The 'Bridesmaids' Effect: Isn't it time a woman got to direct a raunchy comedy?
In corporate America, it's no longer a surprise to see a woman running a giant company like EBay or Hewlett-Packard. But in Hollywood, where actresses have far shorter careers than actors do, and it's accepted practice to pay male stars far more than any leading lady, there are still steep mountains to climb. That's especially true in the world of comedy, which is dominated by actors like Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Jack Black, men in various stages of arrested development whose films view women, with rare exception, as sex objects and help mates.
So it was quite a shock to see that last weekend's highest-grossing new film was “Bridesmaids,” a raucous romp starring “Saturday Night Live” comedienne Kristen Wiig that my colleague Betsy Sharkey described as “an R-rated romantic comedy from the Venus point of view.”
Co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, “Bridesmaids” has women in all of its major roles. The film is a smash with critics, who gave it a sky-high 89 at Rotten Tomatoes; the tough-minded Manohla Dargis, who normally finds Hollywood comedies beneath contempt, praised the movie as an “unexpectedly funny new comedy” that “goes where no typical chick flick does: the gutter.” Even more importantly, in terms of having an impact in copycat Hollywood, the Universal Studios film has been doing the kind of business that could bust open the doors for more female-oriented raunchy comedy.
There's just one tiny irritating grain of sand in the film's Cinderella-style slipper. Despite all that girl power, “Bridesmaids” was, ahem, directed by a guy, Paul Feig. In fact, when it comes to R-rated comedy, women directors are basically out of sight and out of mind. When I asked several top studio executives for the filmmakers who would make their R-rated comedy director's lists, they rattled off a long roster of names--including Todd Phillips, Greg Mottola, David Wain, Jake Kasdan, David Gordon Green and Jason Reitman--all of them men.
The only woman anyone mentioned was Anne Fletcher, who has directed such comic hits as “The Proposal” and “27 Dresses.” But even Fletcher was viewed as a borderline choice, since her films are good-natured romantic comedies, with barely a nod toward the raunch that dominates the R-rated comedy world. (New Line offered her the job of directing its upcoming R-rated comedy “Horrible Bosses,” but she turned it down.)
To make matters worse, you'd have to consider this a huge step backward, since 15 or 20 years ago, there would've actually been more women on the list, namely Betty Thomas, Amy Heckerling and Penelope Spheeris, along with such PG-13 oriented filmmakers as Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers and Penny Marshall.
Meyers and Ephron are the only ones of the group whose career isn't in eclipse--and they make romantic comedies for baby boomers, not raunchy fare for the young guys who've turned R-rated movies like “The Hangover,” “Knocked Up” and “The Wedding Crashers” into financial bonanzas. The last raunchy comedy to be directed by a woman that was a bona-fide hit was “Private Parts,” which Thomas helmed nearly 15 years ago.
So what's happened? Why didn't a new generation of women filmmakers come along--or get an opportunity--to make their name in R-rated comedies? After talking to a host of industry executives, agents and managers, I'd have to say that the deck is stacked against women, thanks to a complicated set of gender and psychological issues.
The biggest hurdle is clearly gender: Comedy is a man's world. The big comedy stars, like the top comedy producers, are guys. Moreover, comedy directors are not artistes, like David Fincher or Michael Mann. They are hired hands, whose job is to execute the vision of the comic star, which is why a host of comedy directors go way, way back with their talent, starting out as their roommates, fellow actors or TV show pals.
It takes a top star or a powerful comic producer like Judd Apatow--who produced "Bridesmaids"--to vouch for these often unqualified directors, assuring studio chiefs that they will deliver the goods. It was Mike Meyers who got the then-unknown Jay Roach his job directing “Austin Powers.” It was Apatow who helped Ben Stiller land his directing gig on “The Cable Guy” when he was a nobody.
When Greg Mottola was in movie jail, it was Apatow who got him the job on “Superbad.” “Bridesmaid's” Feig had been laboring in TV, dating back to his days working on Apatow's “Freaks and Geeks.” It's not hard to imagine that there are plenty of female directors as “talented” as Dennis Dugan, but it's Dugan who gets to work, over and over, as Sandler's in-house director.
If Tina Fey had another hit movie, it's possible that she could play the same Godmother role for a gifted director like Beth McCarthy Miller, one of the few female directors of “Saturday Night Live” who now also works on “30 Rock.” When you talk to studio chiefs, they're hip to plenty of talented female comedy writers--like Paula Pell (“SNL”), Dana Fox (“27 Dresses”) or Maggie Carey (“Funny or Die”), who has a hot (and undeniably raunchy) script called “The Hand Job”-- but they're still waiting for them to prove themselves with comedy's male kingpins.
That's still a tough sell. As one agent who reps female writers put it: “If you look at the way women are portrayed in Adam Sandler films, is it any wonder that he's never hired a female director?”
Women in Hollywood frankly acknowledge that directing is skewed toward men, noting that a strikingly large percentage of filmmakers are narcissistic egomaniacs, a quality found far more often in the male sex. To persuade studio execs to put you at the helm of a costly film, you need a certain chutzpah. As one female executive described it: “For the most part, men say, 'Give it to me,' while women say, 'May I?'”
Others argue that raunchy comedy is not a natural fit for most women. Pooping and farting is the guys' department. And there’s something else at work: If there is one common theme in R-rated comedies, from “Something About Mary” and “Private Parts” to “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” it's male anxiety about women. It's a subject that endlessly fascinates male comedy writers, as well as male comedy stars. Women have a very different outlook on male anxiety, which might put them at a disadvantage when it comes to pitching comic subject material to men.
It was especially telling to see “Bridesmaids” co-writer Annie Mumolo, in response to a reporter's observation about the tension between the movie's universal-girl moments and its broad Apatowian comedy, saying that Apatow encouraged “us to make everything bigger, to drive further and further from the real, emotional place we started from.” Insiders say that “Bridesmaids” was initially starker and more realistic. It was Apatow who provided some of the movie's most outrageous, and most audience accessible, comic moments.
That's not to take anything away from Wiig or denigrate Apatow. He's simply being a comic godfather, giving a long-overdue boost to women. The women of “Bridesmaids” have begun to reclaim Hollywood's edgiest comedy genre from its childlike male stars – even though they’ve sometimes had to act just as dumb to men to do it.
Photo: From left, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Rose Byrne, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph and Ellie Kemper in a scene from "Bridesmaids." Credit: Suzanne Hanover/Universal Pictures