Published: The Good Men Project (September 27, 2014)
If a female-led Ghostbusters 3 becomes a reality, what could that mean for future of female comedy writers, actors. and directors?
Recently, Bill Murray made entertainment headlines by listing his picks for the new line-up to spearhead the long-awaited Ghostbusters 3. The names included Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, and Emma Stone.
As you may have noticed, each of these comedians and/or comically-gifted actresses is female.
Since this isn’t the first time the prospect of an all-woman Ghostbusters movie has been bandied about, it makes sense that the feminist dimension of the subject hasn’t received much attention from the blogosphere. Now that there are specific names being considered, however, it is important for film aficionados and feminists alike to explore what having an ensemble of talented actresses “take over” such a mega-blockbuster franchise would have for American pop culture.
- It could be as big as “Frozen” – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Frozen wasn’t groundbreaking because it was the first animated feature from a major American studio about non-traditional female protagonists (i.e., not a damsel in distress and/or prize to be won for a male secondary character). Although such movies have been far less common than their socially regressive counterparts, the occasional Mulan or Coraline has popped up every few years or so, netting respectable profit and modest fan bases in the process.
What distinguished Frozen from its predecessors is that it wasn’t just successful… it was hugely successful. Worldwide it was the highest grossing film of 2013, the highest grossing animated feature of all time, the fifth highest grossing film of all time, and one of only nineteen movies to earn more than $1 billion. More important, though, was that Frozen was embraced by the zeitgeist. Its victory for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars was a given; merchandise based on it was characters was everywhere; the smash hit song “Let It Go” became the earworm of the year. The movie wasn’t just popular; it was as universally well-liked as any single work of art can realistically become. To the extent that these things can be objective measured, one can safely say that Frozen was a very, very good movie.
Barring a truly horrendous marketing campaign or a stroke of freakish bad luck, the chances are that Ghostbusters 3 would also be a significant box office success. It’s close to axiomatic at this point that long-awaited sequels to nostalgia-tinged beloved franchises tend to make mint. This financial success, however, definitely doesn’t guarantee cultural success. Blockbusters like Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may have been smash hits at the box office, but the stench of notoriety lingers over both due to widely-held complaints about their quality, many of them well-founded (Jar Jar Binks and nuking the fridge, anyone?). This brings me to my second point…
- It would be the first installment in an iconic franchise marketed on the basis of its talented female comic leads. In other words, it would need to be funny.
Even if an all-female Ghostbusters 3 doesn’t match Frozen dollar for dollar, it would almost certainly be one of the year’s biggest hits in terms of revenue. Nevertheless, it would be a disaster if the movie was deemed a qualitative failure.
It’s a well-known show business fact that women have a much harder time making it in comedy than men. While comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have done a great deal to change that, the reality is that no blockbuster anywhere near the level of a Ghostbusters movie has ever cast its lot on the public’s acceptance of its all-female cast (after adjusting for inflation, the highest grossing comedy with a female lead in American history was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which currently ranks #152; by contrast, Ghostbusters in #32). If the movie is a success, Ghostbusters 3 could be a forward stride for female comedians comparable to what Frozen was for non-traditional female leads in animated films. If it was deemed a failure – either because of latent sexism among moviegoers, a poor script, unflattering comparisons to the brilliant original (and stronger-than-average follow up), or any combination of the three – it would be at best a wasted opportunity, at worst a setback.
In short, Ghostbusters 3 would not only risk soiling the good name of a cinematic national treasure, (again, see The Phantom Menace and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but could turn a potential milestone in the history of women in comedy and cinema into an embarrassing footnote. That’s a good reason why…
- It’s significant that the movie would be partially-helmed by men… and necessary that the women have an equally powerful creative voice.
The first two Ghostbusters movies were directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, and starred Ramis, Aykroyd, and Bill Murray. Even if Murray doesn’t get his casting wishes on a Ghostbusters 3, the chances are that the surviving members of the original Ghostbusters team would have a strong hand in every step of the creative process – in particular Aykroyd, who has remained outspoken in his unbridled enthusiasm for a possible third film even after all these years.
This is as it should be. For one thing, the franchise is their baby and, speaking strictly from the standpoint of artistic ethics, it would be unconscionable for anyone to insist that it be wrested away from them to fulfill a sociological agenda. More significantly, though, their presence would demonstrate a symbolic passing of the torch (or should I say proton pack?) from one generation of comedians to another. As long as the third Ghostbusters movie lived up to the standard of the first two films, the collaboration between its male creators and anointed female successors would be akin to David Letterman hand-picking Stephen Colbert as his successor on The Late Show. It would be a poignant demonstration that the legacy of top notch special-effects driven comedy transcends gender lines and knows only one criterion – funny.
For this to work, however, the voices of the female stars would need to be as evident in the final product as that of its director and writers. Even though Murray wasn’t a credited writer in either of the first two Ghostbusters films, his distinct sensibilities were as stamped in the dialogue delivered by Peter Venkman as Ramis’s dry nerdiness on the character of Egon Spengler and Aykroyd’s boyish glee on Ray Stantz. Similarly, it would be necessary for audiences to recognize the individual comic voices of Wiig, McCarthy, Cardellini, Stone, and/or any of the other female comedians who star in the movie. Without it, their casting could risk coming across as patronizing – which would be an unfortunate note on which to pick up (and possibly end) the franchise.
Although the possibility of a female-led Ghostbusters 3 remains purely speculative at this point (far more auspicious signs than this one have come and gone without bearing fruit), there are larger points which come to the fore when discussing this hypothetical movie that hold true regardless. For all of the progress made in the entertainment industry over the past several decades, there is still plenty of sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice that define the kinds of movies we see and the types of characters we expect to see in them. When changes are made, it is because the same people who achieved their first success by taking risks with their art summon the courage to do so in a way that is socially meaningful as well as entertaining.
This is the lesson that Hollywood will hopefully learn from Murray’s musings about Ghostbusters 3, even if they don’t ultimately bear fruit. We live in an era when reboots and long-delayed sequels are crass disappointments far more often than not, in no small part because they so often lack the verve and originality of their predecessors. For any Ghostbusters sequel to buck that trend, it would have to recapture what made the first two movies so funny and entertaining while bringing something new to the table in the process. Having Ghostbusters 3 shatter one of cinema’s most enduring glass ceilings seems like as good a way to do that as any.