“This is so wonderful, this whole gathering of women,” declared Meryl Streep to the stylish set of female supporters seated inside the Four Seasons Beverly Hills for Elle Magazine’s annual Women in Hollywood awards on Monday night. “But I mean, you really have to admit,” the beloved actress continued, “That if they had this great big meeting once a year, and they called it ‘Men in Hollywood,’ and they had like, 17% women there — who felt besieged and awkward — and they gave a lot of awards to the men of Hollywood, we would be pissed!”
“Oh wait,” Streep continued, summoning a premature roar of applause. “They have those meetings… every day, in every city, in every country in the world!”
And so went the 22nd toast to intrepid women in entertainment — perhaps more timely than ever, given its occurrence during what host Joel McHale called “a history-making year for women in the industry.” Giving special recognition to Jennifer Lawrence, McHale noted, “Great strides have been made on behalf of equal pay… and all it took it was a simple grassroots campaign involving a foreign country hacking into the email servers of a multinational corporation.”
Many of the high-profile presenters and honorees touted each other’s confidence and strength. First up, Shailene Woodley praised her “Divergent” series costar Kate Winslet. “Kate, you offer so much wisdom, simply in your example of self-love,” Woodley said. “It is the greatest gift to the female Queendom to have you as our pillar, and anchor, and advocate for not only accepting, but appreciating and celebrating every element of our feminine forms.”
“I didn’t pay her to say any of that, by the way,” reassured Winslet, upon taking the podium. “And I didn’t make out with her, either!” She continued to score laughs when bestowing thanks. “I feel I want to mention my dear friend Emma Thompson, who showed me… I mean, Meryl, come on!” Winslet interjected, to the tune of cheers. “It was her or you, frankly!”
And she actively demonstrated Woodley’s heartfelt claim — about promoting self-love — when she spoke of her own personal woman of the year, her daughter Mia (to whom, as she told press earlier, she gives “lots of reinforcement every day”). “[My daughter] looks at herself in the mirror every day and tells me she’s happy being her,” Winslet stated with pride.
Mary J. Blige, who worked with director Ava DuVernay on an apple music commercial she starred in opposite Taraji P. Henson and Kerry Washington, next took the stage. “From the moment I met Ava, something just clicked… This was clearly a woman with purpose,” pronounced Blige, who said all she wanted was for DuVernay to be her friend.
“I want to be your friend, too!” answered DuVernay, praising Blige’s presence and power and sisterhood and sincerity when she joined the songstress. She then recalled her uncle’s stories about a village in Haynesville, Alabama, “less than 20 miles from Selma” — whose population was all-black and deemed “less than,” but kept themselves strong and cultivated joy. “I invite us to think of this room as a village,” DuVernay entreated. “One that fights for change on the outside, but one that recognizes that an equal part of that fight is keeping ourselves strong and joyous and sane in a really insane industry.”
DuVernay received “no joy” out of the fact that she and Angelina Jolie represented the only two females in a group of 109 directors behind the 100 top-grossing films. And while she hates the word “diversity” (“feels like medicine”), “inclusion” feels better to her, and “belonging” best of all. “I feel like I belong here tonight, even though I’m the odd man out,” DuVernay claimed. “Odd man out, only being that everyone else is a size 2… Oh, you too, Amy?” she added, when Amy Schumer vehemently stood up and rose to her defense.
Streep continued the sequence of laughs when she honored her friend Carey Mulligan (who she considers to be “a teeny bit of a mystery,” and who recently gave birth to a baby girl). “I saw her on stage in ‘The Seagull,’ and she played Nina, a true innocent — an actual virgin — which is hard to play,” Streep attested to the crowd. “We’ve all tried!”
Streep then praised her costar’s work in “Suffragette,” noting, “This beauty, the beauty of her conversion, the quality of her listening, is just visceral, and it’s a function of her own thinking, accessing, feeling mind, that we witness this. I’m in awe of your talent, I really am,” Streep said. “I’m also in awe of your voice! Mine is gone, you know, but yours is like warm caramel poured over the English language!”
Mulligan expressed her profound gratitude to Streep — who also assisted during their press tour. “It’s really helpful when you have Meryl Streep backstage at events, shouting at people on your behalf, telling them to shut the hell up, because you’ve got a nursing mother here!” she said. For Mulligan, “Suffragette” succeeded in prompting a thought. “A woman threw herself in front of the king’s horse in 1913 and changed the course of history, and no one, in 100 years, felt this was a story worthy of the big screen,” she said. “Which made me think, if this monumental moment can go undocumented, imagine how many millions of women’s stories there are for us to tell?”
After receiving her award from former roommates and fellow Swedes, electric pop duo Icona Pop, Alicia Vikander (who’s currently filming the next “Bourne” film with Matt Damon) spoke of a similar epiphany. “I’d just finished a scene and I had one of those good feelings. I thought it went well, but it was not really that… this was the first film where I found myself in a scene with another woman,” she’d realized.
It was a different sort of film that presenter Leslie Mann referenced. “In order to prepare this speech, I watched ’50 Shades of Grey’ three times this morning, and then I watched it two more times, just to make sure I knew what I was talking about,” said good friend to honoree Dakota Johnson.
“I can’t believe that Christian Grey asked her if he could hit her on the butt six times, and made her count with him!” Mann exclaimed, to many squeals. “It just seems unreasonable, to have to ask her to count under those circumstances! But, is anal fisting like, a thing?” she posed, noting that in real life, her non-virginal friend “would suspend him from the ceiling and smack him open like a pinata.” She then made Johnson a generous offer: “I don’t want my friend Dakota to have to go through that again. So I am officially volunteering to take over the part of Anastasia Steele, to save her from that pain.”
When Johnson took the stage, a pivotal turn in the night occurred. Rather than being bold and unapologetic and almighty, the women, most endearingly, began to show their vulnerabilities — which seemed, more than anything yet, to be the greatest sign of their strength.
“When I began thinking about what on God’s green earth I would say, I felt this irritating pressure to impress you all with my message… and I kept looking for some richer, more textured way to say what I stand for, and to find myself. But the problem is, that I’m not quite clear on what that is yet,” Johnson bravely ventured. “So now, I just found myself being flung into an existential crisis. And all the while, I’m just raging against the injustice of my crippling self-doubt. And then I was wondering, do these other women here tonight, that I admire so deeply, feel this way, too? Do they question themselves? Do they feel so afraid sometimes?”
“I’ve decided to elegantly name this precarious internal chatter the ‘f–k you committee,'” Johnson triumphantly declared. “If I ever let it get to me, I would literally never accomplish anything, and I would be completely f–ked, so now, I recognize this character trait as the main thing that drives me to challenge myself.”
She concluded, “Throughout the surprisingly in depth self-reflection I went through writing this speech, I found a common thread between women and Hollywood: I found that women working in Hollywood demonstrate epic bravery. A bravery that has created a foundation for us to begin to change the course of history, and the ways women in Hollywood are treated. I feel incredibly proud of that, and I thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.”
Schumer was extolled by a brazen Lena Dunham (“I have to apologize to Robbie [Myers] because this is the second Elle dinner I’ve been late to because of diarrhea,” she began). “Much is made of Amy’s bold sense of humor, her take-no-prisoners approach to topics that are so often considered taboo, the fact that she makes feminism funny, and makes being funny a feminist act — this is all true, and magical, and necessary,” Dunham said of the comic, before translating her acclaim into Schumer’s brash language. “She’s like Oprah, if Oprah squashed her boobs together more. She is like Suze Orman, if Suze Orman loves d–k… I would cut a motherf–ker for her. I would swim across the ocean for her. I would go to a Barry’s Bootcamp for her!”
When Schumer accepted, she quickly came to the aid of her peers. “First of all, Ava, you’re f–king so hot, you’re out of your mind… I’m straight, but like, not for long!” She also supported Johnson. “Dakota, I was like, totally, I feel you… we don’t know our message yet, and that’s cool. But I feel very open to it.”
Then Schumer showed a completely different side. “When Judd Apatow granted me the privilege to be in a movie that he would make and direct, I just thought, ‘yeah, he sees me as like, Seth Rogen!’” she began. “And we were doing this interview, and he said to me, ‘I think that you’re prettier than you understand.’… I was like, ‘you’re crazy.’
“And I thought, ‘why is Universal doing this?’ Like, why are they playing this big trick on me? And when is Hollywood, when are they going to realize that I’m disgusting and that I have no right to be in a movie, and that I should be doing the funny bone and begging for half-off wings? Which I’ve been doing for 10 years, kinda happily. And I’m just ready for this big backlash, I was bracing myself.” Schumer paused, as emotions heightened. “And it never happened.”
Growing bolder again, she promised, “We know I’m not going to be famous for very long, because I’m burning bridges all over town… but you’re going to be looking at this f–king cabbage patch face for a long time.” She ended by reading the steely Anne Sexton poem “Ammunition,” before Zoe Saldana introduced her friend Salma Hayek as “5’2 inches of pure entertainment bad–ss.”
“It really sucks to be the last… everybody has already said the brilliant things that I was going to say!” said Hayek, who instead opted to tell her trials of coming to L.A. as a soap star in 1991, only to be told that there were no roles for Mexican women. “I pushed and pushed and pushed like a short, Mexican angry woman that I am, and I knocked on every door, and I broke down some walls, and finally I got some parts that were quite a huge accomplishment for a Mexican,” she said, noting that she still resorted to producing and directing to tell the stories that she wanted.
Hayek had to fight for eight years — and in rights battles with big music stars like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez — to get her passion project about artist Frida Kahlo made. “This is when I went into a real, real deep depression, in a time where I didn’t have money for the shrink!” Hayek confessed, crediting this adversity for teaching her about scripts, producing and friendship. Still, even post-“Frida,” she found herself in a three-year-period of unemployment. “Maybe things didn’t change back then, but I did. And when you change, the world around you starts to shift,” said Hayek, who now considers herself to be “the lethal combination of Mexican, Arab and 49,” and is “working more than ever.”
Hayek ended the night by presenting each person at the Elle event — sponsored by Calvin Klein, David Yurman and L’Oreal Paris — with artwork she commissioned by young female artist Paris Reid. “It’s a butterfly,” Hayek explained of her gift. “And I wanted to do a butterfly to remind everyone that when adversity and trouble and chaos knocks on your door, and you feel like you are being diminished as a worm, to not worry — it only means that you’re just about to fly.”