Let us now praise the women of summer.
Wait, that’s not how it’s supposed to go, is it? The period from Memorial Day to Labor Day is when the boys get to run riot at the nation’s movie theaters, blowing things up, wrestling each other down, trading high-fives amid the rubble of the planet they’ve just saved once again.
But the summer of 2013 has shaken out differently. True, the season’s box office winners are the usual mix of superheroes (“Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel”), family fare (“Despicable Me 2,” “Monsters University”), and action-oriented sequels (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Fast and Furious 6”). Those are the pre-sold properties, marketed with all the muscle the studios can bring to bear and, in commercial terms, they’re nigh bulletproof.
By contrast, “original” properties featuring manly men alone or in pairs have barely registered on the pop culture consciousness, even if a few of them have eked out decent ticket sales. No one’s talking about — or barely able to recall — movies like “The Lone Ranger,” “White House Down,” “R.I.P.D.”, “After Earth,” or “The Internship,” in large part because they don’t feel original at all. (And let’s not even mention the acrid bad-lads rehash of “The Hangover Part III.”)
Instead, women ended up setting the terms of the summer zeitgeist in movies big and little. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy took the buddy-cop formula and injected it with just enough novelty (and, more to the point, actual laughs) in “The Heat,” the eighth-biggest earner of the season and a broad comedy in all the best ways. “The Conjuring,” a no-frills haunted house tingler that cost a puny $20 million to make, has grossed more than six times that on the strength of its scares and sympathetic lead performances by Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, playing two stressed matriarchs battling a spectral mean mother.
Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” easily the most inventive blockbuster behemoth of the season, may not have set the box office on fire, but those of us who saw it won’t soon forget Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, a shy yet strong woman warrior whose emotional conflicts are as deep as her kendo skills are fierce. All by herself, Mori makes the “improved” Lois Lane of “Man of Steel” and Pepper Potts of “Iron Man 3” look like dainty hangers-on. And what would “Despicable Me 2” be without Kristen Wiig’s wifty, true-hearted Lucy?
That said, it was in the summer’s independent films that women ruled, both in front of and behind the camera. Cate Blanchett’s scarifying performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” as a sort of modern day Blanche Dubois — Upper East Side division — is only the most recent in a run of prickly, complicated portrayals. This is a role Bette Davis might have sunk her teeth into: a narcissistic power-wife so blinded by luxury that she no longer sees other people as people at all. Blanchett does something that few of Allen’s actors do: She takes the neuroses that always bedevil his characters and turns them into heartbreaking pathology.
Even more startling was Kristin Scott Thomas’s switch from her usual steely-but-decorous roles to the foul-mouthed criminal Medea of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” a work of art-house tripe that the actress single-handedly made worthwhile (almost). There’s a giddy sense of release in the star’s blonde dye-job, the monstrous fake lashes, the viciousness with which Scott Thomas’s Crystal barks out orders and pursues vengeance for the death of her son. The character’s imperious, deeply evil, and the most alive person in the entire movie.
But that’s not all — actually, that’s not half of it. There was Amy Acker, bringing a depth of feeling to make you simultaneously laugh and weep as Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s let’s-put-on-a-show version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” There were the tough-minded, big-hearted singers rediscovered in the season’s break-out documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” — Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, the incandescent Lisa Fischer. There was Aubrey Plaza showing the girls deserve as much guilt-free gratification as the boys — if not more — in the smarter-than-it-looks summer sex comedy “The To-Do List.”
Greta Gerwig stole the hearts of filmgoers (as well as writer-director Noah Baumbach) as the soulful klutz of “Frances Ha,” galumphing along the treadmill of her 20s and occasionally falling flat on her face. By contrast, the women of Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” — teenage twits who rob celebrities’ homes for brand-name kicks — were skilled and soulless, with the most eerily feral of the crew played by Emma Watson, far from her stalwart “Harry Potter” beginnings.
“To-Do List” and “Bling Ring” were written and directed by women, and one of the most unusual aspects of both films is their exploration of female self-image and behavior in ways that are, respectively, comedic and chilling. In other words, they stay true to their genres while exploding them from within. Two other movies from the summer of 2013 showed women creators pushing fearlessly in new directions. In the sneakily brilliant documentary “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley goes digging after her parents’ secrets only to end up with a Pirandellian essay about the way we shape our own memories and, indeed, our identities.
Along with costar Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy has to be considered a primary co-author of director Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” — as they have with the series’ previous films, all three write the dialogue and work on the characters — and the new film lets the actress convey the emotional realities of a woman in her late 30s with a brutal, tragicomic sense of liberation. Was there a more radical scene this summer than when Celine sits arguing with her husband in a hotel room, topless and not caring about it, Delpy daring us to either sexualize the moment or, better, acknowledge the human reality of which commercial films are terrified?
I repeat: It was an astonishing summer for women in the movies, with even the misfires showcasing risk-taking performances like Amanda Seyfried in “Lovelace” and Kirsten Bell in “The Lifeguard.” So why hasn’t this been commented upon more? Why have the film blogs and arts section analyses focused almost solely on weak performances by the summer’s blockbusters? Every five months or so, it seems, we get an article bemoaning the lack of strong roles for actresses, especially those in their advanced 30s and 40s. Well, here they are. The films may not be perfect but they stir the pot. The performances may not all be Oscar-worthy, but they have inventiveness, energy, bite. Honestly, the industry’s male actors should be so lucky to play characters this rich.
This may be an aberration, a summer fluke. Or it may be something like an unintended revolution. The fall Oscar season may clear things up: Not only will Meryl Streep be throwing down the gauntlet in a film version of Tracy Letts’s play “August: Osage County,” but there stand to be powerhouse performances from Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”), Emma Thompson (“Saving Mr. Banks”), Felicity Jones (“The Invisible Woman”), Berenice Bejo (“The Past”), and many others. As the muscles of the established Hollywood guy-movies — the superhero franchises, the buddy comedies, the flaccid action films — atrophy further into inconsequence, it seems the women are just starting to limber up.