Box Office Poison

by Sarvat Hasin

At the start of The Philadelphia Story (1940), Cary Grant’s character threatens to punch Katherine Hepburn’s, before settling for pushing her over. It’s a violent beginning to a romantic comedy, which taints the remainder of the tale of reconciliation between a separated husband and wife, rendering it difficult to watch. The scene did not feature not in the original theatre play, which Philip Barry had written with Katherine Hepburn in mind. Now, it seems implausible that there would ever have been doubt as to whether she would carry her role from stage to screen, but before The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn’s stock was low. She was box-office poison, listed among other falling stars in Henry Brandt’s “Dead Cats” article, her last few movies having been critical successes but commercial crashes with Hepburn blamed for the failure of Bringing Up Baby (1938) rather than her co-star Cary Grant. His image apparently needed no rehabilitation. In fact, in the very same article, he was deemed worthy of his high salary. 

Hepburn went against the grain of what was considered desirable in a woman. She’d recently lost out to Vivien Leigh for the lead of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) due to her perceived lack of vulnerability. All of which makes her role as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story an even more fitting comeback: all her strengths are on display. As Tracy, she gets to play “the young rich, rapacious American female”, coolly elegant but “lit from within” – as Jimmy Stewart’s character points out, she has “fires banked down” inside. It is a role that she embodies completely, one that would win her an Oscar nomination and assure her legacy. But did she really have to be visibly physically knocked down before she became a woman that the audience could root for? Perhaps. Even Hepburn herself was aware how thin a line of likability she was balancing on, telling the screenwriter that he had to be careful her character wasn’t too “la-di-da” because “a lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face”.

Embedded in the framework of Hollywood, alongside pay gap fiascos and revelations of sexual harassment, lies the story of how women survive in the industry only by adapting constantly to it. In La-La Land, women get very few second chances and little margin for error. Whether they undergo a Katherine Hepburn-style humbling or protracted hiatus enforced by the male executive cabal, women actors often grapple with how deeply perceptions of their personalities, or personal lives, affect their careers. It’s a critical, and all too often neglected, part of the dialogue over whether one can “separate the art from the artist.” For while the press is rife with writers dissecting whether we can still be entertained by the works of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, another sinister line of enquiry remains under-explored: why must women always be likeable? And what does deficiency in this ephemeral and highly subjective, quality do to their careers?  

I have seen Darren Aronofksy’s Black Swan (2010) several times. Amid all the ballet dancing and feather sprouting, the scene I remember most vividly features Winona Ryder in a cocktail dress, champagne glass in hand, slurring as she asks Natalie Portman’s character, Nina: “What did you do to get this role?” In the film, Ryder portrays Beth, a ballerina whose career is waning; her roles destined to be danced by Nina. She plays it with restrained cruelty and vulnerability, as well as a pure fierceness that chills even in a movie filled with body horror. 

It was the first time in a while that I’d seen Ryder on screen, barring her brief cameo as Spock’s mother in the Star Trek reboot. For many years, following her eventual return to Hollywood after a 2001 shoplifting conviction, which facilitated a healing period away from the spotlight having rendered her uninsurable, Ryder played bit parts — celluloid glimpses. Her only starring role coming in the guise of Richard Linklater’s animation, A Scanner Darkly (2006). Beth, despite her limited screen time, is at least a character with a journey and Ryder plays her with a force that breaks hearts because, of course, the viewer knows: she was once the Goth queen of Los Angeles. Yet although she’s back, she’s still part-phantom, her roles reflecting her years in exile – not only in her bittersweet turn as Beth, but also when playing Joyce Byers, the haunted mother of a missing son, on the smash hit Netflix series, Stranger Things. Ryder positioned there to set a mood, to conjure the nostalgia desired by the producers.

When Ryder was at her peak, she was more than just a very good actress – she was a cult figure who carried films: any movie she was in was a Winona Ryder movie. A whole generation of girls would have killed to be her. She was relatable and aspirational, the epitome of cool and strange. She is as indispensable to a portrait of both 80s' or 90s’ aesthetic as perms or acid washed jeans. 

And still, in the eyes of Hollywood producers, she’s never warranted the full return from scandal to glory that was granted to Robert Downey Jr – now one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood despite multiple arrests for heroin, cocaine abuse and possession and unpaid taxes throughout the 90s. After his initial criminal spree, he was offered a role on Ally McBeal as Calista Flockhart’s new love interest, but was sacked merely a year later following another drug arrest. However, this didn’t prevent Downey Jr from coming back to Hollywood again, eventually leading the Iron Man franchise and starring in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009). It is very difficult to think of a single female equivalent – a woman in the public eye whose brushes with the law are nigh on valorised. So, instead of discussing whether or not to bring Johnny Depp back from professional purgatory, perhaps we should be considering why we haven’t truly freed Winona from the shackles of the last millennium?

This depressing phenomenon isn’t limited to Hollywood. In 2001, the same year as Ryder's fall from grace, Aishwarya Rai’s charmed Bollywood career would have its own pitfalls. A former Miss World and the beauty queen, Rai would later be one of the first wave of Indian actresses to transition to Hollywood. In the late 90s, she embarked on a relationship with Bollywood superstar Salman Khan while shooting Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), a Sanjay Lee Bhansali movie. The Brad and Angelina of their day, their off-screen relationship was rumoured to be intensely passionate and tumultuous. 

But a closer look reveals something darker: reports of Salman’s possessiveness, his jealousy erupting in physical altercations. It was certainly suggested that Rai’s family disapproved of the relationship, a move that prompted her to leave the family home for her own apartment. In November that year, she resorted to getting the police involved when Khan showed up at her door in the middle of the night. Later, he came to the set of her next film, Chalte Chalte (2003), loudly tearing up the place because he suspected Rai of being involved with her costar Shahrukh Khan. Shockingly, Khan used his producer clout to have her replaced – apparently the situation with Salman had caused much drama – and she was soon dropped from other roles, too. Even in 2001, one of the most successful actresses in Bollywood couldn’t escape an abusive relationship without also being punished professionally.

Rai eventually recovered her momentum and married into Bollywood royalty, and it’s hard to discern how much her new romance aided her in bouncing back. Yet, either way, here it is again: a woman smoothing out the kinks in her life story so that she might be deemed palatable to an audience. Movies want blank canvases from their female stars, a placid surface that they can project narrative onto. 

Mere months after the #MeToo scandal, speculation began over what do with these abusive men that it revealed: how to rehabilitate their supposed genius? Is it wise for us to risk not having another performance by Johnny Depp following his documented abuse of Amber Heard? Or another movie with Khan, whose box office appeal remains unblemished despite a plethora of further troubling incidents including: hunting scandals, political scandals and a hit and run incident that took years to get to court in light of his star power.

Meanwhile, their female counterparts and victims, mostly move quietly on, if they get to move on at all. They play girlfriends, wives or mothers in movies that belong to other men. It is a sad thing, this need to have women bleached to blandness in order to have their talents and hard work rewarded. How grand it would be if their off screen personas were also free to be big and booming. 

‘Box office poison’ is meaningless jargon: flops never stopped Nicholas Cage from making movies. There is always something a woman can be blamed for: an ex-lover, a personality problem, her weight, her hair colour, or ageing out of the business. There are many women who simply never get another chance, fading into obscurity or being relegated to the unfashionable kind of television. 

The truth is that our trigger finger when it comes to women actors is just too quick. It doesn’t even really take a scandal for them to become alienating: sometimes it can even be an abundance of success. After her Oscar win for Les Miserables (2012), Anne Hathaway went from America’s Sweetheart to a bit of a joke. She was deemed too annoying, her Oscar speech criticised for its lack of sincerity, instantly recalling the opposite reaction to Sally Field’s earnest “You really like me” moment. And so Hathaway’s career, booming at the time, shrank back in jarring contrast to the professional trajectory of her Interstellar (2014) co-star, Matthew McConaughey, who became even more prolific after his Oscar win – you know, the way that actors who win the coveted award are meant to. Naturally, Hathaway’s not the only one to have wrestled with overexposure backlash: Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart and Amy Schumer suffered similar fates. 

So, how might we collectively work to overcome these abhorrent double standards? Only by having more women writing, directing, lighting, producing and shooting fictional stories will all actors be free to live life openly, to share their real personas – ‘likeable’ or not – without career penalties. There is a joy when female writers and directors like Desiree Akhavan, Ava DuVernay and Greta Gerwig get behind the camera; the lushness of those scripts, the complexity of the female character arcs (as well as the male’s) and the intricacy of those movies thrill. And while, not every male is deeply reductive – and not every female the ideal ally – redressing the balance behind the camera will greatly assist us in facilitating freedom on and off-screen.

But I want there to be space for more than just new faces – I want to bring back the women whose careers were cruelly derailed. We’ve let too many talented women fade into obscurity or be relegated to ghosts or girlfriends. Bring me more of these movies! Put Ashley Judd, Linda Cardellini and Thora Birch in them. Just working isn’t enough. I want to finally give them the glory they deserve. 


This piece was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 4, which is available for purchase via AntenneBooks.

Sarvat Hasin is the author of short story collection, You Can't Go Home Again and novel, This Wide Night.