures, even when it isn't fully conscious on the part of the filmmakers.

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, a number of attention-grabbing movies centered on angry, domineering, destructive women who aroused the filmmakers' ire--and probably reflected stirrings of social turmoil in burgs a long way from Park City, Utah. One of the sharpest of the Sundance movies, "Scotland, PA," was a witty update of "Macbeth." Maura Tierney gives a scathingly funny performance as the Lady Macbeth of a fast food franchise, a trailer-trash waitress who spurs her slow-witted husband (James LeGros) to murder in order to satisfy her greedy fantasies. Of course, Shakespeare provided the inspiration for the character, but in this incarnation she emerges as a more pitiless harpy than even the Bard imagined.

This same harsh view of female malevolence was reflected in other Sundance offerings. In the movie that won the Grand Jury Prize, "The Believer," the main character is a young self-hating Jew who joins a neo-Nazi movement. But the mastermind behind the fascist cause is a cold-hearted, Teutonic dominatrix played by Theresa Russell.

Some other Sundance movies tried to cast their female characters in a marginally more sympathetic light, but they still came off as rather frightening figures. "In the Bedroom," which deservedly won a special acting award for the superb performances of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, might be described as "Ordinary People" crossed with "Death Wish." Spacek and Wilkinson play an upscale, repressed New England couple who are dismayed when their 21-year-old son gets embroiled in an affair with an older working-class woman (Marisa Tomei) separated from her loutish husband.

When her estranged husband kills the boy and is then released due to a legal snafu, the middle-aged parents decide to seek revenge. The well-meaning doctor played by Wilkinson is the emotional heart of the film, whereas Spacek delineates a far colder and less appealing figure. In one highly charged scene, Wilkinson accuses her of being so voraciously controlling that she drove their son to rebel by plunging into a dangerous romance with a more hot-blooded woman.

Another Sundance prize-winner, "The Deep End," also tells the story of a ferociously controlling mother (Tilda Swinton) who is willing to flout the law in order to protect her family. When her son accidentally kills his gay lover, Swinton springs into action to conceal the crime.

Like "In the Bedroom," this film suggests that the mother's overbearing nature is what prompted her son to enter into a dangerous liaison in the first place. And as she hatches a methodical plot to camouflage the killing, Swinton seems compulsively driven rather than warmly maternal. She resembles a lioness ready to tear at the jugular of anyone who threatens her cubs. The most sympathetic character in the movie is a male blackmailer who proves to be far more humane than the icy, calculating mother.

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Sundance often offers an intriguing peek at emerging trends in the movie marketplace. And indeed this same mood of fear and antipathy directed toward strong women can also be glimpsed in some recent and upcoming mainstream releases.

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