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  • Eve O'Dea

The Woman’s Picture: An Introduction

Updated: Apr 28

This piece was originally written for the Next Best Picture

On December 1st, director Todd Haynes’ latest feature May December was released through Netflix. The highly anticipated drama has garnered significant critical acclaim, particularly for its pair of lead performances by Natalie Portman and frequent Haynes collaborator Julianne Moore, as well as a supporting performance from Charles Melton. Haynes has demonstrated time and time again an affinity for telling women’s stories, both sympathetic and scathing. His body of work continues the legacy of the “Woman’s Picture”, an enigmatic sub-genre established in the earliest days of Hollywood. This is not to be conflated with films made by women, though the two occasionally overlap. The Woman’s Picture, as explained by film historian Jeanine Basinger, serves "to place a woman at the centre of the story universe". These films can be, and historically often have been, directed by men.

Compared to Hollywood’s Golden Age in the middle of the twentieth-century, women held significant creative power in the early years of filmmaking. In the early 1900’s, women, like their male counterparts, would often write, produce, star in, and direct their own films. The earliest female film director is generally considered to be Alice Guy-Blaché of France, who arguably directed history’s first ever narrative film with 1896’s La Fée aux Choux. Prominent female directors soon found their footing around the world, such as Anna Hofman-Uddgren in Sweden, Luise Fleck in Austria, and Elvira Notari in Italy. In the US, Lois Weber’s filmography was identifiable by its frequent depiction of the trials and tribulations of the everyday, modern American woman, dealing with matters of poverty, sex work, abortion, motherhood, and religious hypocrisy. 

At this time, stories about women were not told exclusively by women storytellers. Such directors as Cecil B. Demille, D.W. Griffith, Oscar Micheaux and Erich Von Stroheim produced significant works with complex female protagonists in relatable scenarios. What makes a film about a woman a Woman’s Picture is both simple and full of multitudes. In the first place, it must star a woman (or several) in its leading role. Secondly, it must appeal to women in its subject matter, style, and marketing. Of course, a film that is not “made for women” may still appeal to one, but that does not make it a Woman’s Picture. For example, The Passion of Joan of Arc stars and is about a woman, and many women love it (including your humble author) but it is not a Woman’s Picture. While they can generally take place within any genre, time period, or setting, the truest form of the Woman's Picture takes place within the domestic space and the upper-middle class societal sphere (to allow for persistent ennui). This is in direct contrast to the “male” genres of westerns and adventure films, which see bachelor men move about the world with unrestrained freedom. Our female protagonist typically follows a formula: she is probably a wife and a mother, in love with someone she can’t have or generally fed up with in her current situation. She wants more, but is limited by the expectations of her sex. Historical and political conflicts always take a backseat to her personal dilemma. These films are, in the truest sense of the word, melodramas, placing human emotions at their centre and treating them with absolute sincerity and legitimacy. 

The Woman’s Picture, like any genre, came and went in movements depending on the real-life goings-on of contemporary women. Films made before the implementation of the Hays Code often featured plots related to female sexuality and the “liberated woman” (The Divorcee, Baby Face, Our Dancing Daughters). The sub-genre would merge with period costume dramas in the 1930’s against the disheartening backdrop of the Great Depression (Jezebel, Camille, Anna Karenina, Marie Antoinette) to serve as the ultimate, romantic fantasy for women affected by economic uncertainty. Even Gone With the Wind, the four hour epic that spans the antebellum South, American Civil War, and Reconstruction Era, and happens to be the highest grossing film of all time, is ultimately about a fiery young woman in a torrid love triangle and her obsession with her societal status. Unlike Scarlett O’Hara, the women in these films rarely find themselves in good spirits by the end of their stories. They often sacrifice their own happiness or dignity (Stella Dallas, Jezebel, The Women), succumb to disease (Dark Victory, Camille), or commit suicide (Anna Karenina, Humoresque, Leave Her to Heaven).

At a time when women’s stories were often based on their relationship to a man, Woman’s Pictures saw importance in relationships between women. Sometimes, a single actress would play two roles in one film to drive home the binary of the good and pure vs. the bad and corrupt woman (The Dark Mirror, A Stolen Life). Other films considered the relationships between mothers and daughters. In both Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce a single mother strives to financially better herself in the interest of giving their daughter a better life. Mildred Pierce, a quintessential post-war woman’s picture dressed as a film noir, has been adopted by the queer community as a camp classic based on the “bitchy” dynamic between Mildred and her spoiled daughter Veda (“My mother, a waitress!”). 

Having already worked for two decades and in four countries, Douglas Sirk would establish his legacy as the King of Melodrama in the final decade of his career. Though extravagant in their style and emotion, Sirk’s films often examined controversial social issues that had been historically untouched by American cinema. Imitation of Life follows the lives of two single mothers, one white (Lana Turner) and one black (Juanita Moore), as they raise their daughters in post-war America. The two come to rely on one another as they navigate the reality of the era's prejudices. Moore plays a woman whose light-skinned daughter does everything she can to pass as white and conceal her relationship with her mother. At a time when black actors were just beginning to receive roles of greater magnitude in mainstream cinema, Moore plays the role with depth and sincerity, deservedly earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards in 1960.

Sirk’s masterpiece is generally regarded by critics (and myself) to be All That Heaven Allows. The film follows a middle-aged widow (played by Jane Wyman) with two adult children, a beautiful house in New England, and too much free time on her hands, a.k.a: the perfect setup for the Woman’s Picture. She soon finds herself confiding in her young, free-spirited, devilishly handsome gardener (played by Rock Hudson). This social transgression soon earns her the ostracization from her neighbours and threatens her stable position within society.

Though financially successful, Sirk’s female-led dramas were often overlooked as cheap, sentimental entertainment and given little recognition by critics. It was not until the 1960’s and the emergence of the French New Wave and reevaluation by such critic-directors as Jean-Luc Godard that his films were reconsidered as sophisticated works which subtly critiqued American society through elegant scenery, vibrant technicolor, and emotion-driven drama. In the following decades, his films influenced a new generation of filmmakers who sought inspiration from Hollywood’s Golden Age, such as Rainier Werner Fassbinder, David Lynch, Pedro Almodóvar, and perhaps most evidently: Todd Haynes.

Todd Haynes began his film career with a level of notoriety and publicity that any emerging filmmaker would kill for. His 1987 short film, Superstar, recounts the life and career of musician Karen Carpenter, who died tragically young due to an ongoing struggle with anorexia. To convey a certain discomfort brought upon by the objectification and criticism of women’s bodies in 1980’s America, Haynes told the entire story with Barbie-esque fashion dolls. Because of the unlicensed use of The Carpenter’s music, Haynes was successfully sued by Karen’s brother Richard, and the film was barred from a theatrical release or any form of exhibition. However, the film has acquired the status of a cult classic, acquiring notoriety from the decades of reproduction of bootleg copies which further distort the film’s disturbing imagery as time goes on.

Like Sirk, Cukor, Stahl, and Demy before him, Haynes has demonstrated a respect and appreciation for women’s stories through his filmography. In Safe, Haynes tells the story of a California house-wife (played by Julianne Moore) who suddenly becomes highly sensitive to household, cosmetic, and industrial chemicals, serving as an allegory for the overwhelming experience of keeping up appearances as an upper-middle class suburban housewife in America. Collaborating with Moore once again, Haynes paid direct tribute to Sirk with his 2002 film Far From Heaven, a spiritual remake of All that Heaven Allows. This time, however, the housewife is not a widow, but has discovered that her husband is having illicit homosexual affairs behind her back. She does not pursue a romantic relationship with her younger man, but builds a strong friendship with her black gardener, and is similarly shunned from her community. The latter film echoes the former, borrowing its aesthetic, setting, and requiring from its actors an expressionist, outwardly stylized performance.

Haynes takes Sirk’s representation of social issues a step further to acknowledge those historically neglected by American cinema. By presenting a subplot of homosexuality, Haynes shows how the Woman’s Picture has in many ways been both created and adopted by the queer community. Of course, All That Heaven Allows radiates gay subtext given that it stars Rock Hudson and concerns a women finding the courage to be in a "non-traditional" relationship. Haynes, like other modern gay filmmakers such as Tsai Ming-liang, Gus Van Sant, and Pedro Almadóvar, affectionately appropriated the essence of the Woman’s Picture to establish a new wave of queer cinema with stylistic tributes to the historical film genre that sought to represent society’s most misunderstood subjects.

The true Woman’s Picture is hard to find nowadays, likely because women themselves have a considerably louder voice in the filmmaking world than they did just a few decades ago. The most obvious example in recent memory is Barbie, which drew a massive female audience through one of the most effective marketing campaigns in film history. Arguably, the modern version of the woman’s picture is the female-lead horror movie, which allows viewers to vicariously channel their feminine rage and frustrations through body-horror, trauma, and revenge (think: Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Raw, The Love Witch, Midsommar, or Pearl, to name a few). Unlike in the classic Woman’s Picture, these characters have a chance to finish their respective films somewhat triumphant. In May December, Haynes hands a pair of lead female characters who the audience actively hopes to see crumble. They are selfish, manipulative, conniving, and unashamed. Given how many boxes the film ticks off in terms of Woman’s Picture tropes (dramatic music cues, an obsession with aesthetics, merging female personalities, prohibited sexuality, etc.) the film reads like a meta-commentary on the sub-genre which relies on an inherent sympathy women audiences typically reserve for female characters. Instead, Haynes takes any sympathy we may expect to have for these women and lights on fire. Haynes appears as if drawing the final curtain on the Woman’s Picture, both demonstrating a love for the genre while acknowledging it as a relic of its time.

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