From ‘Tammy Faye’ to ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’, Famed Female Figures Debunk Societal Stereotypes
In 2021, the ways in which women can define themselves, their identities and their successes is more complex and diverse than ever before, but tradition — and the expectation of adherence to that tradition — continues to exert a powerful influence on how easily or confidently these individuals navigate the spaces they’re creating for themselves.
Many of the most memorable stories told on screen this year examined that topic, portraying women of all different ages as they reckon with the roles that society believes they should fill, which come with duties their culture or beliefs tells them they must fulfill, or that lead them down paths, personally or professionally, that the world pressures them to follow. And judges mercilessly when they don’t.
When these stories are of real women — technically or actually — some of those challenges are easier to dramatize, thanks to the actual challenges they faced, or the context in which they attempted to establish themselves. In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Jessica Chastain plays disgraced televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, whose ostentatious and often buffoonish exterior the movie argues disguised a uniquely compassionate and even progressive point of view in a divisive, corrupt religious community.
“Tammy really was groundbreaking in terms of courage and stepping up as a voice against the atmosphere of that religious white male establishment,” says producer Rachel Shane. “She fought for a seat at the table. And that really was something that we wanted to portray in this story.”
The film traces an important line from her own upbringing to the attitude of love and inclusion she brought to “The PTL Show,” including when she interviewed gay pastor Steve Pieters in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. “She was an outsider as a child, and I think that really informed how she reached out to the outsider,” producer Kelly Carmichael says. “That came through not only when she was in the ministry, but even later in her life and all the way up until her death where she maintained that relationship with the LGBTQ communities and others as well.”
For Alexandra Shipp in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical 1990 show “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” the role of Susan Wilson, the dancer girlfriend of Larson’s struggling playwright, was also based on a real person. She is one less well known that Bakker, but one who crucially put Larson’s struggles into relief with her own artistic aspirations, and eventually, her choice of how to fulfill them.
“I got a chance to play a woman who chose herself,” Shipp says. “This movie not only asks, what are you going to do with the time that you have, but what does success look like within that? And that’s so inspirational to be able to say, I don’t care where I’m at, as long as I’m doing what I love, and it brings me joy, I’m doing it, and I’m going to do it for me.”
Where Shipp had the details of Susan Wilson’s life and her relationship with Larson to draw upon, Alana Haim unexpectedly found the details of her own life filtering into Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for his slice of ‘70s San Fernando Valley life, “Licorice Pizza.” Although the film borrows liberally from the events of Anderson’s friend Gary Goetzman’s life, what quickly emerges as a dominant force in the story is the irresistible, firebrand energy of Alana, the 25-year-old woman whose ambitions the filmmaker’s young protagonist Gary (Cooper Hoffman) ignites after he meets her as a photographer’s assistant at his high school picture day. “You quickly realize that Alana is capable and smart but lacks direction,” Haim observes. “Her friendship with Gary gives her life some direction and from that, Alana’s confidence in herself builds which leads to her branching out on her own.”
“Licorice Pizza” producer Sara Murphy says that she somewhat unexpectedly began to relate to Alana, as much because of the strides the character takes throughout the story as the fact that the young woman is on a journey to find herself — and that’s a journey that not only happens messily, but doesn’t reach a concrete, satisfying conclusion, and doesn’t need to. “What I find refreshing about Alana’s character is there’s a certain little bit of letting her be lost, not being apologetic about it and not judging her about it. And I appreciate that this understands that but it’s also not taking power away from her.”
As Maria in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the beloved stage musical “West Side Story,” newcomer (and Golden Globes winner) Rachel Zegler said that the fact that she was 18 while playing the 18-year-old character gave her unique and crucially empathetic insights into Maria’s choices, both good and bad.
“The most important thing for me beyond my experience as a Latina in this world was making sure that it was still evident to the audience that she’s still a teenager who’s making poor decisions and reacts to things emotionally before logically,” she says. “It was really, really important to Steven and myself that she’s an accurate enough 18-year-old to the way that I was at 18, which I was entirely too mature for my age, and I also thought I knew better when I didn’t.”
On the opposite end of that same spectrum of life experience is motherhood, a topic that instantly produces specific feelings and judgments — from women as much as anyone. In her longtime collaborator Pedro Almodovar’s latest film “Parallel Mothers,” Penelope Cruz plays a photographer whose unexpected pregnancy in her 40s gives her an overdue chance to have a family. Cruz says that the energy she poured into the role was driven by a deep understanding not just for what her character Janis wants, but where she came from to arrive at that want.
“Her mother died of an overdose. This woman is marked by that, and also the abandonment of her father,” Cruz says. “So we cannot forget, an orphan is the one that is experiencing this threat of losing her little girl, which makes it even more traumatic because it’s in a way, the same story repeating itself [saying] you don’t deserve a family. And she feels that is really unfair, and she’s gonna fight for that, like a lion, even if that includes lying to everyone around her.”
Meanwhile, in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut “The Lost Daughter,” a college professor Leda’s would-be holiday idyll in Greece becomes a catalyst for self-reflection when she meets a young mother (Dakota Johnson) whose restlessness with her parental responsibilities mirrors her own. Played by Jessie Buckley in the past to Olivia Colman’s present, Leda became a lightning rod for viewers, not to mention the actresses themselves, to reexamine their expectations of motherhood. “The thing I discovered the most in choosing this is that maybe we need to change the frame in which we project our ideas of what a natural or an unnatural mother is on somebody,” Buckley says.
Much like Cruz with her character, or Shipp with Susan, or Zegler with Maria, Buckley says that what resonated was ultimately less the specificity of the character or her circumstances than the deeper themes and feelings that her travails evoke as Leda attempts to find and define herself. “I had never really seen a character like Leda in a script, which told the ugly truth in the most beautiful, poetic way,” Buckley says. “There’s no perfect mother, there’s no perfect husband or wife or daughter or anything.”
“Everybody’s just trying to survive and figure out their life the best way that they can so that they don’t drown. I think the thing that people recognize is the truth in this film, even if it’s a hard pill to swallow, but I think in some ways there’s a sigh of relief in that recognition.”
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