There was a lot I couldn’t watch as a child (now referred to as a tween) in my house. Nothing violent (sorry Power Rangers), nothing featuring serious teen issues (take a hike Degrassi: Junior High) and certainly nothing sexually explicit (no Dawson’s Creek for me). So I can only assume I was at a sleepover the first time I saw Cruel Intentions. It was the teen drama of the millennium, and by the principles I had grown up on, completely scandalous. In the final scene as Annette peeled away from town and seemingly her troubles, it was as if Reese Witherspoon herself was speeding towards a promising future. She followed up Cruel Intentions with hits like Election and Legally Blonde, eventually leading her to the Oscar winning role of June Carter in Walk the Line. The Oscar curse is not much more than an old wives tale for the A-list set, a promise of career misfortune once that gold statue has been won. For Reese Witherspoon it may have been the Oscar curse, or just poor timing but a career that once seemed locked on a one way towards success was turning into a dead end.
In a humble interview for 60 Minutes, Witherspoon referred to the period after her Oscar win for Walk the Line as a slump; taking roles with little consequence just to keep working, her mind tangled by her divorce from Ryan Phillippe which came only months after the Oscar win. By the time the fog had lifted and she found herself back in meetings with top film executives in 2012, she was confronted with a lack of opportunities for women of a certain age and for women period. For some I suppose it can be difficult to look past her porcelain skin, beautiful blonde hair, southern drawl and the fact that she dated Jake Gyllenhaal. Yet in spite of all that privilege, she was still being met with resistance in her career; a field in which she had been awarded the highest of accolades. If opportunities were scarce for America’s Oscar winning sweetheart, what must it be like for others? For women still in the opening act of their careers? For women who aren’t Meryl Streep?
Gender inequality in film is not an anecdotal conversation to be had over the dinner table or a debate to engage in online for professionals like Bruna Papandrea and Reese Witherspoon; it was a lifetime devoted to an art form of storytelling and expression that apparently no longer had a place for them. The pursuit of a renewed faith in filmmaking resulted in Australian born producer Bruna Papandrea and Witherspoon joining forces and founding Pacific Standard Films, a production company aimed at creating comparable opportunities for women in leading roles both on and off screen.
At the Produced conference back in May of this year, Witherspoon noted that if half the population is made up of women, perhaps the films we watch should be a reflection of that. However this is more than a numbers game for Witherspoon and Papandrea; Pacific Standard is not only concerned with an increase in the quantity of roles and production positions available to women, but in the quality of these assignments. Do the acting roles have depth? Are the characters a true representation of the strength, resilience, race and age of the women who provide inspiration all around us? Whose stories are being told? Are the production positions cultivating new female talent? In an interview with The Frame, Witherspoon asks not only of herself but of the industry at large “What are you putting into the world and why?”.
Pacific Standard is setting a standard all their own; screenplays are being sought out and adapted from novels with strong female protagonists that are then transformed into meaningful leading and supporting roles for women. The films are performed, produced and directed by Hollywood heavyweights and the industry has taken notice. The company’s first films, Wild and Gone Girl, garnered Oscar nods for best actress in leading and supporting roles and made a half a billion dollars at the box office. Gender inequality in Hollywood seems to have a ripple effect; the absence of women in positions of leadership and innovation as writers, directors and producers, impacts the types of roles being designed and written for women. In discussions of privilege I am often met with the idea of representing what I know. Who could possibly be a better story-teller of women than women? The representation will always be more accurate from someone who has lived the experience, and judging by the projects Pacific Standard has dug into, nurturing a strong female voice is at the forefront of their mission. A single person, group or production company that can fully and accurately represent all women is a tall order. Pacific Standard will not be filling the gender gap in one fell swoop using only complex character writing and a team of female producers and assistants.
A quick search (yes, back to Google) of the top production companies in Hollywood led me to Warner, Disney, Universal and Columbia, not surprisingly there was not a female CEO in the lot. Pacific Standard can’t, isn’t and won’t be changing the face of women in film alone, but Papandrea and Witherspoon have already taken leaps and bounds in the right direction. They have upwards of 20 film projects currently in varying stages of production and 3 television shows in development. While there are always improvements that can be made, their success is already worth celebrating
After reading a few articles on the conception of Pacific Standard and watching the film Wild, I couldn’t help but draw a dot or two and connect them. Both the journey in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the creation Pacific Standard were born out of a desperate need for change in the status quo. Perhaps I recognized the feeling, the one that stems from the realization that somewhere along the line a few bad calls were made, that trust was not placed in the right people and help was sought in all the wrong places. Cheryl Strayed fought for atonement in the solitude of the Pacific Crest Trail and found a new lease on life while Reese Withserpoon fought for a resurgence of her own and found a new lease on her career. Yes, these are radically different in so many ways, but both are stories of soul searching, challenges being accepted and obstacles overcome; they are stories of strength and ingenuity. Stories of women, for women, by women.