When Mad Max: Fury Road was released last year, many hailed Charlize Theron’s striking Furiosa as a female action icon in the mode of Aliens lead Ellen Ripley and Terminator heroine Sarah Connor, two characters created by director James Cameron (and embodied by Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, respectively). Earlier today, I caught up with Cameron at Comic-Con, where he’s promoting the 30th anniversary of Aliens, and asked him what he thought about Furiosa rubbing shoulders with the famous women he wrote.
“I would concur with that,” Cameron said, heaping praise on Theron’s Fury Road performance. “She’s a world-class actress, as Sigourney is. Even in the middle of an action scene, she’s acting, she’s so heartfelt.”
“You can’t remember the guys in [Fury Road], but you remember her,” added Gale Anne Hurd, who produced Aliens. “It should have been called Furiosa.”
Cameron nodded. “Well, Tom Hardy’s a great actor, but he’s not as memorable in that film as she is,” he said. “These iconic characters come along every few years. Hollywood tries to do it from time to time, but…”
As Cameron trailed off, I wondered why we still see so few of those truly galvanizing action heroines. While Jennifer Lawrence found favor with The Hunger Games and actresses like Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have established tentpole-movie bona fides, it’s telling that Furiosa was compared not to any of them but to two characters created decades ago. There’s an oomph, a pop that Ripley and Sarah Connor possess, that isn’t easy to come by.
Cameron said the discrepancy can be blamed on Hollywood’s tendency to hire “a disproportionate amount of female directors,” since the overwhelming amount of men who do make big tentpole movies have little interest in empowering women. “I’m basically a pretty hardcore feminist,” said Cameron, “so I have no problem writing a script in which the males become subservient to the females, which is what happens in Aliens … It’s up to Ripley to win the day. There aren’t too many male writers and directors who feel comfortable doing that. I guess it’s deeply hard-wired.”
“Or they create a character with all male characteristics, and cast a woman to play it,” said Hurd. “And that doesn’t work either!
“No, because it has to be written from the standpoint of a female psyche, which at least has some sort of nurturing and emotional connection that is processed differently,” said Cameron. “You’ve got to write to that, you know what I mean? Sarah Connor became iconic not from the first Terminator but from the second one, where she was a mother. The same thing with Ripley: As good as Alien was, I don’t think Ripley would have had the stature as an iconic strong female character without the mother aspect, without the emotional aspect. Her strength is an emotional strength, and it’s an intellectual strength, her native intelligence as a survivor.”
Added Cameron, “Hollywood is also a culture that rewards a certain type of beauty and behavior pattern, so that it’s hard for actresses to emerge that are amazing, strong actresses. I don’t mean physically strong, but strong in their emotive power, who can take a movie and carry it and be the one on the marquee. You think of people like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon who carry action franchises and it doesn’t happen as much for women because they’re not handed that bat to hit the home run.”
That, said Cameron, is why Aliens continues to compel: Weaver hit a grand slam with her heroine, and generations of moviegoers have responded to that: “I have to take my filmmaker hat off and look at it as a fan,” he said. “Gee, I really like those characters.”