Golden Globes Shows Gender Parity Fight Starts With the Greenlight

Greta Gerwig Golden Globe WIn
Paul Drinkwater/NBC

The #MeToo and time’s up movements have galvanized powerful women in the entertainment industry to work harder to effect social change and combat sexual
misconduct in the workplace. But on the heels of a historic night at the Golden Globe Awards, insiders are still questioning whether that progressive spirit will extend all the way up to the most supreme power in Hollywood: the greenlight.

It was impossible not to notice that the five big winners at the Jan. 7 ceremony were all female-led productions: movies “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” on the film side and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Big Little Lies” in the TV series races.

The triumph came on a night when the vast majority of Globes attendees wore black in solidarity with women throughout the country who have experienced harassment and assault on the job. The Time’s Up initiative, spearheaded by a slew of bold-faced names — Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes, to name a few, has helped move many in the business from outrage to action.

“I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories,” Winfrey said in a stunning speech after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award that had many in the crowd hoping she’d make a run for political office.

One of the most insidious examples of gender bias in the industry remains the “chick flick” discount. It has been axiomatic from the days of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks that stories revolving around female protagonists typically aren’t as commercial as projects toplined by men. Female viewers will dive into a tale about a man more readily than males will watch a woman’s story, or so the thinking goes. It’s an especially pervasive mind-set when it comes to assessing a project’s foreign sales prospects.

On the film side, Globes watchers have to go back to 1984 to find an example of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. selecting two female-centric movies — “Terms of Endearment” and “Yentl” — for its best-picture winners. “Yentl,” as presenter Barbra Streisand noted with some bewilderment at this year’s show, represents the one and only time the HFPA has awarded a female filmmaker its best-director prize. Despite a wealth of choices, no women made the cut for a best-director nom at this year’s fete — a glaring omission that was pointed out Sunday night by presenter Natalie Portman.

Still, the 2018 Globe winners circle highlights productions that challenge conventional wisdom. “Big Little Lies” has been a glossy triumph and awards magnet for HBO and producer-stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. The Oscar winners banded together to get the project off the ground specifically because they were frustrated with the lack of meaty material for women coming across their desks.

“Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards” are both convention-defying stories fueled by female protagonists, with no skimpy outfits in sight. The overwhelmingly strong reception for “Lady Bird” has vaulted actress Greta Gerwig into the ranks of rising-star directors with her helming debut.

Awardees included (clockwise from top left): Frances McDormand; “Big Little Lies” team Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley; Elisabeth Moss; and Oprah Winfrey.
Paul Drinkwater/NBC

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” starring Rachel Brosnahan, has quickly become a signature show for Amazon, keeping it in the awards conversation that is so important to streaming services. The same is true for Hulu and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a Cinderella story that led the smallest of the three domestic streaming heavyweights to be the first to land an Emmy for best drama series.

Industry heavyweights say the wave of confrontation on the sexual harassment front can’t help but shift attitudes on the business end of showbiz. That’s a process that is already under way, or there wouldn’t have been “Big Little Lies.”

FX’s limited series “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the story of two aging Hollywood legends starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, broke every rule in the book (actresses over 50, oh my), and yet it was successful for FX and has gone toe to toe with “Big Little Lies” in the awards derby.

It got made because it was a story that influential producer Ryan Murphy wanted to tell.

“What happens is, pressure gives way to change, and if you always have somebody saying: ‘Hello? Please do better,’ a lot of people can be moved to act. It’s powerful,” Murphy said. The parade of talent onstage at the Globes on Sunday night “was very important. It meant something to me,” Murphy told Variety.

To effect lasting change on the screen, it’s crucial that women and men across the business seize this tipping-point moment wrought by the sexual harassment revelations to open doors for all manner of creative visions.

“Putting women at the center of our stories isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s good business,” Kidman said backstage at the Globes. “Big Little Lies” proves “there’s an opportunity to have a spectrum of female behavior from different backgrounds. … It’s really important that when women are the architects of the stories, the stories change.”

“Putting women at the center of our stories isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s good business.”
Nicole Kidman

Murphy pointed to his own career experience as evidence that change has long been under way as women slowly but surely rise into the C-suites. He cites Fox Television Group chairman Dana Walden as his single most important influence.

“When your mentor is a woman, it’s a very different experience,” he said. “She not only encouraged me to take on [female-led projects] but she made sure they moved through the system.”

The push to bring more women and people of color into the director and showrunner ranks is important, as more diversity among creators inevitably influences the types of stories that are told. Among the initiatives that have real traction at present is the 50/50 by 2020 effort to strive for gender parity among directors in Hollywood. Murphy is doing the same through his Half Foundation, which mentors up-and-coming female directors.

“We have been known for a long time for having shows on the air that have strong, powerful women at the forefront,” said ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey. “But what I want to also think about is how do we continue to show workplaces that are diverse, where men and women are working together, where we are leading by example. If we’re saying 50-50 by 2020, then we should really be showing that on the air as well.”

Betsy Beers, partner with über-producer Rhimes in the Shondaland banner, was among those who cheered as women took the Globes stage at the Beverly Hilton.

“I hope people take it as a sign to all that viewers watch shows with strong female protagonists, and very often those are produced or created by women. It was a wonderful thing to see,” Beers said. “I feel like things are changing. I’m optimistic and hopeful because people are doing amazing work right now. And there’s always more amazing work to be done.”

Daniel Holloway and Debra Birnbaum contributed to this report.