Face It: Dare We Call It the Year of Woman in Film?

FACE IT: Dare We Call It Year of Woman In Film?
by Michele Willens

Last year's Academy nominators had to dig deep to find five women's roles and performances worthy of Best Actress. In one of the weakest fields ever, even winner Julianne Moore won more for her lifetime achievement than her depiction of Alzheimers in a film that no one saw.

Well, I just spent a long weekend at the Middleberg Film Festival -- a jewel of an event now in its third year -- where I enjoyed at least seven performances which could end up in that category this year: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, as on-again off- again lovers in the repressed 50s; (Carol) Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette as life long best friends facing a medical crisis; (I Miss You Already) Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish immigrant caught between two lovers; (Brooklyn); Charlotte Rampling, a wife who discovers her husband's secrets in the week leading up to their anniversary; (45 Years) and Carey Mulligan as a reluctant voting rights activist in England. (Suffragette)

This is in addition to other films either made by or about women, including Truth starring Cate Blanchett (great again) as the CBS news producer who paid a steep price for getting the right story by the wrong tactics, and two remarkable documentaries The Armor of Light, directed by Abigail Disney and Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, by Lisa Vreeland. The former follows a charismatic if controversial minister, and the inspiring mother of a teenage shooting victim, as they ask if one can really be pro-gun and pro-life. The latter is the fascinating story of the woman who arguably did more than anyone to promote (and apparently sleep with) the important artists of the last century. (Including Max Ernst, who once boasted that he had a Guggenheim "and not a fellowship")

Even Meg Ryan showed up to discuss her first directorial effort, the poetic indie called Ithaca. Based on a story by William Saroyan, it plays less well than the original read, but is lovely to look at and shows Ryan has the chops to shift gears.

The Middleberg Festival does not have an agenda, other than to present a mix of the best -yet unseen -- films it is able to acquire. The circuit is a competitive one, with so much jockeying and negotiating going on that those who run these events often don't have a complete schedule until just weeks before. Middleberg is the creation of two women -- business executive Sheila Johnson and filmmaker Susan Koch -- who together bring finances, (Johnson also owns the Salamander Resort where much of the action takes place) great taste and connections to the party. Many who also attend bigger, brassier film fests say Middleberg is turning out to be one of their favorites.

That this year's turned out to be a celebration of women is a happy accident. Or is it? As the country prepares for electing its first female head of state, as the TV scheduled is so jammed with great actresses that Julianna Margulies, Tea Leoni and Lizzie Caplan didn't even make the Emmy cut, maybe the movies are finally catching up.

No one is ready to proclaim this the year of the woman in Hollywood, but things are looking up. At least I thought so, until I did a Q and A with Catherine Hardwicke after a showing of her film, I Miss You Already, which manages to be funny, touching, sexy, fair to both men and women and sentimental at the same time. I asked if it's still true that female filmmakers gravitate to character-driven material and males to the action variety. "Well, I think it's still fair to say that men are doing the action and the character driven and everything else," she said.