10 DAYS IN A MADHOUSE is a feature motion picture thriller set in the post Civil War era as “The Greatest Reporter in America,” Nellie Bly goes undercover in a notorious woman’s insane asylum to expose atrocities, abuse, rape and murder.
The feature length movie thriller 10 DAYS IN A MADHOUSE chronicles the real life experiences of Nellie Bly, who was born during the Civil War and in a world run by men was called “the greatest reporter in America,” “fearless,” and, “daredevil reporter.” The creators of Superman based his counterpart, reporter Lois Lane, on Nellie Bly.Bly circled the globe in 72 days, worked as an elephant trainer and risked her life time and again going undercover in crime and slavery rings to bring horrors against the helpless to light. At 23 she feigned mental illness to go undercover in the notorious Blackwell’s Island Woman’s Insane Asylum to expose atrocities, abuse rape and murder.
After her breakthough role in Juno, Ellen Page unexpectedly found herself on the Hollywood A-list. But she still prefers smaller, tougher movies – and speaking her mind.
The day before Ellen Page and I meet up in Los Angeles, Barack Obama’s administration makes a long overdue announcement: it will finally allow Plan B, a morning-after pill, to be made available to girls and women without a prescription. This move is, the New York Times reports with some understatement, “fraught with political repercussions for Obama”.
This will sound absurd to most people who live in Britain, where the morning-after pill has been available without a prescription for over a decade. But in America, where certain politicians have about as much understanding of the realities of women’s biology and contraceptive needs as a dung beetle, the issue of how much control a woman is allowed to have over her own body remains anachronistically fraught.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, the feminist revolution in America seemed unstoppable – until it suddenly seemed to stop. In 1972, the year before Roe vs Wade, Ms Magazine ran a feature titled We’ve Had Abortions, which was undersigned by 53 well-known women including Lillian Hellman, Nora Ephron and Billie Jean King. Ask an American female celebrity today whether she is even a feminist and you are likely to get ignorant verbal diarrhoea (Lady Gaga: “I am not a feminist – I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male and beer and bars and muscle cars”) and fearful denials (Björk: “[To say I'm a feminist] would isolate me.”) The best Beyoncé could muster when recently asked if she considered herself a feminist was: “That word can be very extreme … I do believe in equality … But I’m happily married. I love my husband.” She was, she conceded, “a modern-day feminist”, and that is probably true, seeing as, if you are a female celebrity, being a “modern day feminist” seems to involve distancing yourself from the word. “At this point,” New York magazine writer Maureen O’Connor blogged in response to Beyoncé’s comments, “women who have a vested in being popular – ie celebrities – are still afraid of the word feminism.”
When Page and I sit down for tea in the courtyard of a hotel in west Hollywood, she has been, for the past few weeks, the target of heavy abuse. She has long been a vocal supporter of access to Plan B: “So u r super mad about a 15 yr old girl being able to prevent pregnancy BUT you want everyone to have guns no questions asked? U funny!” the self-described “tiny Canadian” tweeted last month. That particular comment prompted a deluge of online criticism (“Twitter has demonstrated that actors really are that ignorant. Thanks, Ellen,” one tweeter proffered), much to her unconcerned amusement (“Haaaaaaaaaaa haaaaaa,” she replied.)
“I think if you’re not from America you read this stuff and you’re like, ‘What?’ But I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” she asks in her quiet voice that belies the firm opinions it is often expressing. “Feminism always gets associated with being a radical movement – good. It should be. A lot of what the radical feminists [in the 1970s] were saying, I don’t disagree with it.” These are not statements you are likely to hear from Beyoncé any time soon.
To be fair, talking with Page is a markedly different experience from talking with any female celebrity I’ve encountered. Our conversation ranges from how the making of her iPhone has “caused the oppression of many people”, whether capitalism is the religion of destruction (“It sort of is,” she decides), the economics of Big Macs, discrimination against the LGBT community and agricultural design. This is all within the first 15 minutes. The last actress I interviewed (not for the Guardian) spent about 45 minutes discussing how her life “is literally a journey. Literally.”
Page, by contrast, can’t stop talking about big issues and twice decides to extend our interview. She reels off esoteric book recommendations (“I just devoured this great book about the mistaken theories of pre-historic sexuality. Dude, you would love it!”) with the enthusiasm of an intellectually curious teenager. If at times her argument gets a little ahead of her, such as expressing outrage that schools teach hardly any female authors other than Jane Austen (the Brontes? Toni Morrison?), what she occasionally lacks in precision she more than makes up for in refreshingly fearless passion. At one point I try to relate something she just said to her latest movie, The East, which we are meant to be discussing, and she does a double-take as if to say: “Why do you want me to do movie promotion stuff when we can talk about radical feminist Shulamith Firestone instead?”
When Page says “I like getting outside and dirty”, she’s talking about her childhood home in Nova Scotia, but the statement could equally apply to her work. She is still best known for her performance as a pregnant teenager in 2007′s Juno, for which she got a deserved Oscar nomination, and she has more recently been appearing in interesting big-budget films, such as Inception and X-Men: the Last Stand, as well as comedies such as Drew Barrymore’s Whip It and Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. But she always seems happiest in smaller, tougher movies. Her breakout film was 2005′s Hard Candy, a brutal tale of a 14-year-old girl who traps a paedophile and tortures him. In the 2010 black comedy Super, she adopts a fake superhero persona and takes revenge on pretty much everyone. The East is very much in this vein, with Page playing Izzy, an extremely determined member of an eco-terrorist group which enacts brutal revenge on anyone who they think is damaging the planet. It is a thoughtful, heartfelt film and, like Hard Candy, it is smart on the grey morality of those who are most certain in their actions. Page is, as usual, excellent, full of fury underscored with humanity, and her performance has prompted comparisons with the wonderful American actor Lili Taylor, whose early career was similar to Page’s, mixing mainstream and extreme.
There is, though, an unfortunate irony that one of the very few young actresses happy to describe themselves as a feminist remains most closely associated with a film that many saw as having an anti-abortion message. In Juno, Page, playing the eponymous 16-year-old, decides to have an abortion, only to bump into a classmate in front of the clinic who is protesting against abortions. “Your baby has fingernails!” her classmate tells her.
“Fingernails, really?” Juno replies. She then decides not to terminate her pregnancy.
Was she surprised by the furore the film sparked?
“No because I know what people are like in America about women’s ability to make choices for themselves in regards to their bodies. The only thing that was annoying was people taking it as a pro-life movie because she had the baby,” she says. After all, Page continues, “if she’d had the abortion it would be a short movie”, which is a fair point. But her voice rises a little when she adds: “And at least we say the word abortion,” suggesting she knows that’s a pretty weak argument.
But the problem wasn’t that Juno had the baby, I say. It was that she decides not to have the abortion because of something a pro-life protestor said.
“Ohhhh, I see, that’s a good point,” she says, sitting back in her chair.
So how does she feel about the film in light of that perspective?
“Well, I feel like we – ” she begins gamely, before giving up, “no, that’s a good point. But it’s funny, I never thought that she responds to the protester but of course you’re right.”
Like nearly all of Page’s films, The East aims to unsettle the audience as opposed to seeking mass popularity, and Page agrees that she finds it “satisfying” to be in something “that provokes people, even if it’s not positive”. More importantly, perhaps, Izzy – like all of Page’s roles – is a tough, independent woman who isn’t there just to bolster the leading man. Does Page feel a responsibility to seek such roles out?
“Yeah absolutely,” she replies before I finish the question. “Also if I played those other kinds of roles I would just die a slow death. But yes, I think it’s really important, but it can be hard. Only 23% of speaking roles in films today are for women. It feels we’ve gone backwards.” Partly in response to this, she has started writing her own script “which is definitely feminist – definitely. But of course, if you just write a script in which the woman has control over her destiny and love isn’t the main thing in the film, that’s seen as super feminist.” She is also slated to direct a movie, starring Ana Faris, but filming is still some way off: “It’s hard to get stuff made, especially if it’s about women. Everything’s about in-ter-nat-ion-al bank-a-bility,” she sing-songs to words, mockingly.
So has she ever encountered sexism in Hollywood?
“Oh my God, yeah! It’s constant! It’s how you’re treated, it’s how you’re looked at, how you’re expected to look in a photoshoot, it’s how you’re expected to shut up and not have an opinion, it’s how you –” she pauses. “If you’re a girl and you don’t fit the very specific vision of what a girl should be, which is always from a man’s perspective, then you’re a little bit at a loss.”
Page is very much, she says, “a jeans and T-shirt” kind of girl (when we meet she is looking like a modern day Patti Smith in a blazer, a Keith Richards T-shirt, burgundy jeans and rock-chick ankle boots) and was “a total tomboy who played soccer” as a kid, and happily so. But when she came under the spotlight she felt, for the first time, self-conscious about her looks, as well as becoming, she says, “more self-deprecating”: “There are moments when you are, um, encouraged to dress a certain way. But I can’t. It just erodes my soul,” she says with a nervous laugh. “That’s no criticism to girls who can wear a tiny dress and kill it – that’s awesome. People always attribute being a feminist to hating girls being sexual, and that’s not it at all. I’m just not into it.”
So she’s not going to follow the examples of many of her acting contemporaries of posing nearly naked in a men’s magazine?
“You know, if a person finds doing that empowering, that’s great,” she begins cautiously. “But I don’t feel it’s all that helpful. It’s not the direction I want to take.”
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of the sexism Page has encountered is that pretty much as soon as she came to international attention in Juno, rumours started about her sexuality, simply because, to quote one well-known accusatory blogpost in 2008, “she certainly dresses like a, you know, tomboy and if you Google ‘Ellen Page boyfriend’, not a whole lot comes up.” (Going by such criteria, half the women I know should, by rights, be lesbians.) Page responded to the gossip in characteristically unabashed style, neither confirming nor denying it but rather mocking it on Saturday Night Live in 2009. In the skit, Page is accused of being “a primo lesbian”: “Gay, no way!” Page cries, rolling around on the floor with her legs in the air. “Why does everything have a freaking label? Why can’t I just hug a woman with my legs in friendship?”
Page in Juno in 2007. Photograph: c.FoxSearch/Everett / Rex Featur
Today, Page shifts about in her seat and giggles a little nervously when I bring up the skit. Wasn’t she – still only 21 at the time – nervous about confronting the issue on national TV? “It will sound like I’m making this up but I don’t think I even thought about it at the time. I just thought the skit was funny. All of that gossip is silly – people caring about [celebrities' personal lives] – I just don’t get it.” Four years on, proving how ephemeral and meaningless this kind of prurient talk is, speculation about Page’s romantic life has now switched tack with rumours now focusing on a possible relationship between her and her co-star in The East, Alexander Skarsgaård. Page blushes when she refers to him, unprompted, as her “um, male friend”, but her publicist later laughs and says the two are simply friends. In any event, it is perhaps not surprising that soon after she had been nominated for Juno and had finished filming Whip It, Page escaped Hollywood for a month to live in an ecovillage in Oregon for a while “and pee in a bucket and hang out with goats. It was nice,” she says, a little wistfully.
Growing up in Canada, Page never dreamed about being an actor. But when a local casting director happened to come to her school when she was 10, she tried out and was cast in a TV movie. This then led to a TV show, then another, then a movie, but it wasn’t until she was in here mid-teens that she started to see acting as possibly something more than a hobby. When she was 15, she flew to Europe to make a movie and she still has the mix of precocious confidence punctuated with occasional fragility of one who left home at a young age to go work on their own in a foreign country.
Page is still coming to terms with the idea that working in films is her career, although she often suffers guilt about her choice. A little like her character in The East, she is very involved in environmental causes and there remains a large part of her that is tempted by activism.
“I’ve really gone back and forth and thought: ‘OK, do you become a really intense activist, whether it’s civil disobedience or monkey wrenching or whatever? Or do you live in the infrastructure and navigate it as best as possible?’ I don’t know what the answer is. Right now I am trying to make movies because I love it, and I think telling stories is meaningful. Um, but maybe it’s not and maybe that’s just an excuse for my selfishness,” she says.
Just as some people use celebrity gossip to distract themselves from the tedium of their own lives, perhaps Page’s focus on environmental causes and feminism distract her from all the celebrity-focused nonsense swirling around her?
“Absolutely, yes. I like going to places where all that [fame] has no value,” she says.
Later that day, after our interview, Page is back on Twitter. She ignores the barrage of tweets demanding to know whether she and Skarsgaård are an item after she retweeted a photo of the two of them. Instead, she writes the message: “Pretty crazy that people who can’t get pregnant get to decide what happens to uteri across the nation.” She’s still outside, getting dirty.
A new study finds that women were grossly underrepresented in front of and behind the screen in 2012.
Every time I look at the film listings lately my heart sinks. It’s hard out here for a woman. If you’re packing a pair of ovaries, might as well pack it in mama. There’s very little here for you.
Let’s take a look at the films currently playing at the Scotiabank Theatre – Fast and Furious 6, Star Trek, Iron Man 3D and Oblivion. All of these films star men, were made by men, and are principally about men. Not only that, but when they’re released in the theatre, they’re critiqued mainly by even more men (91 per cent of critics writing for major entertainment magazines and/or websites are of the male persuasion). These critiques are then published in magazines and aired on TV and media outlets that are also owned by almost entirely by men (women make up more than 50 per cent of the population but they hold less than seven percent of all TV and radio station licenses in the U.S.).
This is no big surprise, but things have actually gotten exponentially worse lately. The previous year was not a good one for women. In fact, 2012 was the lowest year for women in front of the camera. Behind the scenes, things were even worse. Melissa Silverstein’s recent article in Indiewire lays it out in fine print. Read and get righteously pissed off.
Writes the fine Ms. Silverstein: “In a brand new five-year study from Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Elizabeth Scofield, & Dr. Katherine Pieper at the USC Annenberg Center, they found that ‘females are grossly underrepresented on screen in 2012 films. Out of 4,475 speaking characters onscreen, only 28.4 per cent are female.’ And it also should be no surprise that when a female is present, she is usually younger than the male character. Overall, for every single female character we see onscreen, we see 2.5 male characters. The study goes on to say that women make up only 16.7 per cent of the 1,228 directors, writers and producers across the 100 top-grossing films of 2012. Women accounted for 4.1 per cent of directors, 12.2 per cent of writers and 20 per cent of producers. The grim news is that for every woman working behind the scenes in 2012, five dudes were employed.”
That is not the only grim bit of news, but for anyone who was paying attention to the Star Trek under-panties debacle, every time a woman does show up on screen, she is there for tits and titillation, a hypersexualized cartoon designed to promote priapism.
Silverstein’s article goes on to state: “Females from 13-20 are more likely to be hypersexualized i.e. [exposing at least some skin in the breast, midriff, or high upper thigh area] than older women in all demographic groups. Teenage girls wearing sexy clothes increased 22 per cent between 2009 and 2012.”
Sometimes I find myself trolling through Netflix, watching the worst films I can find. I’m not sure exactly what is driving this behaviour. There is something pushing me on, some sort of conspiracy theory impulse, a need to look for the kernel at the dark heart of all this apparent crap and ask: “What the hell is going on exactly?”
Because the only thing worse than all the men onscreen lately are the women.
Watching some Adam Sandler monstrosity the other day, I found myself whispering in awe, “This is so bad.” It’s not simply that there are so many awful, terrible pieces of junk — mainstream film has always made heaps of crap, that’s no big surprise to anyone — but it feels like there is something far more insidious at work.
Let’s take the film Grownups for example. The plot, if you will, consists of a group of childhood friends returning to the site of their youth to recapture something of that gilded past. The original film starred Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade and Rob Schneider. The sequel, soon to be released this July, reunites the same cast. I expect men in such films to act like tools, but it is the women that gave me pause. These are actresses (Maya Rudolph, Salma Hayek and Maria Bello) who are not without talent or ability. But each of these women are reduced to little more than a frown line, followed by an indulgent chuckle and a sigh: “Boys will be boys.” I don’t even know what to make of this, except that the women will apparently accept the thinnest gruel on the ground. It’s work, after all. But lord almighty… this shit is humiliating.
If you were a young and impressionable lass, you might well believe that women were largely simpering nits, who summon up just enough pluck to nab a bozo to marry and then lapse back into wallpaper mode, pretty, vapid, not overly distracting. I exaggerate a little, maybe, not terribly much.
When exactly did films turn female characters into someone you would never even want to know? Certainly, there are some exceptions, but they don’t disprove the rule. For every woman in a starring role, whether she is a sex-slayer-bitch-goddess or marriage-obsessed-wiener with only china patterns and bouquet arrangements on her twee little mind, there are apparently five men. This is not to say that men also aren’t subjected to lockstep patterns of rigid penises, but as least they get to have more fun along the way, blowing shit up, shooting things, racing around in souped-up muscle pants and starships.
I like the men-folk well enough. They’re lots of fun and the more useful ones can unblock your sink and help set up your DVD player. But too much of anything is never a good thing. This is especially true when it comes to men onscreen.
I am beyond tired of superheroes, bored to petulance by all the grunting and groaning, exploding spaceships, whirling bits of machinery, explosions and ladies in their under-panties. It’s all too much. Star Trek writer Damon Lindelof has already been forced to apologize for a gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her bra and panties in the latest version of the Star Trek enterprise. I say, let the woman have her moment; there is precious little else for her to do, except get her kit off. The rest of the women (all one of them) on the crew huff and pout about relationships, since you know that is mainly what interests women. In the face of imminent threat and danger, what is there to do but harangue your man into talking about his feelings?
Needed: characters with consequences
This is not just a phenomenon that happens in the lowbrow world of buddy comedies and rom-coms. In the art-house realms, similar things are afoot. Exactly one woman has won the director’s award at the Cannes Film Festival. A few years back, when Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life captured the big old prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Cinema Scope Magazine convened a round table of 10 different critics and film experts to talk about the film. There was not a single woman included. I read the piece and thought that if there had been 10 women without any men in attendance, you would have had a very different interpretation of the film.
This is not make any kind of case for gender essentialism, but simply to state that women are often interested in different things in film, see different things, simply because they often experience life quite differently from men.
The deck is stacked and I don’t mean it has giant boobs. In a recent interview with Dorothy Pomerantz of Forbes Magazine, Amy Pascal, the head of Sony Studios, told tales out of school.
Says Pascal of the difficulties faced by women making mainstream movies: “For a woman to direct a movie in Hollywood, she has to go through so many layers of rejection by the powers that be — I suppose including myself — that it is harder to get to that point. So you can’t just create something. And I think there is a whole unconscious mountain… I think that the whole system is geared for them to fail and we’re going to have to change a lot of what we do in order for that to happen… The most important thing in the job that we do here is to make movies about women where they are characters that have consequences in the story. They can be villains, they can be protagonists, I don’t care, but their movements, their actions, what they do in the plot has to actually matter. And that’s the most important thing, because young girls coming up are going to see that they matter, that you’re not an appendage to someone else, that you’re not married to the person, not their sister or friend or girlfriend. You actually are the plot.”
I haven’t seen a female character I could relate to since Bridesmaids, and that came out more than two years ago. Where are the dames that shit in the sink? Where are the Valkyries of old, women who put the world to rights by riding into the flames, astride giant horses, screaming their heads off? Where are your fierce smart women, the trash-talking, joke-making, baby-raising, breadwinning, hard-drinking, deep-thinking women? The women you actually know and admire in the real world?
Lindelof, who is also the co-creator of Lost, took to Twitter after fans pointed out the unnecessary nature of the offending segue, in which science officer Carol Marcus strips down to a bra and knickers while preparing to pull on a special torpedo disarming outfit.
“I copped to the fact that we should have done a better job of not being gratuitous in our representation of a barely clothed actress,” he wrote, adding: “We also had Kirk shirtless in underpants in both movies, [but I] do not want to make light of something that some construe as misogynistic. What I’m saying is I hear you, I take responsibility and will be more mindful in the future.”
Lindelof’s follower Kristen McHugh summed up the general response to the scene when she wrote: “I kinda enjoyed that Dr Marcus told Kirk (and the audience) to put their eyes back in their heads. But overall: less male gaze, more speaking and non-object roles for women, please.” User Devon Faraci wrote: “You had [Kirk] shirtless both times in situations where it made sense. Carol’s scene was gratuitous.”
However, another of Lindelof’s followers, Mark Newbold, wrote: “I can’t tell if you are being serious or tongue in cheek. I hope the latter. Trek is supposed to be sexy and randy, it always was.” And user Chris Blohm added: “Damon, please don’t feel as if you have to skimp on future Kirk/underpant situations because of this.”
Damon also appeared sheepish in an email to MTV on the subject. “Why is Alice Eve in her underwear, gratuitously and unnecessarily, without any real effort made as to why in God’s name she would undress in that circumstance?” He asked. “Well there’s a very good answer for that. But I’m not telling you what it is. Because… uh… MYSTERY?”