Sexism persists in Hollywood’s portrayal of marriages

by STEPHEN WHITTY
marriages in hollywood movies

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan co-star as Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia in “Maestro.”

And they lived unhappily ever after.

That is the opposite of the “Hollywood ending” that used to wrap up most films, but lately it has been the art’s most popular plot, at least when it comes to prestige biopics.

In “Oppenheimer,” our scientist hero shuts his wife out, emotionally, dragging her to a barren outpost in New Mexico while continuing to cheat on her. Ignored and betrayed, she sits at home and drinks.

In “Maestro,” the married Leonard Bernstein blithely continues to lead a second, sexually active life as a gay man. His wife’s studied tolerance fades when he begins to flaunt his conquests, and for years they retreat into separate worlds.

In “Ferrari,” the dashing protagonist not only cheats on his wife and business partner of more than 30 years, but has a son by his mistress. Signora Ferrari, perhaps understandably, begins the film by taking a shot at him. (She misses — presumably on purpose.)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone co-star in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

And these are all minor marital troubles compared to “Killers of the Flower Moon,” in which Ernest not only marries Mollie for her money, but then decides to try to kill her for it.

Hollywood’s biggest films this year take a fairly jaundiced view of marriage, which they portray, consciously or not, as founded on a gross imbalance of power. The closest thing to a marriage of equals may be in “Napoleon” — and that only because the besotted Emperor and his cool Joséphine are both busy struggling to control the other (while, simultaneously, failing to control their lust for other people).

Of course, these are all fact-based movies — more or less — and if they seem a trifle downbeat and cynical, that’s because Hollywood’s approach to real-life stories has changed. In the old days, nervous studio lawyers and blue-nosed censors efficiently eliminated anything remotely controversial from biopics; if 1946 audiences left “Night and Day” without realizing Cole Porter was gay … well, that was the objective.

Now, with the censors gone and gossip inescapable, movie fans demand filmmakers dish a little dirt. The motion pictures themselves may choose to moralize, self-righteously, on their hero’s choices (like the way the recent “Bohemian Rhapsody” tut-tutted over Freddie Mercury’s unzipped sex life). But they don’t dare ignore them. Audiences want the whole truth — or, at least, the whole range of gossip, rumor and innuendo.

And since all of these big biopics are about married men, fans want the dirt on their marriages, too. None of which could exactly be called untroubled.

But this is where another imbalance enters.

Hollywood movies about great women are rarely about their triumphs (this year’s “Nyad” is a welcome exception). Instead, they’re mostly about their failures. Recent biopics like “Judy,” “Blonde” and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” checked in on Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Grahame at some of the lowest points in their lives, showing them struggling with bad love affairs, fading careers and self-destructive decisions. It’s the diva-as-disaster genre.

Emily Blunt plays Katherine Oppenheimer in “Oppenheimer.”

Hollywood movies about great men, though, are rarely about their protagonist’s pathetic failures. Instead, “Ferrari,” “Maestro” and “Oppenheimer” focus on their heroes’ accomplishments. (Even “Napoleon,” which includes Waterloo and exile, spends the vast majority of its time on the emperor’s battlefield successes.) We’re not asked to pity these characters for what they have lost. We’re encouraged to share, vicariously, in what they have won.

So their troubled marriages can’t be seen as failures — at least, as far as the men are concerned. And as a result, these complicated unions are all reduced to rather one-sided scenarios in which wives shout and cry and fight (but remain loyal) and husbands wince and worry and fight back (but are still able to concentrate on their careers).

In “Maestro,” Bernstein’s wife Felicia may be the one who finally evicts him from the bedroom, dumping his pajamas and monogrammed slippers outside the door, but she never loses faith in his genius. Laura Ferrari and Katherine Oppenheimer rail against their husband’s adulteries, but when their spouse faces existential threats from others, they rally to his defense. In every case, it is the woman who suffers the most in the marriage — but also does most of the work to keep it going.

Meanwhile, their mate compartmentalizes, and soldiers on, largely unscarred.

Vanessa Kirby plays Empress Joséphine in “Napoleon.”

After all, they have races to win, weapons to design, symphonies to conduct. They flail about in these marriages, too, but you get the sense that, in the end, they see all these feuds and fusses as mere distractions. Only in “Napoleon” is the man as anguished as the woman by his romantic troubles. But then, these partners are closer to equals, because the Joséphine has an advantage: She has been married before. She knows what to expect.

Perhaps we should, too.

Decades of loosening censorship rules and libel laws (and our own increasing taste for gossip) have fed the urge for messy marital scenes in our big-screen biopics. An unshakable sexist preference for male hero worship also means movies continue to see men as victors and women as victims, husbands as pragmatists trying to accomplish historic deeds and wives as domestically minded, demanding, scene-making impediments.

The combination has led to what we now have on our screens: a view of marriage that is definitely less starry-eyed than the romantic fantasies Hollywood used to promote. But probably no more realistic. And perhaps even less healthy. But you can’t have a drama without conflict.

And in Hollywood, at least, it’s almost as impossible to have a biopic without a male hero — or a marriage where the man’s not in charge.

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