From the polarizing “Ghostbusters” remake to the controversy over female versions of James Bond and Doctor Who, Hollywood’s proclivity for gender-swapped retreads is among its most enduring and contentious.
The trend — seen as empowering or annoying, depending on who you ask — is getting fresh attention with “Ocean’s 8” due for release on Friday, “Overboard” still in theaters and “What Men Want” coming out in January.
The new “Overboard” swapped Goldie Hawn from the 1987 comedy for Eugenio Derbez and Kurt Russell for Anna Faris, and has grossed a healthy $70 million worldwide on an estimated $12 million budget.
But it was disliked by the vast majority of critics, according to online reviews collator Rotten Tomatoes, which dismissed it as a “remake that fails to clear the fairly low bar set by the original.”
There’s nothing new in Hollywood, and gender-swapping has been popular since Howard Hawks cast Rosalind Russell for “His Girl Friday” (1940) in a part played by a man in the source movie, “The Front Page” (1931).
A slew of female-led remakes followed — from “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981) and “The Next Karate Kid” (1994) to “American Psycho II: All American Girl” (2002) but were largely seen as pale imitations.
“Ghostbusters” (2016) could well be studied in future film history classes for the bizarre backlash it received from the legion of “ghostbros” who swore lifelong loyalty to the 1984 original.
Much of the criticism was grounded in straightforward misogyny — with a certain kind of male moviegoer scandalized both by the presumption of a remake and by the very idea of women trying to be funny.
– ‘Sex, eating and farting’ –
With two months to go until its release, its trailer had become the ninth most-disliked YouTube video in history, with over one million users down-voting it into oblivion.
Various entertainment media estimated the eventual losses for Sony and its partners at somewhere in the $55-75 million region, despite the film garnering mainly positive reviews.
The fact that these movies keep coming out despite the missteps is a sign of progress and a “minor miracle,” according to Kelly Konda, of the We Minored in Film entertainment blog.
“This used to be a one-and-done ordeal… However, with ‘Ghostbusters,’ Hollywood took a big swing on a female-led project, and didn’t overreact to its failure,” he wrote.
The premise of “What Women Want” (2000) — Mel Gibson as a marketing executive who is suddenly able to hear women’s thoughts — lends itself more obviously to a gender-flipped remake than most.
Taraji P. Henson, who does the honors in “What Men Want” (2019), told AFP at the recent CinemaCon industry gathering in Las Vegas her role was an empowering statement for women, but also a learning experience.
“You kind of just brush it off as ‘men like sex, eating and farting.’ I was like, ‘How are they going to make this interesting?’” said the “Empire” and “Hidden Figures” star.
“But then I read the script and I’m like, ‘Wow, men are really insecure about their looks, just like women!’ I think that’s going to be great, for women to see that.”
– ‘Kickass ensemble of women’ –
Some Hollywood watchers have argued that while female-flipping may seem progressive, in reality it militates against those really fighting pay inequality, harassment and other forms of sexism.
“Even though I can get excited for a movie like ‘Ocean’s 8’… at the end of the day it still seems to signify that women’s movies still need some sort of male appeal to get made,” said Hazel Cills of female-focused pop culture website Jezebel.
“A gender-swapped movie implies that women aren’t important enough to get their own, original stories, and thus must piggy-back on franchises helmed by men that have already proven to be successful.”
It was an issue that came up when Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and the rest of the “Ocean’s 8” cast hosted a news conference at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this month.
Bullock admitted that initially she “honestly didn’t think it would work, or get made” while Blanchett agreed that, a few short years ago, such a project would have been out of the question.
Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games”) directed while Steven Soderbergh, who made the male versions starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, serves as a producer.
“The thing that stuck with me about ‘Hunger Games’ was the impact it had on girls seeing a protagonist like that, that they could relate to,” Ross said.
“I was with a friend one night and we were talking about this, and I realized that there had never been this kind of ensemble. There had been a lot of male versions of this. There had never been this kickass ensemble of women coming together like this.”