Culture / Entertainment

The Most Powerful Women of Sundance: Celebrity Stars of Three Documentaries Steal the Film Festival Spotlight

BY Jane Howze // 01.25.18

PARK CITY, Utah — The 34th annual Sundance Film Festival is underway and this small ski town of 8,000 has swollen to more than 60,000 for the Festival’s 10 day run. It seems like all of Hollywood is here. Agents, publicists, distributors, studios, directors and stars —lots of stars.

The Festival will screen 120 feature-length films and documentaries, and 69 short films, and will host panels, concerts and virtual reality exhibits — all spread across Park City, Salt Lake City and founder Robert Redford’s Sundance resort. A dominant theme of this year’s Festival is films by, about and starring women.

Dramatic offerings feature Maggie Gyllenhaal, Blythe Danner, Hilary Swank and Naomi Watts. There are also a number of documentaries profiling women as diverse as designer Vivien Westwood, attorney-activist Gloria Allred, rocker Joan Jett, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and actor-activist Jane Fonda. These documentaries are among the most powerful things I’ve seen at Sundance this year — and they all deserve a closer look.

Here, we look at three of the most attention grabbing films of this year’s Sundance:

Jane Fonda in Five Acts

Jane Fonda in Five Acts chronicles Fonda’s life as actor, producer, businesswoman (she started the video workout craze) and activist. The five acts are interestingly tied to the men in her life— her father, actor Roger Vadim, activist Tom Hayden and CNN founder Ted Turner. Fonda, like many women of her generation, for much of her life defined herself through the approval the men in her life — her father and husbands.

Fonda is brutally honest about the decisions she made and why she made them. She acknowledges that Tom Hayden (husband No. 2) cheated on her, and that she missed much of her daughter’s formative years. I loved seeing Ted Turner — filmed at his Montana ranch — acknowledge that his life was better with Jane. Those who appreciate her stylishness will enjoy seeing Fonda in perfectly accessorized designer outfits. Director Susan Lacey had access to her two ex-husbands, two of her children, Robert Redford, Lilly Tomlin, and Dick Cavett.

At 127 minutes, the film is too long and lacks sufficient filmmaker detachment. It comes across as more of a tribute than an objective examination of a life. It does, however, extensively cover Fonda’s 1972 visit to Hanoi and the public outcry that ensued.

Fonda, still beautiful at 80, received a standing ovation and answered audience questions. In an answer to a question as to why she had such a great rapport with the Lacy, she quipped “Because I haven’t slept with her.” The documentary will be shown on HBO later this year.

Seeing Allred

Seeing Allred profiles celebrity women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred. I didn’t know much about her, except she seems to court publicity — she is always on TV. The documentary opens with a clip from an old 1960s Dinah Shore TV show, with Dinah instructing women that if they want to be good wives they have to cook a nice dinner, wear a sexy negligée, and not talk about problems during the first 20 minutes that their man was home from work.

From the audience, newly minted attorney Allred raises her hand and challenges that assumption — it is neither necessary nor woman’s assigned role. The stage is set.

Allred is a tireless fighter for equal rights, and one of her major weapons is her strategic use of the press. Allred was equally strategic in her use of the filmmakers. She was selectively open about her public and professional life, and guarded about the difficult events in her personal life.

This documentary was so beautifully photographed, and accompanied by music that perfectly sets the tone. Allred lives on the beach in Malibu — lots of beach scenes — and her clothes and jewelry are spectacular. One suspects that these are both personal preferences and professional choreography. Gloria Steinem, Greta Van Susteren, Don Lemon, together with her law partners and high school best friend, all give context to her public image. And she comes across more human and less contrived.

At 76, Allred shows no sign of retiring, remarrying or taking a vacation. Many scenes showed her schlepping her luggage from city to city to protest Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults, to be at the side of injured women, and to appear on yet another TV show. At the conclusion of the film, the audience gave Seeing Allred a rousing standing ovation, and during the Q&A, Allred, a captivating speaker, encouraged us to do more to help others.

This entertaining if not perfect film will begin streaming February 8th on Netflix.

The Notorious RBG

I never thought a Supreme Court justice would be the cooperative subject of a documentary and would attend the Festival. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been breaking stereotypes for most of her 84 years. RBG is not just the story of the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. It is also a touching love story between Ginsburg and her husband Marty who were happily married for nearly 60 years.

The film portrays Ginsburg as an intellectual who likes nothing better than to be with her books and the Constitution but yet has become a cultural icon — “the notorious RBG. “

The film opens with Ginsburg’s 1993 confirmation hearing, with flashbacks to her earlier life. There were few women in her Harvard Law class and although she graduated in the top of her class, no law firm would hire her. While attending law school Ginsburg had a baby and nursed her husband through a particularly virulent cancer.

Is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the Notorious RBG?

Few non-lawyers know the details of cases Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, but she argued groundbreaking cases that extended equal rights to women. Justice Ginsburg mentions how she and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor designed their own lace collars for their judicial robes and as a result received hundreds of collars as gifts from around the world.

“This white collar is the one I wear for majority opinions, and this black one I wear for dissents” she says, getting a good laugh. She laughs as she watches Kate McKinnon satirizing her on Saturday Night Live. And yes, the film shows Justice Ginsburg doing her 20 pushups.

Justice Ginsburg attended the premiere of the documentary and answered questions afterward. Although Ginsburg appears frail and speaks softly, she is wise, thoughtful and has a sly sense of humor. In barely a whisper she reminded us that the first words of the Constitution, “We the people” meant something different than it does today and should be interpreted to encompass all people.

She left many of us with tears in our eyes. This wonderful and illuminating documentary will be shown on CNN later this year. 

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