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Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane. (VVS Films)
Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane. (VVS Films)

JOHANNA SCHNELLER

What women want, and what Hollywood thinks they deserve Add to ...

The minute I saw Jessica Chastain apply her red lipstick – danger-red, the red of police sirens in the rain or fresh, wet blood – my heart sank. I knew she was girding for battle, and I know what that means: yet another woman who will pay a price for her ambition.

The moment comes early in the new political drama Miss Sloane, which opens next Friday. Chastain plays the title character – a lobbyist in Washington, a barracuda in bow blouses, a she-wolf in chignons. Her unsmiling gaze makes big men shrink, but they hire her because she wins. She needs to, the way mortals need water. She pops speed so she can work all night and pays escorts for her orgasms, because emotions are for amateurs. She has one weakness – derision – but she can’t help that. Everyone else is just so … less than.

So when Sloane ends up friendless, heckled on the news and the object of a U.S. congressional hearing, where she single-handedly takes the heat for D.C.’s sick system, you may be gripped, you may be angry, but you won’t be surprised. Because although 72 years have passed since Mildred Pierce parlayed her chicken shack into a successful restaurant and lost all love along the way, women who grasp in Hollywood still get fried.

I’m not talking about 1949, when Katharine Hepburn went soft to mollify Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib; or even 1987, when Diane Keaton chucked her killer job to make apple sauce with Sam Shepard in Baby Boom, and Holly Hunter unplugged her phone and cried every day to manage her stress in Broadcast News. I’m talking about today.

In 2015’s Our Brand is Crisis, we first meet political fixer Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) in exile, where she’s making pottery – lots and lots of pottery, teetering shelves full, because that’s how driven, and therefore neurotic, she is. She’s drawn back into the game to spin an election in Bolivia, and although she eventually wins, she still gets her comeuppance: The candidate she’s working ’round the clock for accuses her of “needing professional help” for wanting to win.

In 2014’s Nightcrawler, the videographer played by Jake Gyllenhaal may take ethical shortcuts, but it’s the slavering TV news producer played by Rene Russo who’s truly scary. When she says, “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” it’s as if he’s a helpless assistant strapped to a wall, and she’s the knife thrower flinging each word into a dangerously tight circle around his head.

There are a lot of bad guys in Michael Clayton (2007), including Clayton himself (George Clooney). But for him to have a moral victory, he has to find someone worse. Naturally, that someone is Karen (Tilda Swinton), a corporate flunky in too-cheap suits, whom he drives to her knees with this zinger: “For such a smart person, you really are lost, aren’t you?”

And who can forget the advice Stanley Tucci’s art director gives to Anne Hathaway’s editorial assistant in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), when she tells him her boyfriend feels left behind? “My personal life is hanging by a thread,” she says. “That’s what happens when you start doing well at work,” he replies snappily. “Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. It means it’s time for a promotion.”

Nine years later, in The Intern, Hathaway played a more successful character, Jules, who runs her own online fashion business. But her personal life hasn’t evolved – her husband still feels so left behind that he cheats on her.

Interestingly, it’s okay for women from a lower class to be ambitious. When Julia Roberts straps on a red satin bra in Erin Brockovich (2000), calls one female colleague “Krispy Kreme,” and disses another for her “ugly-ass shoes,” we still root for her, because she’s self-made, rising from the bottom. Her crusade isn’t pretentious or self-serving – she’s bettering herself.

Same for Tess, the secretary played by Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988). She might disguise her big hair and Queens accent inside her boss Sigourney Weaver’s boxy suits, but she’s doing it for the right reasons: to get out. (On the other hand, Weaver, who’s all Ivy League vowels and European ski holidays, is portrayed as cutthroat, and ends up with nothing.)

In Hollywood, as in real life, women are now “allowed” a small piece of the pie: There can be one or two of us around a boardroom table, but that’s it. We can be a member of a team, a la Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, as long as the majority of the team is male. We’re supposed to be grateful to be included. God forbid we should strive to be the boss.

Equity, which came out this past summer, is a good illustration. Early in the film, an audience member at a female empowerment event asks the investment banker Naomi, played by Anna Gunn, “What gets you up in the morning?”

“I like money,” Naomi answers. “I like knowing I have it.”

That’s a lot of candour; she quickly softens it by explaining that she was raised by a single mother who never had enough, and that she got her first Wall Street job to help put her brother through university.

But then she adds this: “It’s okay to do it just for ourselves, for how it makes us feel. Secure, yeah. Powerful, absolutely. I’m so glad it’s finally okay for us to talk about ambition openly. Don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that, too.”

The second she says the A-word, we know the opposite is true: Ambition is not going to be okay for Naomi. Sure enough, her boyfriend is soon using her and hanging her out to dry, her old school chum and her assistant (both woman) are betraying her and she’s fighting for her job.

Equity was written and directed by women; because of that, Naomi is less villain, more cautionary tale. In the movie’s most chilling line, her (male) boss informs her that she was passed over for a promotion – because, he says, “The perception is that you rub people the wrong way.”

Ambition in a woman. Still such a nasty thing.

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