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Audrey Kupferberg: What's In A Title?

Audrey inspects a film
Audrey inspects a film

55 Steps.  What does that title mean to a potential viewer?  It really is amazing how many likeable films are pushed to the side because their titles are boring, meaningless, and don’t give a clue as to their content or topic. 

In the early 1970s, when I was going to NYU for a graduate degree in Cinema Studies, I worked fulltime for a film company in order to make my rent and buy my books.  That was a fortuitous situation because I learned more in the workplace than I did in the classroom.  It was my great fortune to have worked for the legendary film publicist, Renee Furst.  One day Renee called the staff together to discuss film titles.  She said the success of our latest film distribution campaign would depend upon the titles we chose to give each new production.  She was right.

For instance, a title like the recent Netflix feature, Pieces of a Woman, draws a potential viewer into seeing the film.  Pieces of a Woman.  That title tells us it’s a story of interest to the female viewers in particular.  Pieces?  That could mean several things.  The story might cover several aspects of a woman’s life, or it might be a tale of a troubled woman – a woman whose life is falling to pieces.  In any case, it’s a dramatic title, one that uses forceful or substantial words that somehow relate to a theme. 

I was drawn to see Pieces of a Woman by its title. The film stars Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, and Ellen Burstyn, and all three actors give outstanding performances.  It’s the story of a youngish woman, beginning on the day she gives birth, and including dramas concerning complicated relationships with her partner and her mother. An Oscar and BAFTA winner in 1974 for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Burstyn can boast of a long list of award nods and wins.  She is 88 years old, and her current performance is filled with high energy. 

So often when viewers go online to choose a film, they rely on the power of the title. Fortunately, Pieces of a Woman not only is represented by a fine title, but it lives up to that selling point.  It tells a powerful story, one that is grounded in realism even though it contains scenes, sometimes disturbing, of unusual intensity. 

I began by speaking about the movie 55 Steps.  Unlike Pieces of a Woman, the title 55 Steps wouldn’t attract fleas. Yet, like Pieces of a Woman, it is a very interesting movie about the lives of remarkable women.  Danish filmmaker Bille August directed this based-on-fact English-language drama about a human rights lawyer, Colette Hughes, who defends the rights of mental patients in California hospitals, and in doing so ends a harsh, inhuman law. She agrees to take on the case of Eleanor Riese, a mental patient who is being force-fed drugs against her will and locked up under unsanitary conditions.

Hilary Swank plays the lawyer, and Helena Bonham Carter enacts the role of Riese. Two-time Oscar winner Swank downplays as the overworked, rather stiff professional woman.  That allows Bonham Carter the room to twitch and scream, teeter and otherwise bandy about in different phases of her medical challenges.  Throughout the film, both women develop their personalities and grow their friendship. 55 Steps received mixed reviews, but I really like it.  I became involved with the two lead characters’ lives and the main theme which demonstrates that a person needing treatment for mental difficulties can know as much or more about living than a successful professional woman.  Does this storyline deserve the vaporous title 55 Steps?  See this interesting movie and then judge.

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 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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