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Audrey Kupferberg: Grandma

Seventy or eighty years ago in a far distant galaxy called the Hollywood Golden Age, influential studio administrators came to two important realizations.  First of all, women movie-goers liked to see stories featuring strong women characters.  Secondly, on a date and in mixed company, it usually was the female who chose the film to be seen.

And so was born a genre called “the woman’s film” which featured stories of outgoing and confident women having adventures.  These films starred Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Kay Francis, and Barbara Stanwyck, among others.  The characters they played were powerful businesswomen, aviatrixes, famous authors, doctors, and newspaper reporters.  They conquered in a man’s world, and they also had plenty of exciting romance.  Of course, in the end, romance and adventure were ousted by true love and sacrifice.  Indeed, most women’s films end with the main character giving up her place in the man’s domain for her rightful spot as wife and mom in a loving nuclear family. 

These films were tremendously successful for decades, from the 1930s into the 1960s. Think of NOW VOYAGER, STELLA DALLAS, CHRISTOPHER STRONG…  However, as the world changed and females actually were making careers in all sorts of fields effectively and lucratively, Hollywood changed its formula. 

The woman’s film hasn’t been a very dominant genre for the past few decades.  Now, however, we have GRANDMA, a film by Paul Weitz starring Lily Tomlin as an aging feminist poet of some past renown, a lesbian who has lost her long-term partner and has just broken up with a much younger woman friend.  In GRANDMA, as in GRACE AND FRANKIE, Tomlin breaks with the comedy shtick which audiences have come to expect of her.  In this powerful dramatic role, her thorny, complicated character spends a grueling day with her pregnant granddaughter, making attempts to raise money to pay for an abortion.   

GRANDMA was released theatrically in 2015 where it made a little over $7 million dollars.  Not much really, but quite good for a film that reportedly cost only $600,000 to produce.  Early this month, GRANDMA hit the home markets, and I believe it will be a most popular film among women.  It is a woman’s film for today’s women.  There is a whiff of romance, but it is muted.  There is adventure, but the adventure is reality-bound.  The film captures many aspects of being female in our American society.  There is drama and a few select, wry moments of comedy.  There are unconventional characters who become very real through intelligent and heartfelt scriptwriting.

Most of all, there is Lily Tomlin.   She nails the character of Grandma.  And as the female audiences of the 1930s and 40s discovered themselves in characters played by Bette Davis and Kay Francis so long ago, so today are women viewers finding aspects of themselves in Tomlin’s rich portrayal of Grandma.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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