August is the month Hollywood drops its bastard stepchild movies and TV shows at our door. Summer blockbusters come out in May, June, and July. Big network TV rolls out new shows in September and October. Oscar-bait films are released in November. Although my version of a perfect holiday includes an afternoon in an air conditioned theater, the conventional wisdom is that people don’t go to the movies in late summer. They nap in hammocks.
So, yup, August is a no-man’s land for entertainment.
But it’s not a no-woman’s land.
A few major releases from Netflix, Showtime, HBO, and Hollywood studios are courting female viewers this month, and we are happy to accept their roses.
BTW: Sorry for the Bachelor in Paradise reference. Judge me all you want! I don’t care! I’m hooked on near-naked beach cavorting.
The Bachelor, Bachelorette, and BiP, where women over 32 are all but banned from the island and/or mansion, obviously do NOT pass the NextTribe Test, our Bechdel Test-inspired measure of whether popular entertainments come close to representing the 46 percent of American women who are 45 and over. The Next TribeTest’s three criteria:
(1) The work has two named women over 45;
(2) who talk about something other than their spouse/kids/home/aging body/fading looks/fear of technology; and
(3) and are shown dressing stylishly, doing physical activity, or having a sex life that is not just a punch line.
What passes or fails this month?
Blinded by the Light—FAIL
BBTL is about a young man’s discovery of Bruce Springsteen’s music in 1987 England. As a New Jersey native, I am honor bound to pay money to see this movie and weep salty tears throughout. But I protest in my heart the exclusion of mature women in the cast. One of the only over-45 females in the movie is Margaret Thatcher, and she might count as a man.
Written and directed by Andrea Berloff, The Kitchen is about three women—Melissa McCarthy (48), Tiffany Haddish (39), and Elizabeth Moss (37)—taking over for their jailed husbands to rule the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen in the late ‘70s. Juicy cameos from Margot Martindale, 68, and Annabelle Sciorra, 59, push it into a PASS. Loved the disco era hair and clothes. The soundtrack put Fleetwood Mac on heavy rotation; Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie might as well have been included in the cast. The Kitchen is not going to be nominated for any Oscars, but it served up a heaping dish of surprises. I left the theater smiling. If you go to the movies for guns and blood, why not see some well-dressed women pull the trigger for a change?
Where’d You Go, Bernadette—PASS
Absolutely loved it. The trailer makes Bernadette seem like a quirky romp, but it’s actually a dramatic story about mental health, midlife frustrations and regrets, and the toll of snuffing out one’s creative spark. Every scene, every line of dialogue, was about the creative, emotional life of a mature woman. I challenge you to name one other A-list Hollywood movie that, from beginning to end, kept you in suspense about whether the middle-age female main character was going to realize her full artistic potential. Even the scenes with Billy Crudup (still hot at 51), the husband, focused on the creative history and emotional state of his wife, Bernadette, played by elfin, luminous Cate Blanchette, 49. Bernadette is a mother, but she’s not The Mother, aka the supportive, self-sacrificing woman’s role in most mainstream films. The daughter’s plotline was about whether she can help her mom get her jam back. Kristen Wiig, 46, plays a priggish neighbor; Megan Mullally, 59, and Kate Burton, 62, have smallish roles. And to cap it all off, gorgeous scenery in Antarctica. (Personal note: I spent two weeks on the very same One Ocean ship that Bernadette was on. My only quibble with the entire film is that director Richard Linklater should have shown us a lot more penguins!)
Even though editor Jeannie Ralston loved this Netflix original, I have to disagree, and, as she says, NextTribe is big enough for both viewpoints. A golden cast of Angela Bassett, 60, Felicity Huffman, 56, and Patricia Arquette, 51, was wasted on a comedy that seems ill conceived from the start. Three Poughkeepsie women meet on Mother’s Day and complain that they’re neglected by their 30-something sons. They decide to drive to New York to meddle in their son’s lives and find meaning in their own. The writer/director Cindy Chupack was one of the original Sex and the City creators, and she gives us shopping and clubbing scenes aplenty, but the stakes couldn’t be lower. Everything works out in the end, although nothing really changes, apart from Angela Bassett’s hair style.
Otherhood assumes middle-age women define themselves by their roles as mother and wife only and are flummoxed when children move out. Do we really look around the empty nest and ask, “Who am I?” We might want our lives to be different or fear we haven’t done enough. It’s like the characters in this movie came out of hyper sleep just to nag their kids. I felt pandered to. It painted a target on our demographic and gave us a plot about women realizing with a shock that, you know what, we do matter after all. In the world of Otherhood, growth comes from risky heart-to-hearts. Surely, we can muster our courage for bigger adventures, like running away to Antarctica or leading a criminal organization in Hell’s Kitchen? The Kitchen and Bernadette were about self-discovery, too, but those characters realized they were badasses.
The Art of Racing in the Rain—FAIL
If I had a terrible flu, couldn’t move from the couch, and lacked the strength to push a button on the remote control and this movie were playing for free on basic cable, I might allow it to pass before my eyes. But otherwise, you couldn’t drag me by a leash into the theater to see it. I avoid any entertainment that is conceived and created solely to manipulate my emotions. I don’t watch This Is Us, another Milo Ventimiglia product, for the same reason. The first scene in Racing is of a dying Golden Retriever. I wonder if, when Kevin Costner was directing Dances with Wolves, he thought that one day, in the waning years of his career, he’d do voice over for a pet about peeing himself. Voices for Dogs? Kathy Baker, 69, is the mother-in-law; apart from the wife and the daughter, nearly every other female character is young and unnamed (midwife, paralegal, etc.). I don’t know who Racing is for—men who can only express deep emotions about animals? In that case, I predict a hit!
To be honest, I only watched the first season of this Showtime prestige series with artsy POV shifts, and I found it so stressful that I couldn’t go on. Mare Winningham starred as The Mother for four seasons. I always like to see a familiar face on screen, especially one that reminds me of going back to the future. The talented Maura Tierney, 54, is The (Jilted) Wife and brings emotional gravity to any role she plays. In the final season, Jennifer Jason Leigh, 57, joins the cast, along with Anna Paquin who—this will shock you—is only 37! She’s been in the public eye for so long—an Oscar winner at 11 for The Piano in 1993—it feels like she should be at least 50 by now.
After The Affair, we have Divorce. HBO showcases a trio of actors we love—Sarah Jessica Parker, 54, Molly Shannon, 54, and Talia Balsam, 60—in this series about picking up the pieces of a broke, broken family … but funny. Written by Sharon Hogan (creator of Amazon’s Catastrophe), Divorce dismantles sex, money, careers, real estate, friendships, relationships, and petty grudges, the things that viewers care about and are entertained by. I snort laugh at least once in every episode. The characters never get a win. The comedy comes from their blasé attitude while being pummeled by life’s curve balls. We can either get knocked down or take the embarrassment, disappointment, and frustrations of life on our (loose) chins.
The conceit of this reboot is that the Peach Pit gang of actors, not Beverly Hills 90201 characters, gets together for an anniversary celebration of the show that made them all famous (minus my favorite Luke Perry, RIP), and decide to do another show about their own lives, sort of. Gabrielle Carteris, 58, playing a meta version of herself, is now a successful lawyer, grandmother—and a newly out lesbian! For all of us who obsessively watched the original series and rooted for Andrea Zuckerman, the bookish Jew among WASPy blondes, we say, “You go, Grandma!” Jennie Garth, 47, Tori Spelling, 46, and Shannon Dougherty, 48, commit to playing fun-house mirror versions of themselves as they try to sort out their mistakes, heartbreaks, and ego issues. They look middle-age with real problems (divorce, infidelity, rebellious children, money trouble), but their mindsets and maturity levels are still mired in high school. I sure hope they finally grow up by the end of this season, because I don’t think there’s going to be another.
Valerie Frankel is a ghostwriter who has collaborated with iconic celebrities and VIPs on bestselling novels and non-fiction projects, including Joan Rivers (New York Times bestseller Men Are Stupid And They Like Big Boobs), Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi (New York Times bestseller A Shore Thing), Ivana Trump (Raising Trump), Jeanine Pirro (He Killed Them All: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice) and others. Under her own name, Val has published 15 novels and is an award-winning journalist. She was articles editor at Mademoiselle magazine and as a freelance writer, she has been a regular contributor to Self, Parenting, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, and the New York Times.