John Mulaney once said, “You could never put together a heist with women. Like Ocean’s Eleven with women wouldn’t work because two would keep breaking off to talk shit about the other nine.” Just like the film’s heist, the success of Ocean’s 8 was high stakes, but with its $100 million domestic gross, the film silences the critics and proves, once again, that women dominate at the box office.
For decades, female ensemble films have been hitting the silver screen and subsequently proved to be substantial and fun entertainment. I asked my social media followers to name their favourite powerhouse group of ladies on film, with the following – of many films referenced – coming out on top.
The Women dir. George Cukor
While Ocean’s 8 is void of the male criticism predicting a movie full of catfights, The Women (1939) has plenty – one in which Rosalind Russell bites Paulette Goddard leaving her with a scar – and it makes for some good comedy. The film is based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play of the same name and stars some of the biggest names of the era: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine. With a supporting cast comprised of Lucile Watson, Mary Boland, Florence Nash, Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler, Butterfly McQueen, Hedda Hopper, as well as Marjorie Main and Phyllis Povah who reprised their stage roles for the film. Despite the film’s slogan “It’s all about men!”, the entire cast of 130, including extras, were all women (even the dogs featured were female). The central theme of the film is the women’s relationship with the men in their lives, with most of them going to Reno to get a divorce. The film follows these Manhattan socialites, focusing primarily on Mary Haines (Shearer) who, thanks to the gossipy Sylvia (Russell), finds out her husband is having an affair with the perfume counter girl Crystal Allen (Crawford). The claws come out and leads to one of the best scenes of the film, a standoff between Mary and Crystal who dish out some harsh quips. The drama between Mary and Crystal allowed for the interconnectedness of the rest of the cast, as their lives change over the film’s two year period. With witty dialogue and elegant costuming, sparks-fly in this comedic classic of extravagant bitchery.
Nine to Five dir. Colin Higgins
Unless you aren’t attuned to music, there’s no way you wouldn’t think of Dolly Parton’s hit single when someone says, “I work 9 to 5.” The Grammy-winning song was written for the film of the same name, starring Dolly herself alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Released in 1980, the film follows three women who turn the tables on their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss, Franklin Hart. One of the best star vehicles of its time, and reminiscent of the wackiest screwball comedies, the film perfectly portrays three kinds of working woman. Jane Fonda’s, Judy, is the new girl at the office who is forced to find work after her husband leaves her for a younger woman; Lily Tomlin’s, Violet, is a widowed mother who has worked at the company for over a decade, and despite having trained her own boss, is refused a promotion due to Hart’s sexist views; Dolly Parton’s, Doralee, is the bombshell at the office who is treated no more than a sexual object by Hart, despite her giving him the cold shoulder. The film is, for lack of a better word, fun. Especially when their fantasies of overthrowing their boss end up involving poison, stealing a dead body, and kidnapping. A Nine to Five sequel has been hinted at more than ever in recent years, and here’s hoping it happens.
Steel Magnolias dir. Herbert Ross
Following Nine to Five comes another prominent star vehicle of the ‘80s. Dolly Parton showed a natural talent as a comedienne in the aforementioned film, so it’s only fitting that she would soon be cast in another alongside more iconic ladies: Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts. Adapted from Robert Harling’s 1987 play of the same name, the film, released two years later, delves into the powerful bond of friendship shared by a group of women in small-town America, and how their bond helps them cope with loss. Harling wrote the play as a tribute to his sister (who died of complications from diabetes), his mother, and the women who supported them. The film’s title is essentially a juxtaposition, showing how the film’s leading ladies can be as tough as steel, but as delicate as a flower. With Harling’s witty dialogue, poignant story, and the film’s funny ladies, Steel Magnolias is a Southern staple forever cemented as a classic.
Little Women dir. Gillian Armstrong
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been referenced and adapted for the stage and screen going all the way back to silent film. Loosely based on Alcott and her three sisters, the March sisters and their passage from childhood to womanhood has been depicted six times on film, six times on television, twice as an anime series, as a musical, and an opera. Alcott’s family drama is most notably depicted in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film, while the 1933 film with Katharine Hepburn and 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor are also highly regarded. The film follows four teenage sisters – Jo (Winona Ryder), Meg (Trini Alvarado), Amy (Kirsten Dunst), and Beth (Claire Danes) – and their mother, Marmee (Susan Sarandon), as they settle into a new neighbourhood and a life of poverty. The film highlights perfectly each of the sisters’ harrowing experiences of becoming a woman and their need for an escape through performance. The inferiority of women and gender constraints of the time are ever present in this intelligent retelling, and the cast creates the warmth of a real family.
Mustang dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Set in a remote Turkish village, Mustang (2015) depicts the harsh realities faced by young women in conservative societies that, unfortunately, still exist today. A society where young girls aren’t allowed freedom, stay home and learn how to become good housewives instead of attending school, and forced to be married off to men they don’t love. The film follows five orphaned sisters – Lale (Güneş Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), and Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) – who are forced to live under these conditions by their grandmother and uncle. Our protagonist, and the youngest of the sisters, Lale, looks for various ways to escape, as she witnesses each of her sisters unhappily forced into marriage. This ensemble cast of young newcomers delivers emotional and fierce performances in a film debut full of rebellious spirit and cultural critique.
How to Marry a Millionaire dir. Jean Negulesco
Based on the plays The Greeks Had a Word for It by Zoe Akins and Loco by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert, this 1953 romantic comedy was the first to be filmed with the new Cinemascope widescreen technology. The film follows the antics of three friends dreaming of being the next Mrs. Rockefeller. Schatze (Lauren Bacall), Loco (Betty Grable) and Pola (Marilyn Monroe) live together in a penthouse apartment that they use to attract and seduce New York City’s wealthy elite. With their gold digging pursuits providing much of the comedy, Monroe’s natural talent as a comedienne shines with Pola’s refusal to wear classes despite her myopia. While the film’s leading ladies may think the best thing they can do is marry into money, they quickly fall in love with the kind of men they wanted to avoid – ones without a penny to their name. It’s peak entertainment watching these three legends do what they do best, and in fabulous Travilla gowns.
Bridesmaids dir. Paul Feig
One of the best comedies of the last decade, Bridesmaids (2011) stars former SNL talents Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote the film with Annie Mumolo) and Maya Rudolph, alongside Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey. The film’s release breathed new life into women’s comedy and Paul Feig has since continued to create films centered around funny ladies – The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters, and Snatched. The film follows the friendship between, Annie (Wiig), and her best friend, Lillian (Rudolph), who’s getting married. Despite being asked to be the maid of honour, Annie becomes jealous of Lillian’s new friend, Helen (Byrne), the rich, socialite wife of the groom’s boss. The constant back and forth of the two trying to one-up each other creates some of the best comedic moments in recent memory (“You’re really doing it, aren’t ya? You’re shitting in the street!”).
A League of Their Own dir. Penny Marshall
The third female directed work on the list is a 1992 sports drama that tells a fictionalized account of the real All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The 15 “Rockford Peaches” include an all-star cast of players including Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, and Rosie O’Donnell, with the always excellent Tom Hanks as the team’s manager. The film is set during World War II, and with the impending shutdown of the MLB, an all-female league springs up in the Midwest. The film follows the team from tryouts, to the World Series, to their reunion 40 years later at the opening of an exhibit in their honour. The team was a boost of morale and an escape for the nation, and the women on the team, from the harsh reality of war overseas. With tensions rising even today, the film – and all others – works just the same, immersing us into a reality of liberation.