Surprise! Over the weekend, Mad Max: Fury Road took in $44.4 million on North American screens. This long-awaited reboot of George Miller’s famous post-apocalyptic franchise has earned big love from critics, and its handling of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa character has sparked spirited conversations about gender issues. The surprise, though, is that Mad Max was bested at the box office by the sequel to a low-budget musical comedy about an all-female a cappella group. Yes, Pitch Perfect 2, made for a relatively modest $29 million, scored $70.3 million in ticket sales this past weekend. That’s really something to sing about.
I certainly would have put my money on Mad Max. Back in my Roger Corman days, we all learned from the example of the original Mad Max and especially its 1981 sequel, The Road Warrior. This rough-and-tumble epic, shot in the barren wastes of the Australian outback, offered loads of opportunities for blood-and-guts action without the expense of elaborate sets and costume design. Inspired by The Road Warrior, we at Concorde-New Horizons shot post-nuclear melodramas wherever in the world we could find broken-down vehicles and some picturesque squalor. That meant Peru, the Philippines, the shabbier parts of L.A., and wherever Roger had a business deal going.
One of the distinctive features of George Miller’s new Mad Max is its focus on a woman warrior, played with fierce but balletic intensity by a shaven-headed Charlize Theron. There are other women in key roles too. Though they’ve been badly treated by the men in their world, they are all brave and tough customers, who refuse to play the victim. Again, I can’t help thinking about my Corman years, when tales of strong women were the norm. The late Lana Clarkson as Barbarian Queen? And, especially, Pam Grier in gritty prison dramas like The Big Bird Cage? You couldn’t get much tougher than that.
But of course this week’s box-office leader, Pitch Perfect 2, is in its own way female-centric as well. Not only does it deal with a close-knit group of feisty women, led by Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, but it was directed by a woman, Elizabeth Banks. So it’s nice to think that female power is on the rise at the movies, though the very rarity of women directors in Hollywood makes this an iffy proposition indeed.
One more surprise on this week’s top-of-the-box-office list: in the #10 slot is the new screen version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Written back in 1874, it was a wild success in Victorian England. And no wonder, because it’s chockfull of romantic drama, set against the picturesque British countryside. At the center of all the plot entanglements is a beautiful, smart, and headstrong young woman, Bathsheba Everdene. She has three suitors: a sturdy young farmer; a wealthy but lonely landowner; and a dashing young soldier. Hardy’s novel was first filmed as far back as 1915. I saw John Schlesinger’s sumptuous 1967 screen adaptation, starring Julie Christie along with Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and the decidedly sexy Terence Stamp, and have never quite gotten it out of my system. In the Sixties, as feminism was taking hold, Christie’s Bathsheba struck me as truly a woman to remember. The very appealing Carey Mulligan heads the new cast, and I wonder whether she too will make an indelible impression.
In any case, Bathsheba Everdene lives on in one interesting sense. Author Suzanne Collins has given a version of her last name to Katniss Everdeen, who of course is the heroic leading character in another series of tough girl-power films, The Hunger Games.