There are a lot of meaty quotes in my 15-minute roundtable with the director and cast of “The Butler.” Here’s one story on racism and the use of the N-Word from Lenny Kravitz: “…when I grew up that word was used in a way that it felt hip, it felt street, it felt like you’re part of a group. I used to be, was, still am, a huge fan of Richard Pryor. Nobody used that word more colorfully than he did. It was how we addressed each other. It was how we knew we were brothers. There was a great skit he did where he talked about going to Africa. He went to Africa. He hung out. It was so beautiful. At the end of the trip he realized, you know what, I don’t see any niggers here. We’re not niggers. I will never use that word again. and He put it away. If he could do it, any body could do it. Whether we call each other that or not, at the end of the day if we want to get rid of this, if we don’t want others to use it, then we have to not use it.” Well said, Lenny, and now let’s roll the tape:
I caught a preview of Lee Daniels’ follow-up to “Precious” that’s bound first for Toronto and, now, as part of a gala tribute to Nicole Kidman, a late entry to the New York Film Festival. It’s a stupefying Southern gothic that’s more John Waters (props!) than Tennessee Williams. Zac Efron is so objectified as the title character that Daniels clearly must have been watching “High School Musical” with the sound off. The excellent cast seems to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome: Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray. It’s total actor abuse. Either this movie is the sliest intentionally unintentionally funny movie in a long time, or it’s just kitsch. Like passing roadkill on a Southern two-lane highway, you can’t look away:
I love contenders like David Cronenberg, whose Cosmopolis — starring Robert Pattinson — has been welcomed into the competition, and who headed the Cannes jury in 1999. I was a champion of his cerebral period drama A Dangerous Method, which had a terrific star turn by Keira Knightley. But, really, not a single film by a woman? I’m just gobsmacked.
It is, however, a good year to be a North American male: In addition to Cronenberg, Lee Daniels (The Paperboy), Jeff Nichols (Mud), and Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) will premiere at what is considered the most prestigious film festival on the planet. The other 51 percent be damned.
There won’t be any shortage of sexy female actresses in evening gowns to attract paparazzi — so why does the female-director shortage matter? To paraphrase: It’s the sexism, stupid. Despite some recent indications to the contrary, women have yet to gain substantial ground in cinema’s most powerful positions. And beyond its inherent prestige, Cannes is significant because it’s at the forefront of the awards season. Last year, for example, The Artist debuted at Cannes, where Jean Dujardin won best actor honors, and went on to sweep the Oscars.
Half-full thinkers can still hope that there will be a bounty of female-helmed movies at the early fall Toronto-Telluride-Venice nexus. Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow has her as-year-unfinished Osama bin Laden film, Zero Dark Thirty (horrible title alert!), slated for the holiday season.
And, in a pleasant surprise, the Tribeca Film Festival, which is currently in full swing, overflows with female-directed films of all stripes. Among the most prominent are Sarah Polley’s quirky dramedy Take This Waltz, featuring Michelle Williams as a straying Toronto wife; Julie Delpy’s shrewd kooky relationship comedy 2 Days in New York, which pairs the actress with Chris Rock; and Lynn Shelton’s sexy sibling rivalry drama with Emily Blunt, Your Sister’s Sister. While not all movies are Oscar-bait, Tribeca presents a bounty of promising women filmmakers, including Tanya Wexler (Hysteria), Malgorzata Szumowska (Elles), Julia Dyer (The Playroom), Sharon Bar-Ziv (Room 514), Lucy Malloy (Una Noche), Kat Cairo (While We Were Here), and Beth Murphy (The List).
It’s unconscionable that the Cannes selection committee, which received in the neighborhood of 1,800 movie submissions, considers this artistic bias a non-issue. It’s up to bold filmmakers who are part of the boys’ club — Cronenberg, Daniels, and Anderson among them — to squawk about the inequity. We love them; now it’s time for them to return the love.