March 3-9th 2008
QUEENS OF COMEDY
Why are women so underrepresented in film comedy? Comediennes Sally Phillips and Lucy Porter tell Leigh Singer how all-female film festival Bird’s Eye View’s new comedy retrospective on funny women aims to readdress the balance.
Three years ago Channel 4 screened ‘The Comedian’s Comedian’, one of their umpteen list shows, where top comics from here and the US ranked their favourite funny men. And they did mean men. Of the Top 50 only four entries were women, the highest-ranked, Victoria Wood, a lowly 27th, with French & Saunders, Joan Rivers and Joyce Grenfell bringing up the rear.
It’s a sad yet accurate indicator of the ongoing status of women in comedy, particularly when it comes to film. The official history of cinematic comedy, from Charlie Chaplin to Groucho Marx, Woody Allen to today’s superstars like Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller is almost exclusively a male lineage.
Yet in reality, many comediennes, from the silent era to fast-talking, wise-cracking dames like Mae West and Judy Holliday, have been making ‘em laugh for years too. Strangely, though, great comic actresses tend to be celebrated more for drama (Katharine Hepburn), glamour (Marilyn Monroe) or, at worst, simply forgotten about altogether.
It’s an skewed representation that Bird’s Eye View, a film festival of shorts, features and documentaries made by women worldwide, is hoping to help correct. With its growing reputation and now in its third year, BEV is hosting a comedy retrospective, focusing on early silent film pioneers like Mabel Normand – credited as the first woman to ever lob a cream pie Chaplin’s way - and Mary Pickford, through to classic screwball stars like Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) and Ginger Rogers (Roxie Hart).
“I just love watching those women,” says BEV affiliate Sally Phillips, the British comedienne perhaps best known for hit all-female sketch series Smack the Pony and for playing sidekick Shazza in the Bridget Jones films. “They’re wonderful, strong, glamorous – they’re not sort of baby-fied. Whereas now you have women in comedy and they always have to be cute. There’s a place for cute but I think it’s quite interesting that ‘Women’s Liberation’ has happened since those films.”
Another BEV supporter Lucy Porter is one of a number of highly rated, successful female British stand-ups (Jo Brand, Josie Long, Shazia Mirza), and also finds it dispiriting that the wide range of female comedy is seldom reflected at the movies.
“In live performance you see many more facets of female behaviour and modern femininity,” she notes, “and it can sometimes be a bit frustrating when you see mainstream films. Someone like Jennifer Aniston is a very good comedy actress but she virtually plays the same role in everything she ever does, Sandra Bullock was the sort of kooky, falling over lady. And if they stretch themselves they always do it in a serious drama where they put on loads of weight or make themselves ugly.”
Clearly the under-representation of women in comedy relates to wider social issues. Too often women have been used onscreen as mere “eye candy”, glamorous, largely mute accessories to active, vocal male jokers: with bitter irony, women were patriarchal comedy’s straight man. As US comedienne Wanda Sykes once ruefully observed, “I think it's harder for women because comedy is so opposite of being ladylike.”
Thankfully the acceptable range of what’s “ladylike” has far more options nowadays, yet there still appears to be certain restrictions. Has any woman on film become famous for the level of quickfire riffing of Robin Williams or the antic slapstick of Jim Carrey? It could be seen as either a certain self-consciousness or a subtle form of censorship, depending on your level of cynicism.
Italian comedienne and Fellini muse Guiliette Masina, renowned for her graceful physical clowning, is a longtime idol of Sally Phillips, yet it’s a style of humour still largely unexpected from women. Phillips cites Hippies, a sitcom she made with Simon Pegg: “Some of the reviews were, ‘it’s a surprise to see that the physical comedy comes from Sally Phillips!’” she remembers. “But I do think there is a nervousness in comedy about where women should be or who they should be. Less so nowadays, I think, in the purer forms of comedy – sketch shows and sitcoms. But I think film is still very different.”
“There’s a real fear,” she elaborates. “It’s exactly the same deal you had in British telly where it used to be that to be funny, you weren’t allowed to be attractive. I remember getting a sketch show onstage with six blokes and announcing that I wanted to wear a skirt and heels and all of them standing there looking at me going, ‘Well you can’t, you have to wear the same stuff [as us].’ And I said but then I’m just going to be a bad man, whereas if I wear a skirt I can be a woman.”
Both Phillips and Porter are quick to point out that responsibility equally lies with women’s own choices of material. “I think the problem is that so many films that are targeted at women, like The Jane Austen Book Club, I would go and watch almost anything else than something called [that],” laughs Porter.
“There’s always been that thing where there’s Steel Magnolias or Beaches, films with all women in the cast tend to be thought of as quite sentimental and mawkish and somebody always gets cancer.”
With that in mind, both Phillips and Porter reveal that they’re currently writing a romantic comedy screenplay and TV drama respectively. But clearly the onus is also on developing new generations of talent, something Bird’s Eye View is attempting to do this year by founding a Comedy Lab, dedicated to discovering and nurturing new female comic talent.
“We need to be making more films that women want to watch and men want to watch as well,” states Porter. Which doesn’t mean the horrendous statistical imbalance – only 7% of film directors and 12% of writers, are female – can’t also be tackled. Porter gleefully champions 1939’s The Women, written by her heroine Anita (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Loos. “It’s bitchy, it’s witty, it’s sharp,” she says wryly, “and there are no men in it whatsoever.”
Bird’s Eye View runs from March 6th – 13th at the ICA and BFI Southbank. For more information visit www.birds-eye-view.co.uk