July 17, 2008

Mamma Mia -- Feminist Creative Power on Film

I've been following the press leading up to the opening of Mamma Mia! this week and I have to say, while there have been some negative reviews (and I will be very interested to see if it is mostly guys who hate the film), the overall tenor of the press has been much kinder than it was to Sex and City. There are no nasty articles about any of the women's appearances, or the shallowness of American women for liking the film.

Some of the reviewers have questioned Streep for taking on this type of "light" role, but she has embraced it wholeheartedly, and clearly enjoyed the experience of working with an all female team.

So I can't help but wonder, did we conquer film sexism in the last month? Are women's movies going to be welcomed differently because of how nasty the treatment of SATC? Why is it that this movie --the second one this summer-- which seems poised to have women getting ready to see it with friends and daughters alike getting different treatment?

One reason I think is that most of the critics and blogger are distracted this weekend. When SATC opened it was the dominant film on its weekend (and we don't like women to be dominant at anything); Mamma Mia will be counter programming against the Batman flick.

But I am still wondering -- is Mamma Mia less threatening to the movie industry and the culture than Sex and the City was? Is it that Sex and the City had, well, sexy women and sex while asking some serious questions about our culture, while Mamma Mia comes off as a fun musical about a wedding?

The irony is that this fun musical about a wedding bucks every Hollywood convention, and it makes Mamma Mia one of the most feminist movies of the year. Way more feminist than SATC. It's got women power -- mature women power-- written all over it.

  • All the creatives are women over 50.
  • It stars women.
  • Is written by a woman -Catherine Johnson.
  • Is directed by a woman - Phyllida Lloyd.
  • Is produced by a woman -Judy Craymer.
And, it's already a success overseas having made $24 million since its release a couple of weeks ago.

I think its going to open pretty big here. Hopefully at least $25 million this weekend. It already has a built in audience (just like SATC), the show has been running on Broadway for years, has played all over the world, and Abba has got to be the world's most well known band.

It's amazing that Universal Pictures gave these women the power they did to make this film, but not surprisingly, it was another woman, Donna Langley, the president of production at Universal who made the call to trust these women.

Here's some great info on the film's history from a recent NY Times piece:
Ms. Craymer said that she hadn’t been trying to make a feminist point when she first enlisted Ms. Johnson and Ms. Lloyd to help realize her notion of an Abba musical or when she started hiring people for the film. But somehow, as she sought to fill the movie crew with others who “got” the “Mamma Mia!” factor, she ended up with even more women, including the production designer, Maria Djurkovic; the costume designer, Ann Roth; and the editor Lesley Walker.

Ms. Lloyd agreed that “the female team thing” resulted from “personality and talent rather than, ‘Oh, we’re going to have an all-girls team.’ ” But, she added, “I think it was fundamental.” And she reminded Ms. Craymer of something that happened when they first started thinking about the show: “I remember you saying that you asked Benny and Bjorn what they felt about having a woman director, and they actually said they actively liked collaborating with women.” Ms. Lloyd went on to surmise that the men’s Scandinavian ease with women in positions of power informed the whole project.
So I guess it's progress that this film has escaped the sexist overtone of Sex and the City. But I'm still wondering why Sex rubbed people so bad.
The Mamma Mia Factor Times Three (NY Times)
photo credit: Fred R.Conrad/ NY Times
from left to right- Catherine Johnson, Phyllida Law, Judy Craymer