Women Who Roar: Sundance 2012 Is Rife with Formidable Women Characters

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed.

Holly Willis

One of the bitter laments emanating from contemporary female audience members—and actresses, for that matter—concerns the scarcity of great, meaty female characters who are complex, morally ambiguous, even controversial. Several films at the Sundance Film Festival this year counter that complaint, defying the typical stereotypes and delivering instead feisty, bitchy, raunchy, complicated, conflicted, and even heroic women in stories whose struggles and achievements take center stage.

Overhauling Stereotype #1: The Drowning Wife

In Smashed, playing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, we meet Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who, with her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), cheerfully drinks voraciously and unapologetically. It’s fun – and funny – for a while. But ultimately the film unflinchingly exposes the many ugly mishaps that result from total inebriation, including one unforgettable scene in which Kate loses control of her bladder as she begs a convenience store clerk to sell wine to her after hours. When Kate finally decides it’s time to quit, we also see how difficult even a positive transformation can be. Kate, who is by turns generous, funny, cruel, and disgusting, tackles sobriety with mixed feelings and mixed results. But her struggle is very real. Her decision to take care of herself may ultimately destroy her relationship to the man she loves.

James Ponsoldt co-wrote the screenplay with Susan Burke; and the pair decided to tell the story from a woman’s perspective because it’s one that they say we haven’t seen onscreen yet. “There’s a cultish mystique about the male drunk,” says Ponsoldt, who directed the film, “and women don’t usually get their own stories.” Burke agrees, adding, “The way society views a woman drinker as opposed to a man drinker is very different. There’s something more silly or pathetic about a woman drinker.”

Ponsoldt says that Mary Elizabeth Winstead definitely understood the gravity of taking on the character of Kate. “Film is not forgiving of bad performances of drunks,” he laughs. “There are great performances, and you either roar or you fall on your face. She was very brave, and courageous, and we did a lot of character work leading up to the film. We spent a lot of time in AA meetings, and talking to people who are sober, hearing their journeys and struggles.”

The pair was also adamant that we identify with Kate as an individual. “Films that deal with substance abuse often objectify the character,” says Ponsoldt. “They’re often these histrionic tales of wallowing; but we wanted this to be a story of identification, so you could connect with Kate. We wanted a story about addiction that had profound empathy and love for the character.”

Ponsoldt and Burke also wanted to create a fully-formed female character. “We were determined that we wanted her to be very funny and very honest,” says Ponsoldt, “and we wanted a lead who could be angry, who could be sympathetic, someone with a full range of emotions. Men can have this range and they’re never called ‘shrill’ or ‘bitchy.’” He admits, though, that witnessing that full range of emotions can be scary. “Even working with Mary on set was intense – when she gets drunk, she becomes feral and aggressive, and we’re usually not allowed to see that because audiences feel threatened.”

Overhauling Stereotype #2: The Spunky Tomboy

Another powerful female character graces Filly Brown, also screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. The film features Gina Rodriguez as Majo Tonorio, a hip hop artist in East Los Angeles trying to launch a career while also dealing with hardships at home. Her mom is in prison, she needs money and she’s being pushed to sell out to score a quick record deal.

Written by Youssef Delara, who co-directed with Michael D. Olmos, the project originally featured a male character in the lead role, but the gender switch proved transformative. “I read it, and it was raw, it was fresh, and we hadn’t seen this character before,” says Olmos, describing a draft of the script developed by Delara.

The character is further enhanced by the stellar performance of Rodriguez, who studied Theater at NYU and was also part of a stand-up poets group in New York. “We did a screen test with Gina,” recalls Delara, “and as soon as she opened her mouth, I knew it was her. I asked her to do a slam poem. She had the cadence and rhythm to rap, so we were in a great place. We had a classically trained actor who had this amazing cadence. It was perfect.”

Rodriguez manages to be at once tough and delicate, savvy and naïve. She fights to help free her mother, who is played by acclaimed singer Jenni Rivera. Olmos attributes the strong onscreen connection between mother and daughter to the time spent during pre-production rehearsing. “We had six weeks with the actors, and that really helped them develop the characters to the extent that we needed,” he explains.

Delara concurs, adding that working with first-time actress Rivera, who is well known to Latin music aficionados (she’s sold more than 20 million albums!) required some forethought. “She’s a performer,” he says, “and we had to wrap her mind around this new style of performance. We had to show her that it’s less about acting, and more about being. You don’t have to add anything to the moment; you just have to be in the moment.”

Overhauling Stereotype #3: The Catty Villain(s)

If Filly Brown serves up a kickass rapper bent on charting her own path, Leslye Headland’s outrageous film Bachelorette, screening in the Premieres section, presents three very different, but equally indelible, characters – Regan (Kirsten Dunst); Katie (Isla Fisher); and Gena (Lizzy Caplan) – whose foul language, cruelty, drug use, and general misbehavior are nothing short of shocking.

The screenplay earned a place on the Black List in 2008, and Headland created a theatrical version of the story in 2010 that garnered strong reviews. Both are part of a larger cycle of works dedicated to exploring the seven deadly sins. Bachelorette tackles gluttony, not in terms of food, but in terms of miscellaneous excess.

And excessive it is! The story centers on the three women as they gather to serve as bridesmaids to a woman they dubbed “Pigface” in high school. Self-centered and caustic, the three hardly seem like typical heroines. Similarly, the story’s narrative arc eschews traditional character development, sense of redemption, or easy satisfaction characteristic of many feature films.

“I wanted to write about that time in your late 20s or early 30s,” says Headland of the story’s genesis. “It’s an interesting time period because people haven’t quite become adults yet. They haven’t found the tools yet to behave properly and they’re still lost – morally and ethically.”

Headland says that while the characters and story seem very intimate and real to her, they have resonated very differently with others. She realized this most acutely during the post-performance discussions of the play version of Bachelorette. “Older men wondered, ‘Do women really talk like that?’” she says. “Uh, yeah, they do. But it wasn’t just the language or drug use that bothered people; it was that the script doesn’t present a solution. It doesn’t say, ‘This can be fixed with the right guy or with things.’ It says you have to change. You have to do something for someone else to feel better.”

To offer some sense of context for her film, Headland points to the work of artists such as of Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and Charles Schulz. “Wilder’s film The Apartment, from 1960, is about extramarital affairs and suicide, but it’s done in a heightened way that makes it feel like a fairy tale,” she says. She also lauds the performances of actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, and indeed, sees a link between Stanwyck and Dunst in that both are impossible to define and pin down.

“Barbara Stanwyck in Lady Eve or Double Indemnity is never commenting on the fact that she’s playing this total bitch or villain. Instead, she’s playing the real truth behind the character.” Headland also admires Stanwyck’s pre-Code films. “If you watch her in Night Nurse and Baby Face, you can’t believe that she did what she did. Those characters got to make the mistakes that men did. Stanwyck in Double Indemnity? I relate to her. I wouldn’t kill anybody, but I get it.” Headland pauses. “And here we are, decades later, and we’re still making these same, one-dimensional female characters…”

Yes indeed. But each of these three films challenges that habit, opening up a space for questioning, identification, and new possibilities. And not a minute too soon.

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