Hollywood’s best kept (here meaning not true) secret is that thirty per cent of new films are commissioned by a producer flinging darts at a list of classic movies.
Presently, as can be seen in this list of upcoming features, the craze in remakes is gender-swapping. Ghostbusting boys are now girls and flies will soon have Ladies not Lords. But why? Is this a feminist re-writing of history, a PR stunt or genuine phenomenon? More to the point, do these films ever actually work?
On its release in 2016, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters was met with a critical shrug. Having endured months of online hate – from trolls masquerading as fans of the original – the film went on to suffer a mediocre run at the box office, scuppering hopes of a sequel. A failure then? Not quite.
Someday, people will look back on Feig’s Ghostbusters and accept that it’s actually quite good. Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig are a hugely likeable quartet, whilst Feig’s script – co-written with Katie Dippold – has wit, warmth and a whole lot of fun. Yes, it’s silly but rewatch the 1984 Ghostbusters before judging.
The problem many had with Feig’s remake was a perception that the gender-swapping was merely a gimmick. Let’s get this straight. The gender-swapping was, without a doubt, completely and utterly a gimmick. On the other hand, there’s little more gimmicky than a blockbuster bringing dozens of superheroes together from a handful of different franchises, yet, it seems, that’s considered acceptable. Surely there is no reason that ghostbusters cannot be both male and female; it’s a job.
Ghostbusters is just one example, however. Last week saw the US release of Rob Greenberg’s remake of the Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell-starring Overboard from 1987. In the original film, Hawn played a snobby heiress who suffers amnesia after falling out of a yacht, with Russell the working-class carpenter who tricks her into believing she’s his wife in payback for sacking him. Essentially, it’s Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in screwball-comedy mode.
The remake switches things around. Anna Farris plays Kate – the name of Shakespeare’s ‘shrew’, incidentally – a working-class cleaner who tricks a Mexican playboy (Eugenio Derbez) after he sacked her. The premise remains ludicrous and the jokes limp.
Unlike Ghostbusters, Overboard has the dubious luxury of not being a beloved classic and has thus largely escaped vitriol. It hasn’t actually a UK release date yet. Over in America, critics have accused Greenberg’s film of adding nothing new to the original conceit and missing the mark as a result. This isn’t all that surprising; it was only the genuine chemistry shared by the married Hawn and Russell that saved the original.
What is interesting about the new Overboard – and the upcoming Splash remake also – is that swapping the gender here makes for a pointed twist. Returning to the 1987 Overboard now, it is clear that Gary Marshall’s film is weighed down by gender-stereotyping and sexual objectification.
In the film, Joanna (Hawn) is required to submit to her ‘husband’ and spend her days completing his chores. Fine, that’s the plot. Harder to take is the understanding that the spoilt, entitled Joanna – sans memory – rapidly discovers herself to have some maternal instinct for children she has never met. Rapidly, she assumes a new, generic, mothering persona. Furthermore, the crux of Dean’s (Russell) deception is his declaration that his ‘wife’ as a tattoo on her bottom; which he knows because he’d been ogling it earlier in the film.
In swapping the genders of the film, one could argue that a balance is set in the ‘franchise’. Whilst it is no more acceptable to objectify men than women, in the context of our TimesUp era, there is something fitting in the depiction of a strong, independent woman showing an entitled playboy what life is like on the other side of the street. If only the film itself were good, this may have been worthwhile.
Another gender-swapped remake on the horizon this year is Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8, a star-studied spin-off of Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans trilogy – which was itself a remake of Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s 11 of 1960. Sandra Bullock leads the film as Debbie Ocean, brother of Danny, who decides to pull off a heist of her own, with crew members played by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway and Rihanna.
For the most part, Ocean’s 8 is no less questionable a remake than those mentioned above. But as an addition to the growing list, the film does raise an issue. Why, we might ask, are women consistently being given parts off the back of male-dominated franchises and films? It is as though studios haven’t faith in audiences to turn out for an original female-led production.
Note too that all three of the films discussed here come from male directors, leaving the unfortunate perception that gender-swapping may only happen on the say so of the status quo. Perhaps, more interesting work could result from gender-swapping behind, as well as in front of, the camera.
There is nothing wrong with gender-swapping roles and these films are no more objectionable than any remake. As such, there is no reason that a gender-swapped remake cannot work; indeed, such films have the potential to be highly stimulating as a matter of debate. This can, however, only happen when filmmakers treat the opportunity with respect over whimsy.