Ben Affleck’s Argo is shaping up to be this year’s biggest success story. With a near-win for the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, stellar reviews across the board and an A+ CinemaScore rating from audiences, Argo is destined to be a huge hit at the box office and redemption for its once ostracized director. After an astounding string of critical and commercial disasters with an astounding amount of career-enders (Gigli, Paycheck and Jersey Girl among them), Affleck has been quietly generating buzz as an up-and-coming director with sleeper hits like Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). The latter pulled in almost $100 million at the box office, which Argo seems likely to best. In its third weekend, Argo topped the box office for the first time, taking in $12.4 million, and has now earned $60.8 million total. The movie is the first to do so in its third weekend since 2010’s True Grit, a huge sleeper hit that grossed $171 million stateside.
Because of the wide acclaim from audiences and critics, the movie currently stands as the front-runner on Gold Derby and Gurus of Gold’s Oscar predictions chart. These are the two most-trusted surveys of Oscar prognosticators, paid to be a breathing barometer of each year’s Oscar climate. And who can blame them for voting for predicting it? Argo has everything going for it as a Best Picture pony. On top of the Affleck comeback story, it’s a CIA period piece about a hostage crisis that also doubles as a witty satire about Hollywood. The Oscars love movies about the movies (see: last year’s winner, The Artist); handsomely mounted movies about the past (The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic); and actors-turned-directors (Million Dollar Baby, Braveheart, Dances With Wolves). It’s quickly becoming a consensus pick in a crowded race, as it has almost everything you could want in a movie.
Oh, right. Except for women.
Of the movie’s thirteen or so lead roles, two of them are played by women — the relatively unknown Kerry Bishe and lesbian icon Clea DuVall, who hasn’t been near a lead role in a major film since 2004’s The Grudge. (Two of her last three efforts went almost straight-to-video and the third, the 2010 Hilary Swank drama, Conviction, she was barely in.) Playing the supportive yet timid wives and girlfriends of men with larger parts, DuVall and Bishe get to stand around and look nervous, and Bishe looks forever on the edge of tears. I can’t recall either of their characters’ names or a distinct thing they actually do in the film, and the actresses get to share the scraps of lines thrown to them. (My generous estimate is 20.)
However, they get off better than poor Taylor Schilling, who plays Affleck’s estranged (yet still supportive) wife. Having acted in a major film in the last year (the Zac Efron vehicle The Lucky One), Schilling is the de-facto most famous woman in this film — which is a tallest Hobbit situation if there ever were one. Schilling’s only other big role was in the shockingly inept 2010 adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and Bishe’s most famous work was on the last season of Scrubs, aka. Scrubs University — that no one watched. Despite her relative fame, Schilling doesn’t get any lines in the film, and you can see her face onscreen for three-ish seconds. Her job in the movie? She gets to hug Ben Affleck, a feat of acting prowess I bet she can’t wait to add to her IMDB profile.
With Schilling in the part, I imagine that her role was reduced from a larger one, and her plot line screams of Phantom Storyline syndrome. Throughout the film, much reference is made to Affleck’s wife and son, a device used to garner sympathy for his character, Tony Mendez. (He’s not just a tortured CIA agent; he’s a tortured CIA agent who cares.) This plot point isn’t necessary for the overall arc of the main action, and so I can see why Affleck whittled down its screen time. However, Affleck is able to give roles, jobs and actual lines to no less than 10 name character actors (like Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Victor Garber), TV actors (Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina and Bryan Cranston) and lesser-known-but-respected vets (Richard Kind and Tate Donovan). Arkin and Goodman, who steal the film, get ample screen time to cut up and be merry, and Garber and Donovan, who play smaller parts, are allowed to have a part in the narrative in a way the female characters simply are not.
Part of the movie’s marginalization of female characters can be rationalized away by the true-life nature of the film. Because the movie is “based on a true story,” Affleck and his screenwriter, Chris Terrio, have to somewhat stick to the facts and show the story the way things happened. But unlike this year’s Compliance, which told about as accurate of an account of real-life workplace abuse possible, Argo plays fast and loose with the facts for cinematic impact — to ramp up the drama and intensity. (If you needed someone to tell you the airport chase probably didn’t happen that way, you have no idea what the definition of a movie is.) Thus, the “we-had-to-stick-to-the-facts-so-no-lines-for-womenfolk” argument doesn’t hold up. If you can make room for an airport chase, a protracted dénouement where Mendez is awarded an Intelligence Star, a speech from Jimmy Carter (that adds nothing to the film) and a gratuitous shot of Affleck’s abs, you can give one woman something to do. Anything at all. I’m not saying they should create a new role for a woman or magically create a female spy (it’s not Alias, after all), but the women here deserve more than virtual silence.
Affleck’s previous film, The Town, suffered a similar problem, where the two lead roles for women were a mumble-mouthed stripper (Blake Lively) and a nice-girl hostage with PTSD (Rebecca Hall), who mostly got to tremble, while looking fawn-like and helpless. The reliance on good girl/tragic hooker dichotomies was offensive and tired, but at least those roles were played by two of the It Girls of the moment. Lively was (and still is) a pervasive tabloid figure and the ever-terrific Hall was coming off her recent Globe nomination for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The parts didn’t add much to the overall film (and Lively could disappear without anyone noticing), but at least Affleck’s casting choices showed he cared about those parts — rather than implicitly saying they could be played by anyone.
Argo isn’t alone in marginalizing women’s roles in film, as all but five of this year’s Top 20 films were dominated by men, and even films that feature women as leads do so in films where their gender is the minority (see: The Hunger Games, Brave, Snow White and the Huntsman). Although it may be wrong to criticize Argo for doing the same thing everyone else is (just more egregiously), the film shows that even our “serious films” often do not privilege women’s narratives. Of the 10 predicted nominees on Gold Derby, only three of those can boast campaigning a Best Actress nominee (Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Silver Linings Playbook). Although Jennifer Lawrence is terrific in The Silver Linings Playbook and is a lock for a Best Actress nomination, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone argues that her role is more of a supporting one, where she “chases relentlessly after Bradley Cooper…[and] spends much of the movie in a tight danskin top bouncing up and down joyfully.”
This is indicative of an Oscar race and an industry where even the lead roles for women are really supporting, where women are “mattresses, eye-candy or ego-propper-uppers.” Of the last fifteen years, only five Best Picture winners could campaign an actress in lead and two of those roles (American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love) serve more to support the larger narrative of their male counterparts rather than serving their own arc. During that period, only 19 Best Picture nominees have boasted true lead roles, and 7 of those have been in the last three years, when the Oscars expanded their Best Picture field. None of 2005’s nominees had either a true female lead or a lead role that’s really supporting, and if you can name an actress in Munich off the top of your head, I’ll eat my shoe. (To save you the IMDB visit, the largest roles are Ayelet Zurer and Gila Almagor, who play a supportive wife/girlfriend and a mother. They are billed sixth and eighth, and the latter is simply called “Avner’s Mother.”)
Being the Oscar frontunner, Argo says a lot about what the industry thinks is worthy of merit and the values that our industry seeks to promote through its films. If (or when) Argo wins Best Picture, we will see yet another film where the lives and narratives of men are held up as being worthy of praise, at the expense of women who, like Almagor or Schilling, don’t even get names or lines. As a movie about movies, the film holds up a mirror to Hollywood, accidentally reflecting and perpetuating that industry’s rampant and systemic sexism. If this is the system by which we judge “greatness” and “success,” we need a new system.