Bright Star, Dimmed: On "Female" Movies And Being Overlooked At Awards Season

Why have Jane Campion's well-reviewed Bright Star and its star Abbie Cornish so far been ignored in the awards race? There are several theories.

The question has been posed over at Cinematical, as well as in the aftermath of the Golden Globe nominations, which shut the film out entirely.

Blame the September release date, lack of studio mettle, or the relative unsexiness of poetry in a crowded year. Or blame its subtle portrayal of a female character by a female director, as some of the folks over at Women & Hollywood did while pondering the recent Golden Globe nominations. Said critic Caryn James,

I don't want to take anything away from Kathryn Bigelow; The Hurt Locker is an amazingly-directed film. But it is also a stereotypically macho film, while Jane Campion's beaufitul, poetic Bright Star plays into stereotypes of what a woman filmmaker might do. It's true that awards rarely honor subtlety, male or female, and that has hurt Bright Star. But it's also true that the many nominations for Bigelow play into the old idea that women get ahead by behaving like men, in this case making a movie voters might expect a man to have made. I'm glad Bigelow made the film she wanted to make, but real progress will come when we stop looking at poetic films as if they exist in some lesser, female category.

Fellow respondent, Awards Daily's Sasha Stone, had a slightly different argument — that Bright Star wasn't feminine enough:

Campion's refusal to make Bright Star and out and out weepy, combined with its distant romantic tale, fought off the very audience it would need to survive: romance-hungry women. How awful to have it categorized like that but that is what women want.

Whether or not it's what women want, Bright Star was certainly not one of those period films that overcompensate with lusty bodice-ripping; its idea of sensuality was extremely passionate hand-holding. (The headline of the New York Times review semi-ironically referred to the film as an "Ode to Hot English Chastity.")

But that's no explanation for the snubbing of Abbie Cornish, of whom the Times review said, "She's as good as Kate Winslet, which is about as good as it's possible to be." It's hard to imagine higher praise.

Bright Star may have suffered by being squeezed on both sides — it demanded tremendous patience of the audience, which is asking a lot, but although critics liked it, it was never passionately championed.

Certain serious viewers outright rejected it. The screening I attended of this film was followed by a panel of academics convened by the Keats Society of America: three men, one woman. (Listen to its podcast here). After Christopher Ricks stingingly criticized the film (elaborating, later, in a New York Review Of Books article, "Undermining Keats," sub. req'd) for being too literal and trying to force the poetry into visual cues, Susan Wolfson, an English professor at Princeton, remarked that Campion had been said she was drawn to Keats' mistress Fanny Brawne, about whom little is known, because how much "invention" that could allow her. Campion could imagine Brawne's own subjectivity without being enslaved to the facts, even if it meant Keats, the great man, were a weak character. "A lot of the energy was transferred to Fanny Brawne," as Wolfson put it.

Using Keats' poetry to explore the development and challenges of this woman has clearly charmed some and left others cold. Is that a matter of gender? Is making a subtle, action-free movie an essentially female act? Is it fair to compare it to The Hurt Locker's success thus far? Unless the Oscars break with the trend so far, it's a debate we'll have to have without them.

Jane Campion And Bright Star: Lost In The Shuffle? [Cinematical]
Golden Globe Nominations: Reactions from Women Film Writers and Critics [Women & Hollywood]

Related: Movie Review: Keats and His Beloved in an Ode to Hot English Chastity [New York Times]
Bright Star Panel Discussion (Podcast) [Keats-Shelley Association Of America]
Undermining Keats [New York Review Of Books, sub. req'd)

Earlier: Golden Globe Noms: Nods For Precious Actresses, Director Kathryn Bigelow