Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
September 21, 1996 | Karen Hershenson Knight-Ridder Tribune News Wire


Used to be that when a man wronged a woman in the movies, she got her boyfriend to seek revenge. Now she grabs a .38-special and blasts him herself. Or at least makes his life miserable.

From “Foxfire” to “Freeway” to “Girls Town” to “The First Wives Club,” women are standing up and saying they’re not going to take it anymore. When it comes to the big screen, revenge is sweet indeed.

Take “The First Wives Club,” which opened Friday. In their mid-40s, dumped by their husbands for trophy girlfriends, Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton plop their wedding rings into glasses of champagne and drink a toast to getting even. “We are not talking about revenge,” says Keaton. “We’re talking about justice.” In “Freeway,” actress Reese Witherspoon finds herself trapped in a car with a vicious serial killer. But rather than become a victim, she grabs his weapon, forces him off the road, pops a few rounds into him and leaves him for dead.

Does this cinematic trend reflect some deeper evolution in society? Are women becoming more empowered? Or is it simply the mainstream discovering what schlock horror fans have known all along – gals with guns are fun to watch.

“I think revenge makes everything better,” says Matthew Bright, who wrote and directed “Freeway.”

“Think about somebody who’s the victim of a sex crime or a burglary or something. All the therapy in the world will do so much, but there’s nothing like seeing that (guy) get sent to prison for 20 years.”

He based Witherspoon’s chronically angry character, Vanessa, on former girlfriends and his ex-wife. The dialogue is a byproduct of those nasty arguments that erupt as a relationship grinds to a halt, he says.

“You get great dialogue when somebody’s in an emotional extreme.”

Bright’s previous movie, “Guncrazy,” with Drew Barrymore, was a remake of the 1950 cult classic about a gun-obsessed man who hooks up with a carnival sharpshooter. Which is interesting, because University of California, Berkeley, professor and film theorist Carol J. Clover says most of the female revenge films we’re seeing today were spawned by exploitation films of previous decades. One fundamental example is “I Spit on Your Grave”: For the first 45 minutes, some country louts rape a woman repeatedly; for the next 45, she goes after them one by one.

Another is Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. .45,” about a mute woman raped and beaten twice in the same evening who goes berserk. An entire chapter of Clover’s book, “Men, Women and Chainsaws,” is devoted to rape revenge.

“All my Berkeley moviegoing friends who only go to `nice’ movies, they don’t know the extent to which those movies are sitting on exploitation films,” she says.

“The new, fresh ideas have been created outside of Hollywood in these little, independent and sometimes real trashy studios. Sometimes garage movies. There’s just great stuff down there, and then it trickles upstream and the big studios profit.”

Coincidentally, she contributed to the screenplay for “Office Killer,” a Miramax movie directed by photographer Cindy Sherman, about a woman who reacts to her job being threatened by disposing of her office mates.

Clover first became interested in trash cinema after going to see “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on a dare. The film repulsed her, but she found the audience fascinating. Here were young men cheering on the female victim-turned-hero.

“Those are the boys of the mothers who had jobs, who were single-parent households, who were very powerful women,” she says.

“And I think that did change the shape of what women could be in the male imagination.”

Victoria Trostle, sceenwriter and film professor at St. Mary’s College, has a slightly more cynical take on the female-revenge trend. It’s the “one idea circulates among a lot of brains” theory sparked, she says, by the phenomenal success of the book “The First Wives Club.”

Moreover, she adds, it’s the result of a predominantly male movie industry not knowing what to do with female characters. If anything, all these strong women are a reflection of their fears about what females might do if pushed. “I’m sure it’s legitimate to show a kind of anger,” says Trostle.

“I guess I just haven’t seen that many that were really insightful, that went to a deeper place. It mostly seems like acting out. It’s not so much being empowered as fighting to get empowered. Because if you were empowered, it never would have happened.”

One of the more enlightened films of the current bunch is “Girls Town,” about three inner-city high school girls teetering on the brink of womanhood. When one tearfully admits she was date-raped, the trio find the guy’s car in a parking lot, first scratching it with a key, then spray-painting it, and finally slamming it with a brick. The violence escalates in a way that director Jim McKay describes as “organic.” And he was adamant about not including guns. The screenplay evolved from months of workshops with the actresses, one of whom is Lili Taylor.

“I think a lot of it is just in reaction to all the other stuff that’s made,” says McKay.

“To watch a movie as a film lover, that has two main characters, one who’s a man and one who’s a woman, and to realize how unbelievably subserviently the woman’s character has been developed. Just as a person, as a viewer, to be dissatisfied with that, led me to really want to make something different. If I’m going to spend three years of my life on something, I want to really learn something from the experience.”

The retaliation in “The First Wives Club” is even less violent. The trio of women focus their energies on destroying their husbands’ businesses, with some mild intimidation thrown in. Mostly, they’re trying to recapture their own self-esteem.

Many consider 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” a pivotal point in the women-on-a-rant genre. It’s primarily a buddy movie, but the plot turns on an attempted rape in a bar parking lot.

From there came more women doing it for themselves in “Dolores Claiborne” and “Eye for an Eye,” to name two. San Francisco filmmaker Lynn Hershman isn’t thrilled with the trend.

“Maybe it’s identifying with the aggressor,” she says.

“All the things that we say we haven’t liked, and then when there’s an opportunity to do something, you imitate it. Or feeling that that’s what’s commercially viable, rather than trying to build an audience for something new.”

Hershman has just finished shooting a feature, “Conceiving Ada,” a high-tech romp with Tilda Swinton and Karen Black inspired by Lord Byron’s daughter, whom many say created the first computer program in Victorian times.

“The invisibility that she felt isn’t necessary today,” she says.

“You don’t have to live in those kinds of constrained terms and have repressed anger or projected anger. You could put the effort toward doing what you need to do to live creatively.”

Her film “Found Footage,” which just screened at the New York Film Festival, deals with domestic abuse, but in a nongraphic way. It pains Hershman to see images of woman being so violent on film. Clover also has concerns, based on her belief that movies reflect and are a way to process what’s going on in the culture.

“Basically, I think they’re all part and parcel of this larger thing that’s happening in the U.S., which is this sort of individualization of everything. All systems fail you, therefore you have to revert to self-help. It’s all part of the vigilante mentality, and in that sense it makes me kind of nervous.”

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