The biggest star at this year’s Sundance Film Festival wasn’t an A-list actor or actress or a big-name director — it was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the progressive, feminist icon who has shattered glass ceilings in a male-dominated world, reaching the highest court in the land more than two decades ago.
Ginsburg, 84, held court at two different settings last week in Park City, Utah. Crowds lined up hours in advance to attend a question-and-answer session hosted by NPR’s Nina Totenberg. Later that day, hundreds packed into a makeshift theater in the back of a gymnasium to see the world premiere of “RBG,” a CNN documentary on Ginsburg’s life and career. At times, the one-and-a-half-hour film took on the air of a progressive political rally as audience members hooted and cheered at the justice’s chutzpah and determination to steer the American legal system in a more inclusive direction.
“It’s the responsibility of women to get out there and give a good show, to help give courage to young women and girls to get out there too,” she said to thunderous applause.
The conversations occurred amid the backdrop of hundreds of Women’s Marches staged from coast to coast — including at Sundance — as well as the proliferation of the #MeToo movement. It has snowballed since last fall when, in the wake of the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood was forced to reckon with its history of pervasive sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Weinstein had been a staple at Sundance and other festivals and could be reliably counted on to be spotted dressing down an underling or a volunteer about his seat at a screening. The legal settlements and nondisclosure agreements that victims signed in the case of Weinstein and other powerful men also prompted the creation of the Time’s Up movement, a multipronged effort that’s raising money for a legal defense fund to protect victims of sexual abuse and harassment.
Where once women struggled to be heard, they’re now dominating and driving the conversation on the festival and awards-season circuits. The feted film and television projects that have begun steamrolling the competition include several female-driven projects, such as “I, Tonya,” the modern-day retelling of the abuse Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding endured at the hands of her husband and mother, portrayed in the film by Allison Janney. The “West Wing” actress, now earning recognition for her film work, won honors this year at the Golden Globe and SAG Awards for supporting actress. The feature scored three Oscar nominations.
“Big Little Lies” delivered a major TV hit for HBO and has represented a triumph for producer-stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. On the film side, other female-centric features have scored Oscar nominations in directing, acting and photography categories: Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age tale, “Lady Bird” earned five Oscar noms. Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer scored two of 13 nominations for “The Shape of Water.” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” emerged from the Golden Globes as something of a dark-horse front-runner, earning seven Oscar nominations. The story is a timely one, featuring a furious mother played by Frances McDormand who stops at nothing to seek justice for her daughter, the victim of a brutal rape and murder not yet solved by local police. “Mudbound,” scored four nominations, including adapted screenplay and achievement in cinematography, a first for a woman.
Tellingly, Ginsburg told NPR’s Totenberg that one recent film that moved her was “Three Billboards,” calling it “fantastic.”
The moment was not lost on Kristen Bell, the first-ever host of the SAG Awards, which also featured an all-female lineup of presenters. In her opening monologue, Bell called attention to the range of stories receiving accolades this awards season.
“It’s a true privilege to experience and share the wide scope of humanity through storytelling,” Bell said. “The skating queen, the grieving mother, the lady bird, even the sea monster. Everyone’s story deserves to be told, especially now. We are living in a watershed moment, and as we march forward with active momentum and open ears, let’s make sure we’re leading the charge with empathy and diligence.”
At Sundance, Keira Knightley, star of the upcoming feminist period film “Colette,” argued that female representation on-screen has long been problematic. “The characters that are often seen on film are nice and supportive but kind of one-dimensional, and I think it’s about time that we saw the world through women’s eyes, because I think if we are silenced and you don’t see our stories, then we are put in danger.”
Andrea Riseborough, who stars in four features debuting at Sundance, echoed Knightley’s concerns about the narrowness of opportunities for women: “I’ve always found that the parts out there are either chaste Mother Teresa figures or highly sexualized and demonized figures.”
But Riseborough expressed optimism that nearly 40% of films debuting at Sundance this year were from women directors. “Things will change because there are these fantastic female auteurs and filmmakers coming up,” she said.
As the first weekend of the festival progressed, the #MeToo movement seemed to benefit from the zeitgeist permeating Sundance and the awards season embrace of female-driven films. What began, last October, as stories shared by women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace has expanded into conversations about consent, imbalance of power and everyday transgressions against women. Moreover, activists have worked to widen the movement to be inclusive of women of color as well as economically vulnerable women who are often supporting families on low-wage jobs.
“Really, it could be #MeToo every single woman that’s worked any job everywhere,” “Community” actor Yvette Nicole Brown told Variety on Jan. 20 during the Los Angeles Women’s March. “Any woman who’s ever been in school, any woman who’s ever gone to a grocery store. You can walk down the street and get assaulted verbally about your body parts. It’s not new to any woman. The fact that women are brave enough or inspired enough now to add their voices is the part that’s new and amazing.”
Hollywood activists also have their sights set on the 2018 midterm elections, expanding the #MeToo movement into an effort to target what some have taken to calling President Donald Trump: the sexual harasser-in-chief.
“It’s not going to stop until more women are in power and more men who are in power get the memo that you’re not supposed to be touching people,” Brown said.
That’s why she and others are mounting a voter-registration drive to help Democrats win back majorities in the U.S. Senate and House. “The people that aren’t voting just don’t realize how important it is. Each vote counts.”
Hollywood celebrities have joined forces with organizers to translate the momentum into results.
“The Time’s Up movement is about taking action to create change,” actress and longtime progressive activist Jane Fonda said, adding that the campaign is not just about movie stars. The grassroots initiative is equally focused on women who aren’t famous or white or fixtures on the red carpet. “They face terrible sexual harassment. Domestic workers, farmworkers, restaurant workers and so forth,” Fonda added. “Time’s Up is putting its arms around all those sectors. That’s why I think it’s a very profound movement that will be around for a long, long time.”
Ginsburg, who has become a millennial favorite and revered as a veritable rock star, said at Sundance that all the agitation around securing equity for women has been inspiring. She dismissed any fears of a protracted backlash against the movement.
“When I see women appearing every place in numbers,” she said, “I’m less worried about backlash than I might have been 20 years ago.”
Brent Lang, Elizabeth Wagmeister and Ramin Setoodeh contributed to this report.