"Vanity" Kills: Sexism, Critical Savagery & By the Sea

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Even before the screening of Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea began, there was a palpable feeling of cynicism in the theater.

“Everybody ready for this two-hour-and-twelve-minute film?” one critic asked with mock enthusiasm as he headed toward his seat, as if its length was somehow notable. (I guess he forgot that five of the top 10 grossing films this year were over two hours long. Or that Furious 7 was 137 minutes. Or that a two-hour-and-twelve-minute film is nothing new.) “At least it will look beautiful,” offered another critic.

It was clear that many critics at this Toronto screening had made up their minds about the film before actually seeing it. And, in all fairness, it was impossible to avoid the scathing reviews that emerged following the film’s premiere at the AFI Film Festival on November 5. According to Film Twitter, Jolie Pitt’s film was a self-indulgent bore.

By the Sea follows Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), a couple who’ve been married for 14 years and who are now in the midst of an unspecified marital crisis. Hoping to get away from whatever it is that troubles them, the two check into a hotel in an idyllic seaside town in the south of France. Roland, a once-successful writer, is supposedly here to work, but he mostly drinks gin at the bar, while Vanessa, a retired dancer, spends her days swallowing pills and staring into the distance. And so it goes until their dull routine is mercifully interrupted. When Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall that allows her to spy on the attractive, perpetually banging newlyweds who have checked into the room next door, she slowly begins to show signs of life. Soon thereafter, Vanessa and Roland are enjoying voyeuristic date nights huddled up to the peephole. And through that peephole, the newlyweds’ lives look perfect—they have everything that Roland and Vanessa do not. The long-married couple are practically ravenous for more opportunities to observe them. (Similar to how some devour images of a certain Hollywood power couple.) But as they get a closer look, they are only disappointed by them. These newlyweds can’t actually cure their unhappiness.

Jolie Pitt’s film, while beautifully shot and at times surprising, is not easy to love. It progresses at an unreasonably slow pace and the dialogue, at its best, is mediocre. But for some critics, it seemed that it wasn’t just the film they didn’t like; it was that Jolie Pitt had made it.

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon wrote that the film is “one of the ultimate star vanity projects in Hollywood history—it was written and directed by Angelina, co-produced by her and Brad, and features the two of them as the moody, damaged principals.” Amy Nicholson at LA Weekly wrote, “It’s unclear why Angelina Jolie Pitt became a director. Three films into her second career, there’s no sense of a filmmaker burning with stories she wants to tell, other than a drizzle of sanctimony and self-seriousness.” She then adds, “Her movies are handsome, hard-to-swallow pills without a spark of life—add them together and you couldn’t start a fire, the way the actress once did, effortlessly, with a quick grin in trash like Gone in 60 Seconds.

By calling the film a “vanity project” (and O’Hehir was certainly not the only writer to use that particular phrase—see also Todd McCarthy at THR, Katie Rife at A.V. Club, and Justin Chang at Variety), critics are implying that writing, directing, starring in and producing a film are not endeavors a woman today should undertake—that to want to involve yourself that much in a project, even one that is deeply personal to you, is selfish and narcissistic. Unless, of course, your name is George Clooney. (Or Clint Eastwood, or Woody Allen, or James Franco or Ben Affleck, or Charlie Chaplin…) Just last year, Clooney co-wrote, directed, starred in and produced The Monuments Men, a cinematic disaster with a 31 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, impossibly few deemed this film a vanity project. In fact, The Monuments Men met all of O’Hehir’s criteria to be an “ultimate star vanity project,” but even he failed to mention Clooney’s egotism. (Side note: I’m pretty sure if you’re not playing an historic figure, “moody” or “damaged” are your next best hopes for Oscar, but I’ll let that one slide, O’Hehir.)

As for Nicholson, she appears to take issue with Jolie Pitt’s ambition, as if her “second career” is a problem. Again, how selfish. How narcissistic. More offensive, however, is that Nicholson is effectively saying that Jolie Pitt is more valuable as a seductress in garbage films than she is as a creative human exercising that creativity in a way that she finds fulfilling. Stand here and look pretty, Nicholson may as well say, and try not to use your brain so much.

This is the kind of criticism that could—and does—dissuade women from creating roles for themselves. And it’s pervasive. Before Natalie Portman made this year’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, a film she wrote, directed, produced and starred in, she said she was concerned she would appear vain. She’d grown up reading about Barbra Streisand’s supposed vanity projects (such as A Star is Born or The Prince of Tides) and was worried her film would also be branded as such. “But then I realized that was something they would never say about men directing themselves,” she told The Guardian.

Hollywood is inherently sexist. (This is a fact. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating the lack of women directors in film and TV; the Sony hack informed us all of the wage gap and Jennifer Lawrence, bless her, won’t let anyone forget about it.) Women in Hollywood do not have the same job opportunities as men and they don’t have the same free passes for bad films or box office failures. They are constantly told to stay in their designated lanes and to never deviate. So even today, in 2015, films starring and directed by a woman are rare. And some audiences are uncomfortable with them.

Portman’s role in Love and Darkness, a film about a family living in Jerusalem in the years leading up to the formation of Israel, was important to her. She wanted to tell that story, and she wanted to star in it. If the roles women want aren’t available to them—and they aren’t (recall that in 2014 women made up only 12 percent of leading roles in the top 100 films)—than they should be able to create them for themselves. Someone has to.

Of Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea, Rich Juzwiak at Gawker’s Defamer writes, “From anyone else, it would be mystifying as to how something so dull and inept got made by a major studio. From an A-lister, it makes sense. Superstar entitlement—that which comes from within and without—is the only logical explanation for this horrendous movie.”

But without these A-listers, the majority of audiences aren’t going to see women protagonists on the big screen. Reese Witherspoon brought us Gone Girl and Wild, Elizabeth Banks introduced us to the Barden Bellas, Jada Pinkett Smith gave young girls Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie. We need these women to champion films about women. And we need to get comfortable with the idea that a woman can direct these films, too.

Because, brace yourselves—a woman can have a creative vision, and that vision may well include herself. And if she fails in bringing that vision to life? Note it. Critique it. Perhaps even suggest solutions. But those extra portions of dismissal and casual disdain seemingly reserved for the efforts of actresses-turned-directors? Put that aside.


Regan Reid is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter.

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