Powerhouse Women in Film: Seidelman Courts An All-Star Cast

Oct. 23, 2012 As we wind down October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with a four-week series by USA Today amidst controversies of “Not so Pretty in Pink” moments from survivors who are fatigued by pinkification, I wanted to end the month on a positive note that speaks to an upcoming film releasing in 2013 with an all-star cast, that weaves a breast cancer storyline into the script without Pepto Bismol pink-ribboning ad infinitum.

“Donna Orender, the former president of the WNBA is the sports advisor for the film. Robin Roberts, host of Good Morning America, a breast cancer survivor, and former WNBA player, plays herself in a cameo appearance,” The Hot Flashes site reveals…And if that’s not enough to pique interest, my colleague Dana Moe Halley was on the set while they were filming this past spring, and her enthusiasm is contagious (it’s now in post-production, release date TBD in 2013. Can’t wait!)

Imagine: Susan Seidelman is directing an all-star cast of women, defying age and beauty-myth stereotypes, empowering girls sports, giving a nod to Title IX and women’s basketball, with a breast cancer plotline that embeds a Hollywood health prevention message to boot? Wow.

That sure ignites some energy for indie Women in Film to counter-balance the abysmal, uneven gender parity in the film and entertainment industry overall. Sounds like a dream team…What’s not to like? (okay, for me, it’s the movie name, but I’ll hold my commentary until the end)

Without further ado, I’m turning over the post to Dana Moe Halley, who has reviewed a few films on the Sundance circuit for Shaping Youth before, including American Teacher,  and The Supermodels: Then and Now. Enjoy!

Susan Seidelman’s upcoming film gives “hot” new meaning

by Dana Moe Halley

This past spring I was lucky enough to spend a day on the set of The Hot Flashes, which recently wrapped after six weeks of filming in New Orleans.

I’m hugely excited about this film for a number of reasons: it’s a story about and starring middle-aged women, it’s directed by the amazingly talented Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan), and is being produced by a line-up of mostly women. Not to mention that the film, a dramedy, has a top-notch cast in starring roles (Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, Wanda Sykes, Camyrn Manheim and Virginia Madsen). An independent film, financed primarily by Bay Area women, it’s also the first script by screenwriter Brad Hennig to be produced. This production is just filled with wins.

The Hot Flashes story is centered around five middle-aged women who played basketball in high school. What brings them together is the fact that their mutual school chum died of breast cancer, and due to an accounting error, funds to keep the town’s mobile breast screening unit running are about to dissipate. So, guiding force Beth Humphrey convinces her former classmates to form a team (which they name “The Hot Flashes”) to challenge the town’s current high school basketball team, (“The Lady Armadillos”) as a way to raise money to keep the mobile unit rolling.

Though the five Hot Flashes women still live in Burning Bush, their rural Texas hometown, they’ve gone their separate ways since high school and seem about as different as five women can be. What brings them together is their mutual love for their late friend, Tish, and a need to get out of their respective ruts and accomplish something they can be proud of.

Films about this age group are rare. Nancy Meyers is about the only director who consistently puts older women in leading roles (“Something’s Gotta Give,” and “It’s Complicated,” “Father of the Bride II.”) But the Nancy Meyers characters lives are so gussied up with luscious, palatial homes; fascinating, lucrative careers; and successful adult-age children, that who wouldn’t be fascinated by these middle-agers? These films’ leading women have real complexions and real bodies (for which I applaud Ms. Meyers), with not-too-obvious signs of plastic surgery, but there’s nothing very realistic about their fabulously glamorous careers and lifestyles (or in Diane Keaton’s character’s case in “Father of the Bride II,” unintentional pregnancy well after the age of 40).

The Hot Flashes middle-aged characters and their lives on the other hand, are rough around the ages, to say the least.

The only one with a job of any status is Florine (Wanda Sykes), the town’s interim mayor. But even she didn’t get the position on her own merits. She stepped in to replace her late husband (I know, this plot point requires some suspension of disbelief, but bear with me) and her self-confidence—and sense of black pride—wears thin.

The rest of this low-glam crew are a grocery store checker, a car salesperson, a pothead, and a housewife who has never finished a project. Beth  (Brooke Shields) is married to a man who ignores her, Clementine (Virginia Madsen),  has had four failed marriages, Ginger (Daryl Hannah) struggles with her sexual orientation, and Roxy (Camryn Manheim) is a couch potato with body image issues. All of these women’s lives have been marginalized by the fact that they’ve given up on themselves.

“It’s about this group of women around 50, and there aren’t a lot of movies about us at this age. In television there are some stories, but in feature films it’s very rare. So I really identified with this story and what these women are going through, and the way the world looks at you isn’t necessarily you are.” —-Virginia Madsen (Clementine)

Though the Lady Armadillos egos are swollen from their recent state championship victory, those of their middle-aged counterparts are buried in the Texas dust of the town they’ve never left. It might seem that bad marriages, rotten luck and a hometown that doesn’t offer much in the way of opportunity are to blame, but the real problem is these women just don’t believe in themselves. And that’s exactly what I think will make this story resonate for women across a wide age range.

The glamorous supporting actresses (mostly lesser-known names) who play the Lady Armadillos will bring the teens into theaters to see The Hot Flashes, and there’s an engaging mean girl vs. nice girl dynamic going on (which always seems to be a box-office draw for this age group), but I have a feeling that younger audiences will end up rooting for the older gals from the get-go.

You hear about all this pressure on female actresses that you have to be so busy and do everything when you’re young because your looks are going to fade. But on this movie, you have all these incredible actresses who are not only still beautiful, but are very much in the height of their careers. It’s so inspiring for someone who’s young like me to see this example of intelligent and amazing women.” —– Charlotte Graham (Lady Armadillo member Jocelyn Humphrey)

What makes The Hot Flashes story compelling is that these middle-aged women get out of their ruts and rise above over their collective sense of low self worth—and even become forces to be reckoned with by their younger counterparts. But the story isn’t really about what happens on the court or how much money the fundraiser brings in. As Brooke Shields so articulately shared during one of her few breaks on set (she’s in every scene of the movie):

The movie itself has a very serious message, but by the same token it’s about coming into your own and being comfortable with who you are…. I’ve never been in a movie with this many women, and this many women in primary roles and directing. The story deals with breast cancer but it’s not about that. It’s about fighting for what is right and what’s true, and also shedding things we place before us as women.”

The story behind the scenes is pretty amazing, too.

The Hot Flashes actresses, none of them basketball players, had to get up to speed amazingly quickly because the film’s budget and schedule didn’t allow for months of training.

As tech advisor to the film and former WNBA head Donna Orender put it:

“I can tell you the teamwork between Brooke, Camryn, Wanda, Daryl and Virginia is terrific and it’s the kind of teamwork that you will see throughout the film. From day one, the five fantastic actresses who comprise the team have all committed themselves to training and learning the game. They’ve really embraced the game and it’s so it fun for me to help them realize their inner competitive souls and of course, their sharp elbows.”

And though the era that this story takes place is vague and the town fictitious, there are certainly topical issues in this film, for example, breast cancer in a time where funding for women’s healthcare is being compromised.

“It was strange how we were filming while all this stuff is unfolding. People are attacking Planned Parenthood, which really does a lot of breast cancer screenings. For us to film about trying to save a mobile mammography unit, it really speaks to what’s happening in the world today. There’s kind of a war on women’s healthcare going on right now.” —-Wanda Sykes (Florine)

I may be going out on a limb here, but I also think this story speaks to what I like to see as women’s war on aging. As a contemporary of The Hot Flashes cast, I can say that women are really changing the way they view advanced age.

It seems that more and more women in their late forties and fifties are making big shifts in their lives. They’re getting more fit than they ever were, changing careers, and getting in touch with what’s at their core. Women are simply not giving in to age or letting it slow them down, at least not without a fight. Instead, they’re looking at it as an opportunity to recognize what’s really important and to make the changes in their lives that reflect that.

I remember years ago reading an interview with Gloria Steinem in which she extolled the benefits of life after menopause as a time when she was finally unchained of swings in hormone levels and how liberating that felt to her on many levels. Instead of “the new 40,” maybe we should look at our fifties as our golden age. If nothing else, it’s a time when we’re becoming “hot” in new ways.

There’s a lot for adults and teens to look forward to with The Hot Flashes.  Look for it on the big screen in the coming months.

—Reviewed by Dana Moe Halley

Dana Moe Halley received her degree in Film Studies (with a concentration on Italian neo-realist cinema) from U.C. Berkeley. She is a screenwriter, marketing copywriter/editor and unrelenting film fanatic. Know of a documentary or narrative fiction film you’d like to see reviewed? Contact Dana at [email protected]

This is Dana’s third film review contribution to Shaping Youth.

Comments from Amy Jussel/Shaping Youth:

(aka Notes from a middle-aged media maven–writer/producer/former name generation product development)

As excited as I am about the energy and messaging behind this film, I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen it, and am also very concerned about the name, as it doesn’t feel like a slam dunk (even with the great logo and age-defying, spunky tag line).

Not trying to bait and switch by blurring the edges of clarity for mass appeal, just hinting to this powerhouse group of femme forward filmmakers that this movie deserves not to be pigeon-holed before it even gets released…(and am hoping beyond hope that it’s not filled with sexist innuendo/aging jokes and crass cliches like many buddy film formula romps).

For sheer topicality alone, I’m worried the menopause/middle-aged mom market is limiting, translating to box office buzz kill despite mighty numbers of women movie ticket buyers.

If I were wearing my branding hat for free advice, I’d probably leave the name of the Hot Flashes team alone IN the film, but change the title for box office, to entice a big screen swish for all ages.

Imagine if the Academy Award winning and elusively named Cocoon  had been titled Canes or swapped their own tagline, “It is everything you’ve dreamed of. It is nothing you’d expect” for a more literal one that evoked ‘elderly retirees rejuvenated by aliens’…It wouldn’t have exactly made the date night list. Cocoon’s word of mouth spread fast as it became known as an uplifting, feel good film for any age and stage.

That’s the kind of joy juice I’d like to see catch fire for Hot Flashes. And no, I haven’t even seen a pre-screening yet, despite The Hot Flashes recent Facebook contest last week…but I’m a sucker for a maverick media demographic, and even though it sounds like a classic “underdog-against all odds” premise, Seidelman’s involvement gives it comedic hopes of flinging the doors open wide for women to cut a new swath with fresh voices. (shades of the 3% Conference, created to balance out the 97% lop-sided gender equation in advertising creative director positions; we wonder why ads are so ‘off’ sometimes in appealing to women, hmn. Business brain freeze, folks.)

The vested interest in a box office ‘win’ for women is a biggie too, for female creatives in the industry to move beyond the ‘chick flick genre’ which 2011’s hit Bridesmaids sure did, grossing over $288 million worldwide. (admittedly, some were ‘grossed out’ by the relationship/raunch akin to the movie “Hangover” for females that appealed to a certain demographic, but it uncorked important conversations breaking taboos for women in comedy, shattering ceilings in film funding, and storytelling from a distinctly female perspective)

The more industry sees (and hears) the cash register go ‘ka-ching’ with a critical and commercial success, the more opportunities women will have to create diversity in content, storylines, media messaging and size/shape, body image, age, and uniqueness of casting.

As Academy Award winning writer Callie Khouri makes clear in this post on Women and Hollywood,(citing Khouri’s interview with Salon.com about Nashville)…

“I just think it’s insulting that if there is something with women in it, it’s relegated to this kind of trash heap. It doesn’t matter what it is, how good it is, if there is emotion in it, it’s immediately going to be talked down to. And I’m obviously irritated by that. Probably all women are. Certainly a lot of women filmmakers are. I want to make something that’s respectful, and respected. And I think you can make something for women that is respected on television. Anyway, I don’t want to just complain about features, but it does seem unduly hard given the number of women that exist in the world.” –Callie Khouri 

Yes. Exclamation mark. Ultimately, the more we raise the bar for humanity to get messages out there that inspire with positivity and possibility for EVERY one, the more we ‘represent’ humanity as a whole regardless of race, creed and color.

Good luck ladies (and gents)…Cheering you on from the blogging bleachers here, with high hopes that Hot Flashes scores points as both a mother/daughter must see, branching out to mass appeal, as Dana has convinced me it has a lot of heart. Great to see the American Cancer Society partnering with this indie effort as well. Most of all:

For all the survivors, spouses, and families who have been touched with breast cancer worldwide, may the film add a light warmth of inspiring defiance…And a spirited high five for all those on the same team, battling for a win every single day.

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