Memorial Day Weekend Movies With Female Leads Used To Be The Norm, But Is There Still Hope It Could Happen Again?
Memorial Day weekend is perhaps the most important four-day stretch of the calendar year for Hollywood: it's often seen as the official beginning of the summer season, and, with almost everyone off of work, the major studios use it as an opportunity to unveil some of their biggest (most expensive) titles. This year's Memorial Day openings include Disney's family-friendly Tomorrowland starring George Clooney, and the remake of Poltergeist starring Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt.
Of course, you can also go see other recent releases like Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Pitch Perfect 2, and Mad Max: Fury Road, if you haven't caught them yet. Hopefully, those latter two options (Pitch Perfect with its practically all-female cast, and Mad Max with Charlize Theron's badass Imperator Furiosa) signal a swing back towards female-centric blockbusters, since Memorial Day weekend has recently been depressingly male-dominated.
It's no secret that major Hollywood tentpoles tend to be films starring men marketed towards other men. But a look back at the highest-grossing films that opened on Memorial Day weekend illuminate an interesting trend: there was a time, not too long ago, when it was actually an equal-opportunity holiday — with testosterone-soaked titles like Rambo and Rocky existing right alongside the likes of Thelma & Louise. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case, with the past five Memorial Days not featuring a single film headlined by a woman.
Here are 14 titles that exemplify the trend of films starring women over the course of the last 30 Memorial Day weekends:
1982: Visiting Hours
In 1975, Steven Spielberg pioneered the summer blockbuster with Jaws. Two years later, his pal George Lucas made Memorial Day the most coveted weekend of the summer season with the release of Star Wars. All three films in the original trilogy came out on the holiday in 1977, 1980, and 1983, respectively. Even before that trilogy was complete, the weekend was already playing host to female-centric films like this 1982 slasher starring Oscar-winner Lee Grant as a feminist activist who incurs the wrath of a misogynistic psychopath.
1983: Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
Four words: Carrie Fisher, gold bikini. The last film in Lucas' trilogy not only seared that indelible image into the public consciousness, but it also cleverly subverted the overtly sexualized costume into a tool of Princess Leia's own agency. I mean, she literally strangled Jabba the Hutt to death with her chains. That's what you get for underestimating a beautiful woman.
1986: Poltergeist II: The Other Side
This year, you can go see the remake, but, 29 years ago, you could have gone to the theater to catch the sequel to the original classic horror film. It's interesting to note that JoBeth Williams got first billing over her male co-star, Craig T. Nelson.
1989: Pink Cadillac
Clint Eastwood, perhaps the ultimate man's man, shared this action-comedy with Bernadette Peters, who starred as a woman on the run from a group of blood-thirsty white supremacists. Eastwood played a bounty hunter hired to find her who, of course, ends up falling in love with her.
1991: Thelma & Louise
While the first 10 years of Memorial Day blockbusters featured plenty of strong women in significant supporting roles or as co-leads, the '90s saw a veritable explosion of female-dominated films... starting with this classic starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. The success of Thelma & Louise paved the way for almost two decades of high-grossing movies starring kickass ladies opening on the holiday weekend, like...
The most iconic female road trip movie was followed up the very next year by the most iconic female action hero. Sigourney Weaver battled xenomorphs on the big screen for the third time... to less critical acclaim than James Cameron's Aliens, to be sure, but still to relative box office success.
1993: Made In America
Whoopi Goldberg headlined this comedy about a woman who finds out her anonymous sperm donor is a brash car salesman played by Ted Danson.
1995: Mad Love
This teen romance starred Drew Barrymore as a young woman struggling with bipolar disorder while falling in love with Chris O'Donnell, who would go on to star as Robin in Batman Forever later that year. (This Memorial Day weekend also saw the opening of Casper, starring a young Christina Ricci.)
1997: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
While there are plenty of men in the cast of Spielberg's dino-tastic sequel, including Jeff Goldblum's fan-favorite Ian Malcolm, most of this blockbuster is actually carried on the shoulders of Julianne Moore as a paleontologist Sarah Harding. (It's also an early entry on the resumé of Camilla Belle, who plays that little girl who gets munched on by tiny dinosaurs at the beginning of the movie.)
1999: Notting Hill
America's sweetheart, one year away from winning her Oscar for Erin Brockovich, got first billing over Hugh Grant in this comedy that went on to become the highest-grossing British film of 1999.
J. Lo headlined this action movie about a woman who learns to fight back against her abusive husband. Although the film received largely negative reviews, Lopez's performance as Slim was widely praised. Unfortunately, Enough signaled the beginning of the end for Memorial Day movies featuring strong women, as the only female-dominated films to follow were frivolous rom coms like...
2004: Raising Helen
This forgettable Kate Hudson comedy featured plenty of awesome actresses like Helen Mirren, Felicity Huffman, Joan Cusack, Abigail Breslin, and Hayden Panettiere, but little in the way of redeeming qualities like plot, character development, and interesting dialogue. And this would be the last film opening on Memorial Day weekend headlined by a woman until...
2010: Sex And The City 2
The interim between Raising Helen and this critically-panned sequel saw the holiday once again dominated exclusively by men with the likes of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End (2007), and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008). And the five Memorial Day weekends since have once again been the exclusive domain of the male action star.
2014: X-Men: Days Of Future Past
The closest thing we've had to a female-led blockbuster in the last half-decade was last year's X-Men sequel, which features three-time Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence in the pivotal role of Mystique. But even she is just one character within an ensemble consisting almost entirely of men: Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and Nicholas Hoult. (The three highest-grossing Memorial Day films in the years between Sex And The City 2 and Days Of Future Past were The Hangover Part II, Men In Black 3, and Fast & Furious 6.)
Although mega-star George Clooney ostensibly headlines this mysterious sci-fi film, the real protagonist is Britt Robertson as Casey Newton, a young woman seeking out the titular futuristic city with the help of Clooney's character, inventor Frank Walker. Despite the lukewarm reception Tomorrowland has received, we should all hope that it's a box office success, or we may see ourselves entering another decade of Memorial Day weekends that almost entirely ignore the existence of women.
Images: MGM (2); 20th Century FOX (4); Warner Bros. Pictures (3); Buena Vista Pictures (2); Universal Pictures (2); Columbia Pictures; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures