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The female comedians taking over Hollywood

Spare ribaldry

Hollywood comedy has traditionally been dominated by men. Now, says Nicholas Barber, women are staging a takeover

Hollywood comedy has traditionally been dominated by men. Now, says Nicholas Barber, women are staging a takeover

Nicholas Barber | June/July 2016

When Tina Fey was promoting “Sisters” last year, she and her co-star Amy Poehler grew tired of answering the same question over and over again. “Every single interviewer asked, ‘Isn’t this an amazing time for women in comedy?’” Fey recalled in March. “And we were like, ‘No, it’s a terrible time.’ If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.”

She has a point. But while Hollywood has yet to close the gender pay gap, for a lot of garbage or otherwise, it is moving in the right direction. In the past year or so, Fey herself has starred in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” as well as “Sisters”. Melissa McCarthy (above) has starred in “Spy” and “The Boss”. Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara co-starred in “Hot Pursuit”. “Trainwreck” was written by and starred Amy Schumer. And “Pitch Perfect 2”, which was directed by Elizabeth Banks, featured Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. If this is a terrible time for women in comedy, then when has it ever been better?

It’s not that there used to be a shortage of funny films with women in the lead roles, it’s just that, until recently, those films were fixated on shoes, weddings and finding Mr Right. Anyone who sat through “27 Dresses” (2008) with Katherine Heigl or “Bride Wars” (2009) with Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway will know that, whatever Fey thinks of Hollywood today, it was much, much worse a few years ago. Now at least comedy heroines can battle police corruption, report from war zones and foil international criminal conspiracies, not to mention indulging in the drunken, drug-fuelled antics which were once reserved for men. The era when they were all marriage-obsessed clothes horses is finally over.

The tectonic plates began to shift in 2011, when Universal released “Bridesmaids”. From a distance, it didn’t seem especially radical: directed by a man, Paul Feig, it was a romantic comedy with a cupcake baker as its heroine and a wedding at the end. But it was written by its star, Kristen Wiig, and it allowed its female ensemble to be messily human. It also went on to garner two Oscar nominations and a box-office haul that was almost ten times its $32m budget. No wonder Hollywood came around to the radical idea that women in comedies didn’t have to be twentysomething starlets with a dozen Vogue and GQ cover shoots to their name. They could be experienced comics with a track record of writing and producing their own television material: Schumer has a sketch show; Fey, Poehler and Wiig were all “Saturday Night Live” cast-members; and Fey and Poehler oversaw their own acclaimed sitcoms, “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” respectively.

Two men have encouraged the trend. One is Judd Apatow, who produced “Bridesmaids”, directed “Trainwreck” and co-created Lena Dunham’s HBO sitcom, “Girls”. The other is Feig, who followed “Bridesmaids” with two more vehicles for its break-out star, Melissa McCarthy. First, there was “The Heat”, a buddy-cop movie in which McCarthy starred opposite Sandra Bullock, and then there was last year’s “Spy”, a globe-trotting James Bond pastiche. Unlikely as it is that McCarthy and Feig ever had a secret five-year plan, it’s notable that with each film the budget increased, and they moved further and further away from the standard rom-com template.

Mind the zap

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones wield their neutra-wands

All of which brings us to “Ghostbusters”, Feig’s remake of Ivan Reitman’s much-loved 1984 hit. If the trailers are to be trusted, the new film has lifted everything it possibly can from the old one, ranging from that theme song to the ectoplasm-dripping spooks to the logo-stamped hearse which is driven by the main characters (three white “paranormal investigators” and one streetwise black assistant). The one major change is that the stars are all female. Instead of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson, the comedians wielding the positronic accelerators and neutra-wands are McCarthy and Wiig, along with two other “Saturday Night Live” regulars, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.

This is a cause for celebration. Refreshing as it has been to see so many progressive comedies lately, “Ghostbusters” isn’t just a comedy, it’s a mega-budget summer blockbuster, so the casting of four women in the central roles is a watershed. (To get some sense of the gender imbalance in a typical Hollywood blockbuster, you have only to glance at the titles: “X-Men”, “Men in Black”, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.) Could the ghostbusters be convention-busters, too? The trend towards Hollywood comedies starring women is already here. If positronic accelerators and neutra-wands can blast a hole in the glass ceiling, then a trend towards Hollywood blockbusters starring women could be on its way.

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