Sunday 26 October 2014

Why Bella is beating Bond in the great box-office battle

Published 06/12/2012 | 06:00

The success of Twilight has led to a host of tough female heroines dominating Hollywood, says Ed PowerCameron's 'Aliens' gave us Ripley (left) as a take-no-prisoners action heroine

He's seen off supervillains, global conspiracies and, during the Roger Moore years, a multitude of crimes against fashion. But James Bond finally met his match last week – in the form of a willowy young girl with alabaster skin and big, creepy eyes.

The 'girl', of course, is Twilight heroine Kristen Stewart and, together with the rest of the cast of Breaking Dawn Part 2, she handed 007 a multiplex trouncing, knocking his latest foray, Skyfall, off the top of the American box office.

At first glance, maybe that isn't such a surprise. With the possible exception of Harry Potter, the five Twilight films have, since 2008, proved to be the great cinematic juggernaut of our time.

Bond is essentially a creaky nostalgia trip for those who still think the measure of an action hero is the number of gadgets he can cram into a retro sports car.

From another perspective, however, Stewart's muscling aside of the most super of super agents can be regarded as a seismic shift.

In one corner stands the ultimate alpha male icon, in the other a movie for, and largely about, teenage girls. We now live in a world where guys with guns can be outmaneuvered by intense young women with romance issues.

"Despite arguments that could be made about the portrayal of women in the Twilight films, they have demonstrated that films with female lead characters can find a mass market, and that they are worth producing and investing in for the studios," says Darren Mooney, author of Pass the Popcorn: Movie Memoirs 2011.

'Approximately 80pc of the opening weekend audience of those films are young women, a demographic that is often overlooked in favour of young men," he added.

"Twilight has done so much to change the culture of Hollywood and it does not get the acknowledgement it deserves because it is about a girl," said Melissa Silverstein, editor of the blog 'Women and Hollywood'. "It is gigantic. It has shown women can fuel box office. But it still is something that Hollywood does not know what to do with."

Predictably, Twilight has unleashed a flood of movies in which teenage girls with serious attitude very literally punch above their weight.

One of the more high profile, Snow White and the Huntsman, actually starred Stewart. The film put a very different spin on the age-old fairytale – rather than a passive victim of the wicked queen's machinations, in this contemporary version of Snow White, Stewart rides a horse, swings a sword and leads an army into battle.

Shrugging off overwhelmingly indifferent reviews, it was an enormous success, a fact subsequently overshadowed by revelations that 22-year-old Stewart was conducting an affair with the movie's 41-year-old married director Rupert Sanders.

When the scandal finally dies down the film will be seen for what it was: irrefutable evidence that, marketed correctly, a butt-kicking heroine can conquer the multiplex.

An even clearer example of a studio pitching to Generation Twilight was the $680m (€523m) earning Hunger Games, which has propelled its rangy star Jennifer Lawrence to the very top of the A-list.

A stereotypical tomboy, her character Katniss Everdeen has a greater amount in common with Rambo than the stereotypical doe-eyed leading lady.

She hunts, rocks a crossbow and does not seem to have much of an internal life. For the bulk of the film, romance is the last thing on her mind.

On the face of it, the idea that Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart are the spiritual descendants of the exaggerated versions of themselves Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger played through the 1980s seems absurd.

They were non-ironic slabs of beefcake, whose day job consisted of shooting goons by the hundred. And yet, the argument may be advanced that Bella and Katniss are every bit as two-dimensional as Conan the Barbarian and Die Hard's John McClane. They have the same strong moral centre, the same belief that, sometimes, the good guys just have to go out there and kick some ass.

Hollywood has some previous form though. Darren Mooney points out that, in terms of strong female leads, there was Ripley from the Alien movies. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the first screen heroine where a facility for karate kicks was part of the appeal.

"James Cameron actually made considerable progress in the portrayal of female characters during the 1980s and 1990s," he says.

"Ridley Scott's Alien introduced us to Ellen Ripley. However, Cameron's sequel gave us Ripley as a take-no-prisoners action heroine. The character Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 helped cement Linda Hamilton as one of the very few female action stars." But there's been little real development until now.

The movie industry has glommed onto the success of Hunger Games, Twilight and Snow White and, in the months ahead, will churn out a stream of action flicks starring sassy heroines.

In 2013 audiences will be introduced to tough-cookie spell caster Lena, the star of the Beautiful Creatures fantasy book series, and to Lily Collins as Clare Fray, protagonist in the first Mortal Instruments movie.

"I think we're seeing the studios concede that there are people out there interested in action movies with female heroes," says Mooney.

"The Hunger Games is the most obvious example, with Katniss a far more dynamic heroine than Bella ever was. However, there are indications that the influence is spreading even further.

"One of the amendments that Peter Jackson made to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings was to expand the roles of the female characters and there's even talk of an all-female version of The Expendables coming out."

So should feminists be reaching for the champagne? Perhaps not.

One difficulty is that female A-listers are too easily stereotyped, says movie writer Nicola Timmins. "A lot of actresses get pigeon-holed into a type early on – for example Reese Witherspoon into romantic comedy, Natalie Portman into drama," she says. "And while they can break out occasionally, there aren't the female action roles there for an actress to establish themselves with. There are few women in Hollywood who can open a blockbuster as the lead and, with no established women in action, it's unlikely that we'll see a female opening an action film as the hero any time soon.

"Beyond Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson is probably the best example – she stepped in to the role of action hero in Avengers. However, a film based solely around her heroine, Black Widow, would probably still be too much of gamble."

It's notable that this new generation of female action stars are all in their teens or early 20s. There is no equivalent of Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton. The closest was Lena Headey in the Sarah Connor Chronicles, a TV sequel to the Terminator saga cancelled after two seasons. You look around the movie landscape and the only grown up female action heroine is Angelina Jolie, an icon who has always followed her own singular course.

"Girls can be powerful and strong. Women can't," according to Melissa Silverstein. "We are comfortable with girls kicking ass, but not a woman who is in her 20s or 30s, unless she happens to be Angelina Jolie. She is an anomaly."

But perhaps now times really are changing for women in Hollywood.

Irish Independent

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