VENICE, Italy—One of the most visible presences at last year’s Venice Film Festival, by virtue both of his dumpiness and ubiquity, was James Toback. You could not miss him, or his upsetting goatee, on the Lido—at screenings, at restaurants, at soirees. And everywhere he went, a festival employee dutifully followed, guiding his wheelchair through the sea of tanned beauties.
The septuagenarian was there to unveil his latest picture, The Private Life of a Modern Woman, a giallo deduttivo starring Sienna Miller and Alec Baldwin, a longtime pal. Variety called it “Toback’s skewed version of a Law & Order: SVU episode.” He was also out here shooting a cloak-and-dagger documentary, Venice Lives!, a companion piece of sorts to his Cannes-market satire Seduced and Abandoned.
Both have yet to see the light of day.
And with good reason. As we now know, Toback’s own life resembled Law & Order: SVU. More than 300 women—including the high-profile actresses Rachel McAdams and Selma Blair—have come forward to accuse the arthouse filmmaker of sexual misconduct, detailing a disturbing pattern of predation: “audition,” isolation, assault, death threats. If that weren’t enough, the aforementioned documentaries were executive produced by Brett Ratner, and one of them features none other than Roman Polanski.
At the 75th Venice Film Festival’s opening-night ceremony on Wednesday, a black-tie affair at the majestic Palazzo del Cinema, jury president Guillermo del Toro waxed poetic about how “careers are made” at film fests like Venice. It was a touching sentiment coming from del Toro, a font of positivity if there ever was one. But the Oscar-winning director failed to address the elephant in the room: that for the second year in a row, only one of its 21 featured films is directed by a woman. This has inevitably led to charges of “toxic masculinity.”
This gender divide is indeed troubling—a byproduct of the sexism that is so firmly embedded in both cinema and Italian cultures. That it’s thus far been the prevailing narrative of #Venice75 is a promising development, and one that’s already bore fruit, with the festival agreeing to sign a gender parity protocol and hold a gender equality panel next year.
The gap isn’t unique to Venice, of course. Cannes also boasted just one woman-directed film in competition this year; worse, since its inception in 1946, the fest has featured a total of 82 films in competition helmed by women, compared to 1,645 by men. To protest this injustice, 82 actresses and female directors, led by Cannes jury head Cate Blanchett and French filmmaker Agnes Varda, amassed on the Croisette’s red-carpet steps. Arms linked, they marched “for equal pay, equal opportunity, and an end to the sexual exploitation of women,” wrote our Dana Kennedy.
“Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise,” Blanchett declared. “As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these steps today as a symbol of our determination and our commitment to progress. We are writers, we are producers, we are directors, actresses, cinematographers, talent agents, editors, distributors, sales agents, and all of us are involved in the cinematic arts. And we stand today in solidarity with women of all industries.”
“We expect our institutions to actively provide parity and transparency in their executive bodies and provide safe environments in which to work,” she continued. “We expect our governments to make sure that the laws of equal pay for equal work are upheld. We demand that our workplaces are diverse and equitable so that they can best reflect the world in which we actually live. A world that allows all of us in front and behind the camera, all of us, to thrive shoulder to shoulder with our male colleagues.”
Not to mention that, for all the grief Venice has rightfully received on the gender parity front, its name has yet to surface in connection to Harvey Weinstein, the monstrous film mogul who stands accused of using Cannes, Toronto and Sundance as his own personal hunting grounds (heck, the guy helped lead the Women’s March at Sundance 2017). In fact, Venice has garnered a reputation in recent years for its strong female performances. To wit: 2016 gave us Amy Adams in Arrival, Natalie Portman’s Jackie, and Emma Stone’s Oscar-winning turn in La La Land, while 2017 boasted Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, and Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The 2018 version is no different, with highly-anticipated performances from Dakota Johnson (Suspiria), Natalie Portman (Vox Lux), Juliette Binoche (Non-Fiction), and Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born), to name a few. And though Damien Chazelle’s opening-nighter First Man has received near-hysterical levels of praise (space force!), with Ryan Gosling delivering yet another finely-calibrated effort (this time as astronaut Neil Armstrong), it absolutely pales in comparison to The Favourite, filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ fiercely feminist fable about a pair of cousins competing for the affections of Queen Anne at the turn of the 18th century.
In a clever bit of gender-gaze reversal, it is the men who are reduced to mascara-running fools in The Favourite—mere pawns in Abigail (Emma Stone) and Sarah’s (Rachel Weisz) game of throne. But it’s Olivia Colman who steals the show. Her Queen Anne is at once vulnerable and terrifying, needy and dismissive. It will surely earn the criminally-underrated English actress serious awards consideration.
She’s in a wheelchair, too.