The Mirror has Two Gazes

An interview with film critic, Carrie Rickey


in Conversations

Carrie Rickey is a feminist art and film critic, raised in Los Angeles before attending the University of California, San Diego. Rickey’s work history spans from writing art criticism for Artforum and Art in America, to being a columnist for the now-defunct Mademoiselle. She often contributes to publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and The Village Voice. Rickey has been featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, MSNBC, and CNN. She also teaches at various institutions, including Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College, where she recently taught a course called “Mars and Venus at the Movies.” The course offered a perspective to students regarding the differences between male and female directors and the products they create. In this course, Rickey mentioned an exchange she shared with the infamous Harvey Weinstein. Curious for some elaboration, I reached out to Rickey for an interview. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sana Vora: When a lot of people envision a film critic, they think about the person just watching movies and reviewing them. Could you just explain your role in the film industry?

Carrie Rickey: That’s a good question. I was at the Philadelphia Inquirer for about 26 years, and not only did I have to review movies, but I had to write news stories. Under the Clinton administration, for example, there was a move to try to get cigarettes out of the movies, so that became a news story. Film-related stuff often becomes news and requires news stories, so I wrote those, too.

SV: Why did you decide to pursue this profession?

CR: Oh, my parents were both immigrants to the United States. They learned to become American by watching movies. Watching movies together became kind of a family pastime and a way of my family. Some families have game night. We had movie night.

Often, my mother would impose her values on us, say, “Oh, those people in the movie didn’t behave right. They blah, blah, blah.” My father would talk more about the issues the movie brought up in a non-judgmental way. My sisters and I would basically use movie time as a time to kind of separate ourselves, individuate ourselves from our parents.

SV: Do you think there is a difference between male and female directors?

CR: Well, as you know, I do.

But it’s something I haven’t been able to prove. I’m still searching for ways of proving it. I do think female directors are less judgmental of their characters. I think that’s pretty firm throughout in my experience.

I think they tell stories differently. We know from linguists that women’s conversations differ from those of men. Male communication is largely about status and dominance. Female conversation is about largely about seeing what the two speakers have in common and empathy. I don’t know whether that’s baked in genetically or just the way it is. It’s hard to separate what’s inherent.

I don’t want to ossify male and female, since we’re increasingly understanding gender’s fluidity. I think that there are certain things that a lot of women share.

SV: I think it’s a good thing that you bring up the point about gender fluidity. Can you recall an example of a movie you might have seen where the rules that you’ve noticed between male and female directors has kind of blurred a little bit because of that?

CR: Certainly in the 1930s and ’40s, when there were hardly any female directors, there were gay male directors who were often given charge of directing women’s movies. Directors like George Cukor and Mitchell Leisen were very identified with the female characters, rather than the male. I can’t tell you whether those were the movies that were being given them to direct or that was them, also something that has to be teased down. Many, but not all, of the lesbian directors working today are very identified with their female characters. The gay male directors whose work I’ve studies, also tend to be identified with the female characters largely.

I think that Todd Haynes is one. If you’ve seen Mildred Pierce, his TV, HBO TV series, he was very involved with the Kate Winslet character of Mildred Pierce. If you see Far From Heaven, he was very involved and identified with Julianne Moore, the female character who is abandoned, by her husband, who is gay. I don’t have any theories about that yet. I’m still looking.

SV: Going back to male and female directors, what do you think are the implications of this difference you’re noticing? Do you think there might be an implication on the media and society because of these differences?

CR: I think the implications are largely because last year, and I haven’t crunched the numbers yet. I believe 92% of the top 250 box office movies released in the United States were directed by men. And we know movies directed by men, this is statistically proven, have fewer women in them, are more about the male protagonist’s story.

In American movies, I think 71% of the people we see on screen are male, and 29% are female. If movies are a mirror, to see only 29% of the world as female, this could be kind of a distorted view of the world.

SV: Have you had interactions with directors that support your sense that there’s a gendered approach to filmmaking?

CR: Well, male directors and producers just think that the world is largely male. Many have made excuses, weak excuses, why there are more men directing like, “Oh, movies by women on the screen; no men in the audience.” I hear things like that all the time. I hear these theories, market theories, constantly. That’s not true, because it’s just not true.

SV: We’ve talked before about Harvey Weinstein and the film, Frida.

CR: Oh, yeah. He didn’t want to release it. He had paid for it, but he didn’t want to release it. First of all, I think in general, his nickname in the business was Harvey Scissorhands. He would get movies that he’d produced, and he’d re-edit them. The directors would get very mad. The directors included Martin Scorsese, Julie Taymor, and some others who told me things off the record, and I don’t want to repeat their names.

I remember Scorsese saying to me about Gangs of New York, he said, “Yeah, Harvey and I were always having verbal fights, but they felt like knife fights.” That was pretty vivid.

Let me say this. I have known Harvey since 1980 when I was starting out in the business, and he was starting out in the business. He started as a rock and roll promoter. I think I reviewed one of his concert movies, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. I met him then. He was very enthusiastic. He was a movie lover. I think as he had increasing success, he thought his taste was more important than the director’s.

SV: When you said that he said that he wanted to cut Frida, why did he want to do that?

CR: Well, first of all, he didn’t like it. He wanted to shelve it, and there’s people like me who thought it was a good movie and who argued that it would be in his financial interest to release it, even if he clearly didn’t like it.

SV: Why do you think he didn’t like it?

CR: He didn’t like it because he did not understand whether it was a political movie, or a biography, or a romance, or whatever. I said, “Well, can’t it be all of those?” That was my argument. He ended up releasing it, getting six Oscar nominations, two wins, and 30 million plus on a four million dollar investment. That was good. That was all good.

SV: I thought it was a great movie. I recall you mentioning something in an earlier conversation regarding the sex scene between Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd, and the contention on set over how that was filmed.

CR: I didn’t know at the time that this was a contention. I had talked to Julie Taymor, the director, and Salma Hayek when Frida was released. In the last two years, Salma Hayek talked about Weinstein wanting a more explicit sex scene, and he wanted to be on the set when it was shot. Salma Hayek talked about this to the New York Times. I was like, “God, I wish she and Taymor had told me something at the time.” You want to work in the business, so you don’t want to actually burn your bridges. I totally understand why they didn’t want to come forward.

I think Weinstein by 2000 was notorious for another reason, which I had certainly written about, which is kind of buying Oscars. He did these Oscar campaigns, blanketing and throwing parties for voters, trying to get them to vote for his movies. It was kind of like buying a political election. He was throwing money around like a political candidate from a banana republic.

In, I believe, 1999, Saving Private Ryan, which was made by another studio, was the odds-on favorite to win Oscars. Weinstein had Shakespeare in Love, which is also a very nice movie. He did things that were not according to Academy rules by having what they call word-of-mouth screenings, spending a lot of money on getting voters to see Shakespeare in Love on a big screen rather than on the little DVD at Oscar time. When Shakespeare in Love won, everyone was pretty pissed because they knew something had happened.

Whether it deserves to win or not, I think it’s a very good movie, and I think Saving Private Ryan is a really good movie. But I do believe that the way Weinstein was running Oscar campaigns really shifted things. I think a general belief, and certainly it was my belief, is that he was rigging the system to win Oscars. Winning an Oscar isn’t a neutral thing. If a movie wins an Oscar, it has more value in the long-term because at that time there were DVD stores. People would rent movies that won Oscars. In the long-term, if you have an Oscar-winning movie broadcast on television or on cable, you get more money for it. It’s real. He was thinking the short-term investment to buy an Oscar would pay off in the long-term. He was probably right.

But that’s how he was spending money, and Weinstein was in the part of the business called specialized distribution. They weren’t big studio movies that would open on 3,000 screens. They were smaller movies that would open in a few cities, and then get broader distribution as they played. He paid more for certain movies because he thought he could buy Oscars for them. That kind of killed part of the business. No one could invest in these smaller art movies because they couldn’t afford to buy them. He would own so many of them, and he would shelve them, and not release them. He tried to do that to Julie Taymor and Frida. There was another female director he worked with called Sarah Kernochan. She made a movie called The Hairy Bird that I’ve never seen because he shelved it, but it was supposedly very, very good. After, the film was shelved, renamed All I Wanna Do, and barely released without any advertising. All of Sarah’s other work is really, really good, so I can’t believe that this movie should have been shelved. He showed some resistance to this female eye. I think we can say that. He had problems with both Julie Taymor and Sarah Kernochan.

SV: When you consider movements, such as like the #MeToo movement, do you think that these movements are sustainable and actually genuinely impactful, or do you think that they’re just kind of temporary?

CR: I think the #MeToo movement has had both. It’s had an impact on Hollywood. A year ago, I would have said the impact was going to be purely positive, and then I was on a panel in New York with some academics, as well as some Hollywood producers. After the panel, we all went to lunch. A very major Hollywood studio guy who has been very supportive of female directors said, “I can tell you, Carrie, the immediate impact of this is that we usually take a lot of female internships from colleges like Yale, Harvard, NYU.” There were people from Yale, Harvard, NYU on this panel. He said, “But we’re not taking women anymore, because, you know, we’re just too worried about this whole internship problem and the accusations. Our wives don’t want us working with young women.” That’s an immediate negative impact.

The #MeToo movement being about sex kind of changed the conversation from equal employment to sexual violence. I’m not saying that sexual violence isn’t important. I’m just saying that the change in conversation flowed or eclipsed the conversation about equal employment into something else that was also very important. That created another kind of problem because a lot of women thought that things were going to change if the lawsuit was pursued.

SV: Right, but there were other implications unforeseen and less obvious.

I think that the benefits of the #MeToo movement were a lot more apparent to the public, and I think that the underlying implications that followed were a little bit less apparent. What steps do you think could be taken in the present or in the future to kind of further increase equality in the film, if you could think of anything, in the film industry? How would you describe your role in this process, if any?

CR: I’ve been an activist since 1980-something about equal opportunity for female screenwriters and directors. That’s pretty clear. Naturally, as a woman and a mother, I am not for sexual predation of women in any industry. That kind of goes without saying. Before Nora Ephron died, she made a list of the things she wouldn’t miss. I think number one or two on that list of things I won’t miss are more panels about why there aren’t enough women in film. That’s kind of how I’m feeling now. We talk about it, and we talk about it, and nothing fucking changes. You can quote me on that.

But I’m not going to give up the fight. It doesn’t seem to change, but I think maybe, as a mother, I’ve been able to make my daughters sensitive and aware of this, so maybe they’ll go out and be the missionaries for more representation of women. They’re both artists, so they’ll fight this fight.

I’m trying in my writing, and my teaching, and my mothering, to change that. Yeah.

SV: Yeah, and individual steps are, nevertheless, substantial progress.

CR: Yeah. Shakespeare said the course of true love never ran smooth, neither does the course of progress. I think now that more women are actually making superhero numbers for their movies, I think that’s a very, very good sign. •

Graphics created by Emily Anderson. Feature image by Chris Lawton on Unsplash