In 1992, the Academy Awards were themed. The Oscar ceremony held in early 1993 was, according to its producers, a celebration of “the year of the woman”. It was a noble attempt at shining the spotlight at the women that, by the early nineties, definitely didn’t hold a position of power in Hollywood. It was also a not-perfectly-timed experiment. Many criticized the theme by pointing out that 1992 hadn’t been a particularly good year for women. As a matter of fact, only one of the five Best Picture nominees could have been described as a “female-centric” movie (Howards End). And only one woman (Howards End writer Ruth Prawler Jhabvala, who ended up winning that night) was nominated in the Best Picture, Director or Screenplay categories. It would appear that Oscar voters weren’t feeling this whole “Year of the Woman” thing. But was it really such a bad year for woman in film?
Either three or four of the top ten grossing movies of 1992 could be described as being female-centric (Sister Act, A League of Their Own, and The Bodyguard. Basic Instinct is the maybe). Others that couldn’t be easily described that way, like Batman Returns, feature strong female characters, and the 10th highest-grossing movie, A League of Their Own was actually directed by a woman. Those numbers aren’t all that different from those of 2013, in which three movies in the top ten (Catching Fire, Frozen, Gravity) could be described as female-centric, and only one was co-directed by a woman (Frozen’s Jennifer Lee). If anything, things seem to have gotten a little worse for women since then, but could ’92 be regarded as a banner year for women? A League of Their Own is undoubtedly a feminist classic, and Howards End showcases the talent of such great actresses as Emma Thompson and Vanessa Redgrave, but what else?
I want to talk in this post about two movies of 1992 that feature some very strong female characters. Curiously enough, both of the movies I’ll be talking about got nominations in the Best Actress category, and also very curiously, were written and directed by men. It doesn’t matter, film has always been (and still is) an overwhelmingly male-centric medium, but these men at least had the intention of telling stories about interesting women. The movies I’m talking about are Lorenzo’s Oil and Passion Fish. Now, you might have not heard of the movies, and if you were born, like me, in ’92 or later, I would venture to say that you probably haven’t seen them. Our male-dominated culture has made it so that manly movies have a more popular shelf-life than movies about women, which are often dismissed as “Lifetime” movies. As a matter of fact, “This is just like a glorified Lifetime movie” is a criticism that I’ve seen been thrown around at both Lorenzo’s Oil and Passion Fish. Thrown around, I might add, by pretty stupid people, who cannot help but undermine drama when it deals with female issues.
Let’s start with Lorenzo’s Oil, which isn’t really a story about women as it is a story about parents. Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon star as the Odones, who find out their small son Lorenzo has a rare incurable disease that will slowly paralyze him, and probably kill him in two or three years time. This is based on a true story in which the Odones, of course, fight as hard as they can to find a cure for Lorenzo, which results on the discovery of an effective method of fighting the disease which would go on to be known as Lorenzo’s Oil. That sounds like the perfect plot summary for a Lifetime original movie, which usually deal with real-life stories about women fighting against adversity. It is also one of those movies in which the passion of affected individuals ends up being more effective than the opinion of experts (another example of this trope is last year’s Dallas Buyers Club). Please don’t think that I want to undermine the work done by the Odones, or that I don’t think there are terrible flaws in the health system, but I just want to point out how this is a relatively comfortable trend in these kinds of movies.
And yet, despite being essentially the movie that you’ve pictured in your head, there is a power to Lorenzo’s Oil that cannot be denied. I just watched the movie and, truth be told, I couldn’t tell you if you will find it in any way overwrought or too sentimental. I do know that there are scenes of overwhelming emotions, and that said emotion shines almost entirely through the performances of the two actors at the center of the story. It is not a particularly innovative movie in its story or in its visuals (it was directed by George Miller, of Mad Max fame), but you would be hard-pressed to not feel connected to this story. Nick Nolte has received some criticism for the Italian accent he attempts in this movie. I not only found the accent rather endearing, but think he is doing fantastic work of creating a character that is not as much an inspirational hero as he is a concerned parent. Similarly, Susan Sarandon, who was nominated for her role, is highly dramatic as a mother who can’t think about anything else but her sick child. Miller knows that his biggest assets are his stars, and he rightfully relies on them as much as needed.
And even as much as it relies on its actors, anyone who thinks there isn’t filmmaking merit in Lorenzo’s Oil would have to be a blind person. A particularly overwhelming scene unfolds in silence, as we see Lorenzo, who at this point has been debilitated by the disease, ear spaghetti with his hands. The camera pans around the dinner table and we see that his parents are also eating spaghetti with their hands. Not a word is said, nor is an explanation given, but we know exactly what is going on. It is, in my opinion, the most powerful scene in the whole movie.
Pretty much the same can be said about Passion Fish, a movie about soap-opera star May-Alice (Mary McDonnell), who gets in a car accident and is paralyzed from the waist down, and her relationship with Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), a nurse helping her recover in her childhood Louisiana home. The writer and director of this movie is John Sayles. If you are familiar with Sayles work, then you’ll know that he is not the kind of filmmaker that would settle for making just another “Lifetime-type” movie. At first glance, Passion Fish is precisely that, a story about the clashing of a spoiled, entitled woman, with a humble, hard-working one, and the beginning of a meaningful relationship between the two. But May-Alice and Chantelle are much more than the clichés you would expect from them.
McDonnell, as May-Alice starts out as a very annoying character, but we slowly get to see more sides of her, especially when Rennie (David Strathairn), a man she knows from her youth enters the picture. Meanwhile, Chantelle is not just a hard-working woman, she has an incredibly strong and stubborn personality. We get the sense that at some point in her life, she might as well have been a May-Alice, and that her choices in life have humbled her into the person she has become. A lot of this is in the page, but it would be a crime to talk about Passion Fish and not mention just how amazing McDonnell and Woodard are at portraying these women. It helps, of course, that Sayles’s material is subtle enough to let the actresses express their feelings through subtext, glances, and small gestures.
Nothing in Passion Fish is ever more dramatic than it needs to be. Truth be told, there is relatively little drama. The movie serves the characters right, recognizing that these aren’t women who are going to sit around and despair at their fortune, they are the kind of person that determines their future. Just to illustrate this point, alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, and distanced children are all plot-points in this movie, and it never feels overtly melodramatic. It’s also not an overtly pleasant movie either. It just knows how to treat all these elements the way most human being would treat them: trying to get through them the best way possible. 1992 might not have been the year of the woman, but as always, there were filmmakers and actors putting strong female characters on the screen.