Why Can’t Female Reporters Stay in the Picture?

Rachel McAdams on the set of 'Spotlight' in 2014 (Stickman/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

The 2002 Robert Evans biopic The Kid Stays In The Picture (based on his memoir) got its title from a line uttered by studio head Daryl Zanuck when Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, and Tyrone Power banded together to tell Zanuck that casting Evans, at the time a suit salesman, in the movie adaptation of The Sun Also Rises would kill the movie. But Evans’ neophyte performance was a success, lauded by one film magazine as giving the film “a jolt of authenticity it desperately needs.”

Movies about journalism are having a moment right now, at a time when authenticity in representations of the news media could be very helpful. Spotlight won the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture, The Post was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress in 2018. So it was exciting to learn this week that a movie in the works will focus on the last year of Rob Ford’s mayoral term, with a lead character who is a reporter trying to expose a scandal about him. The story is based on the dogged work of Toronto Star reporter  Robyn Doolittle, who discovered a video of Ford smoking crack that eventually imploded the politician’s career.

But the journalist in the new movie is being played by 24-year-old actor Ben Platt

Unsurprisingly, this rubbed Doolittle, and many others, the wrong way.

Platt responded with a sort of non-apology insisting that the movie is fictitious — apparently in the movie, the journalist he plays ultimately fails to expose Ford.

Filmmakers have the right to make any movie for which they can get funding. But there are a few intertwining issues here. One is that it’s hard to think of a situation where a male reporter’s story has been coopted and the reporter has been written out of it. In fact, as Doolittle points out, male reporters are often lionized when their stories are made into movies.

The other is that Doolittle’s story is great. Around the time that she obtained the video, the Star was still fighting a lawsuit Ford had filed against them during his mayoral election. As Star publisher John Cruickshank told On the Media‘s Brooke Gladstone in 2013, the paper had been banned from the mayor’s office and Ford was refusing to communicate with them — making Doolittle’s job as City Hall reporter more than a little challenging. In a separate interview, Doolittle told Gladstone that during the three years she’d covered Ford, had been cast by the mayor as nothing more than a sparring session: “Typically, a Star investigation brings something to light, and he says, oh, this is just the Toronto Star out to get me, and everyone kind of runs with this, oh, it’s the Star and the Mayor at it again.”

Enter Gawker. On August 2016, the site published a post saying they knew a video of Rob Ford smoking crack existed and launched a “Crackstarter” fundraiser to raise $200,000 to pay drug dealers and gun runners for the video. Gawker’s fundraiser fell through, but the post and the ensuing media maelstrom gave the Star — and the Canadian Globe and Mail“cover” to report on Ford and his family’s drug connections.

What a timely story this would be, in our age of public distrust in the media and authoritarian attempts to silence reporters and publications and the struggles of both old and new media companies to survive. So why tell this other story? And if the excuse for writing Doolittle out of it is that it’s “fictional,” why include Rob Ford? Why not concoct a fictional politician, too? What are the chances that someone is going to make a second movie actually showing Doolittle’s story after this movie starring a man comes out?

It seems to be rooted in an assumption that movie-going audiences would be more interested in a male hero than a female one. But the data belies that conviction. As Melissa Silverstein’s “Women and Hollywood” blog noted, the top three grossing films of 2017 were female-led.

Part of this ties in to the general frustration at how women reporters are depicted in movies and television, in the rare instances where they’re not diminished or written out.

The reporter Rachel McAdams portrayed in Spotlight, Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, who is still a member of the Spotlight team, did the hardest interviews, the scariest door-knocking—yet she was a marginal character compared to Mark Ruffalo’s loner hero. When asked why the priest who McAdams door-knocks isn’t revisited in the film, co-writer Josh Singer told Boston.com that “the writers had two hours to tell the story of Spotlight, and so parts of it had to be sacrificed.” But as Boston.com writer Bryanna Cappadona notes:

It is a jarring scene that emerges above others, leaving you disturbed and hoping to learn more. And, most of all, it’s one of the few moments in the movie that briefly touches on the psychology of the priests and the motives behind their crimes.

Why not center Pfeiffer more in the film? Her story at the time was compelling. She was just 29, newly married, and devoting her whole life to this project that took her away from her husband constantly. He was supportive, her only confidante as she couldn’t tell anyone else what she was working on. We don’t see much of that in the film. Instead, we get Ruffalo playing an archetype beloved by media man: the guy who loves his work so much he can’t be a decent partner to his wife.

It’s frustrating that journalism movies are always centered around these mythical hard-charging men, even when they’re based on real stories in which real women played pivotal roles. It also seems to erase a lot of the humanity that goes into journalism. Pfeiffer told the U.K. publication Stylist that interviewing trauma victims sometimes “felt like we became grief counsellors who weren’t trained.”

“I worried about [the victims]. We were listening to people unearth something so traumatic, from decades ago. Sometimes we would finish a phone interview and then call back shortly afterwards and check they were OK, and to make sure they had someone to talk to.”

I would’ve loved to see this reflected in a film about journalism — the truth of how difficult the job is, how it necessarily effects you, how the best reporters aren’t cold, calculating scoop machines, but empathetic people who care about the subjects with whom their lives intersect.