Behind Every Great Woman…

A review of the supporting males in film last year

Last year during awards season, I wrote an editorial entitled “Best Supporting Mother,” which essentially called out the fact that despite a number of great roles for women throughout 2017, the three most lauded were the ones which depicted women in cliched mother roles. Alison Janney in (the still-atrocious) I, Tonya, Laurie Metcalfe in Lady Bird and Holly Hunter in The Big Sick were each given heaps of praise for what many called some of the year’s best work. It saddened me that in the face of the seismic shift in women’s positions in front of and behind the camera, that it was the cliches (the cold mother, the harried mother, the supportive mother), that the film world celebrating.

What a difference a year makes.

This past awards season (not to mention overall year) saw women inhabit roles which were free from the kind of cliches many dumbfoundingly chose to applaud the year before, bringing to the screen a number of complex and fascinating screen heroines, each deserving of their talents. Aside from the plethora of great parts for some of the best actresses working today however, it was the number of men in support of the women in these films which couldn’t help but stand out. It seems that more than ever before, the number of actors in supporting roles this past year (many of which have garnered critical acclaim) saw them playing second fiddle to the women in their respective films. In more than a handful of titles, these longtime dependable actors found themselves in key roles which not only offered them great parts, but also furthered the exploration of male/female relationships in cinema.

The image of marriage on screen has to be one of the most illustrated in films and 2018 continued the trend by offering up various types of marriages which were all layered and complex in their own ways. Yet it was incredibly refreshing to see so many depictions coming from the wife’s point of view with husband characters existing as secondary, yet still well-drawn figures.

Supportive, nurturing husbands existed in two prominent releases: Ben is Back and On the Basis of Sex, in which Courtney B. Vance and Armie Hammer, respectively, brought to life the idea of the loving, doting husband. In Ben is Back, Vance plays the second husband of Julia Roberts’s character Holly, who is torn between both supporting her and keeping her grounded as they both deal with the emotional return of her oldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges); an addict who has come home for the holidays. Vance’s Neal runs the risk of being unlikeable in his quest to make sure the family he and Holly have made on their own isn’t thwarted by his formerly troublesome stepson, whom he loves but remains cautious of. A more upfront form of support comes in Hammer’s portrayal of Martin Ginsburg, the husband of Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) in the story of the famed Supreme Court Judge came to be. Hammer’s Martin is so doting, loving and encouraging to no end, making all the scenes between him and Jones so winsome and endearing. Martin may never be explored much as a character in his own right, but that’s because On the Basis of Sex is Ruth’s story, of which he was such an integral part of.

More complex portrayals of marriage were found in two films which curiously revolved around the literary world. Glenn Close may be the figure earning all the praise for her career-best performance in The Wife (deserving every bit of it, incidentally), but no one should count out the contribution of co-star Jonathan Pryce who plays husband Joe in the film. As the literary giant on the verge of being immortalized with the Nobel Prize, Joe finds himself at a crossroads as he finds his life with Joan (Close) has had him, to some degree, living in HER shadow; at least according to his own mind. The film is a moving document of a wife re-evaluating the life she’s made with her husband and the choices she made which helped form it. But on the sidelines is Pryce’s tormented performance of a man wrestling with his own demons which he can no longer fight. It’s the same sort of compromised union which is the center of Colette, the life story of the turn-of-the-century French author, whose works pushed the limits of romance and sexuality. While the film focuses on how Colette (brilliantly played by Kiera Knightley) honed and developed her craft, it also showed how the author sacrificed her name and talents by allowing husband Willy (Dominic West) to pass her works off as his. A codependent marriage featuring two volatile people whose love for each other matched their mutual resentment, Colette features West’s best turn as a man struggling with ego, pride, obsession and the woman who held both his prosperity and his passion in her hands.

It’s the image of wives finding themselves dealing with marriages in turmoil and the husbands looming in the background, which remain the most interesting and watchable from a storytelling point of view. Nowhere was the fractured marriage better investigated than in both Disobedience and The Children Act. In the former, Alessandro Nivola’s Dovid (a Rabbi in London’s Hasidic Jewish community) grapples with trying to hold his marriage to Esti (Rachel McAdams) together when childhood friend Roni (Rachel Weisz) returns and reignites a sexual awakening between the two women. Dovid’s compassion for Ronit (having remerged upon the death of her father), his actual love for Esti and his devotion to his faith are all put to the test as his world turns upside down. Meanwhile in the latter, Stanley Tucci’s Jack is likewise feeling so ignored and discarded in his marriage to high court judge Fiona (Emma Thompson) that one evening he announces to her that he intends to have an affair, despite the fact that he still loves his wife. Jack’s story may come second in this film about a woman struggling with her own principles, but this subplot about a man who feels like an afterthought to a woman he would give his life for, is dealt with thoughtfully to the point where you pity him and root for his and Fiona’s love to survive.

Male characters took a backseat to female counterparts in films dealing in subjects other than marriage this year, contributing greatly to the eclectic state of cinema that prevailed in 2018, particularly in stories with female characters at the forefront.

One of the more uncharacteristic themes saw men standing in the background as the women in their lives succeeded. In some cases, the men in question championed each woman’s success for various reasons, while happily remaining in the shadows. Richard E. Grant’s show-stopping turn as the mad hatter-like Jack opposite Melissa McCarthy’s real-life biographer turned literary forger Lee Israel in Can you Ever Forgive Me? stands as the best example of this. Not only does Jack, the epitome of the gay vagabond found in early 90s New York, further Lee’s dangerous scheme of creating fake letters from legendary literary figures for various reasons, but he eventually invests a bit of himself in Lee, creating an emotional bond with this prickly woman, finding common ground as two people who have constantly struggled to find a place in society. On the opposite end of this spectrum is Jude Law’s Manager character in Vox Lux. Known only as The Manager, the past-his-prime svengali watches and helps Natalie Portman’s Celeste become an innovative and controversial pop diva who battles both her younger self and her present day existence in the midst of a career resurgence. Along for the bumpiness of Celeste’s journey is The Manager who does everything he can to shield his artists from the harsh media, while also catering to her unpredictable tendencies. It isn’t a huge stretch to say that both these men are certainly living vicariously through the women in their lives, but beyond that, find themselves utterly fascinated by the boldness within them.

A variation on this idea of men basking in the glow of women’s success, are a couple of titles which saw a pair of male characters exist for no other reason besides offering nurturing belief to the women leading the film. Few young actresses could be so enchanting a presence as Elsie Fisher’s Kayla in Eighth Grade as she tries to survive the last week of junior high school. Being caught up in all the worry and frustrations which accompany being 14 years old means Kayla doesn’t recognize dad Mark’s (Josh Hamilton) undying support for her. More than just support, each of Mark’s moments in Eighth Grade show a parent in awe of his child whom he thinks of as his greatest achievement in life. His desperation to truly get to know his daughter is matched by his determination as a single parent to make sure he does everything he can to ensure Kayla has the best life possible. Just as supporting is Kiefer Sutherland’s Doug opposite Michelle Pfeiffer’s titular character in the somber Where is Kyra?; the dark tale of a woman’s desperate need to survive following the death of her mother. Kyra’s situation is dire; she’s sold off most of her mother’s belongings and applied for every job she can (finding herself repeatedly turned down because of her age) before embarking on a dangerous scheme in order to stay financially afloat. Doug emerges as the one bright spot in Kyra’s life; a man who has successfully rebuilt his life following his own troublesome past. Doug is the only one in the city who sees Kyra and maintains a faith in her when she feels (rightfully so) that the world has all but discarded her.

It goes without saying that the women who lead each of these films all do so with the kind of depth, gusto and honesty which make the accolades attached to some of them more than justified and the lack of recognition for others an outright crime. Yet while each woman emerges as having presented another illustration of a strong woman on the big screen, the men behind them succeed in both championing these female characters while also showing how such female influences have left indelible marks on their own lives. It’s also no accident that each of these actors do some of the best work of their careers in roles which force them to explore new territory. Regardless of where things go from here, there’s no question that all of the above-mentioned films are signs of changing times which carry with them an interest and a goal of transforming the dynamics between men and women on the screen, while observing the fascinating results that can emerge as a result.

Previous post The Archivist #102: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
Next post For Your Consideration: Two Cents Commits to LEAVE NO TRACE