“Are you in your bed like I am?” Geena Davis asks. It is late at night and I am talking to Davis by Zoom, me in my bed in London, her in hers in Los Angeles. I tell her that I only just resisted getting into my pyjamas for this call.
“Ha ha! I changed into a sweatsuit!” she says, and she is, indeed, in an all-white sweatsuit. Yet even in athleisure, she still looks like a golden-era Hollywood beauty. Davis made her movie debut in Tootsie in 1982, in which she first appeared in just her bra and knickers, to Dustin Hoffman’s memorable confusion. But it was always easy to picture her in a film from the 1940s, wearing a long satin dress, holding a martini glass and making a snappy comeback to Cary Grant.
I am not sure why Davis is in bed, given that it is the middle of the afternoon in LA. But she is so warm and personable that it feels as if we are two pals, having a cosy chat before bedtime.
I ask how she has been finding lockdown, which she has shared with her 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old twin sons.
“Well, I’m a bit of a homebody anyway, so I’m good at amusing myself in downtime,” she says, snuggling down into her pillows. “I’m wiping everything down with Lysol, scrubbing the bananas with detergent …”
When she is not scrubbing bacteria off bananas, Davis, now 64, has been putting together this summer’s Bentonville film festival, which, inevitably, will be online. She co-founded the non-profit festival in 2015 to promote women and minorities in the film business and in this summer’s festival, more than 80% of the films were directed by women, 65% by people of colour and 40% by LGBTQ people. By comparison, people of colour accounted for 12.6% of the directors of the top 200 Hollywood films in 2017, yet they make up about 35% of the US population. Similarly, only 12% of the directors of the top 100 grossing films in the US last year were women. Does Davis really think she can change representation in Hollywood movies with her festival?
“Oh, we want to change the world!” she says with a big smile. “Our goal is very simple: the storytellers and people on screen should reflect the population, which is half female and incredibly diverse. It’s not like: ‘Wow, what a far-fetched idea!’ It just makes total sense.”
Davis knows better than most how difficult this will be to achieve. Conversations about who is represented on screen, and how, are now part of the public conversation, with Patricia Arquette, Mindy Kaling and Lupita Nyong’o all speaking about it in recent years. But Davis has been talking about this for two decades and, for the past 13 years, she has run the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-heavy endeavour focused on improving the representation of women and girls in children’s entertainment. She launched it after watching some children’s TV with her then toddler daughter and her “jaw just dropped to the floor” when she saw how – even just in crowd scenes – there were far more male characters than female ones, and the female characters were rarely in leadership roles.
“I had this realisation that this problem we’re all trying to fix, gender inequality, well, a good way would be to stop teaching two-year-olds to have a gender bias,” she says. When she talked to people in the entertainment industry about it, they would say, “Oh we fixed that,” and then cite a show with one female character. “It was the Snow White and Seven Dwarves issue,” says Davis. She spent two years with researchers, gathering data to prove she was right, and when she presented it to the children’s entertainment industry, she says they were horrified: “They were like: ‘We make kids entertainment and we never even thought about this! We need to do better.’ And that’s been the story ever since,” she says.
There is no doubt that Davis’s institute has had an impact. She won an honorary Oscar last year for her work, and according to the latest research from the institute there is now gender and even race parity on the most popular children’s TV shows. Yet she concedes that it is easier dealing with film-makers for children “because they care about kids and believe the data”. With the mainstream industry, she says: “They’ve known for decades about how few women directors there are, for example, and it does nothing to make them want to do better.”
Davis’s institute has proved that films with female leads do better. Yet, in 2019’s top-grossing films, women accounted for 37% of major characters and 34% of all speaking characters. Hollywood is often misogynistic, but if there is one thing the movie industry cares about more than anything it is profit. So why aren’t female leads the norm, or even the majority, if they make more money?
“Well, you know, it’s a mystery to me,” says Davis. “It’s like, for years, we’ve known that companies with more women on the board make more profit. So where’s the change? Then you have to wonder, is it ennui? Is it devotion to the status quo? It’s frustrating.”
Despite all the talk about this subject in recent years, especially in the wake of #MeToo, it seems unlikely things will improve soon. At the moment, no one is certain when movie-making – and movie-watching – will get back to normal. Is Davis concerned that all her gains will be washed away as Hollywood retrenches to survive?
“You know, I’ve seen headlines saying we’re going to lose gains for people of colour and women, and I’m not sure why that would happen. I’ll have to read up on it,” she says with the pluckiness of one who fully believes she can change the world.
Davis’s optimism is impressive given how often she has been let down by the film industry. She won an Oscar for her fantastic performance as the eccentric dog trainer Muriel in 1988’s The Accidental Tourist: “That was the most fun. It was the first time I’d been nominated and I thought ‘Well, I don’t have to wonder if I’ll ever win an Oscar – because I did!’” Yet the movie that changed everything for her, she says, was Thelma & Louise, in 1991.
“Before that, I’d be recognised on the street and people would say to me ‘The Fly’ or ‘Beetlejuice’,” she says, citing two of her greatest 80s hits. “But after Thelma & Louise, everyone wanted to talk to me, telling me how the film had changed their life, how many times they’d seen it. So that changed for ever how I considered what parts to play. I would think: ‘What are the women in the audience going to say when they see this movie?’”
In 1992, she was in another feminist classic, A League of Their Own, playing the housewife-slash-baseball demon, Dottie. Both movies were massive commercial hits.
“Everyone said: ‘Now we’re going to have so many movies starring women.’ And I was like: ‘Hot dog! I’m in something that started change.’ And then A League of Their Own comes out and everyone says: ‘Now there’s going to be so many women’s sports movies!’ And five years go by … It was a shock that absolutely nothing happened,” she says.
Davis experienced sexual harassment as an actor – a director telling her to sit on his lap at an audition, seeing other directors sexually harass people on sets, but there was a feeling, she says: “You can’t say anything, because it will kill your career.” #MeToo has changed everything: “People really can talk about it now. It’s like night and day and it’s amazing,” she says.
Yet not everything has changed. Davis is one of the most successful actors of her generation, yet once she had “a four in front of my age, I fell off the cliff. I really did,” she says. “In the early stages of my career, I was blithely going along thinking, ‘Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange and Sally Field, they’re all making these great female-centric movies. And I’m getting these great roles, really tippy-top roles, so things must be getting better for women.’ But suddenly, the great roles were incredibly scarce. It was a big difference.”
Davis has continued to work, if not at the same high-profile as before. She was great as the first female president in the too-shortlived 2005 TV series, Commander in Chief, and I loved her cameo appearance in Lake Bell’s terrific 2013 film about sexism in the film trailer business, In a World. Most recently, she had a running role in the Netflix series Glow, in which she made an unforgettable appearance in a full Vegas showgirl outfit, with only rhinestones keeping her just about decent. She looked incredible, but I have to ask how playing a semi-nude showgirl fits in with her argument that we need to see more high-powered women onscreen.
“You mean, playing the manager of the hotel bookings,” she corrects me cheerfully, but firmly, referring to her character’s main job, and then talks at length about how it was very much her decision to wear that costume. I ask if she felt more in control wearing the showgirl outfit than she did when she wore her lingerie in Tootsie when she was just starting out. She bats the question away again.
“You know, it didn’t bother me on Tootsie, either. The first day of shooting [director] Sydney Pollack said: ‘Why are you not nervous? It’s your first day on a movie set, you’re in your underwear and there’s Dustin Hoffman. I would have expected you to be nervous!’ But I think I thought: ‘This is how it’s supposed to happen. My whole life I wanted to be an actress and now I’m in a movie. So it all makes sense.’”
Davis was born in Massachusetts, the second child of a teaching assistant and a civil engineer. She studied drama at Boston University and worked briefly as a model before landing her role in Tootsie. She has been married four times, including to Jeff Goldblum, with whom she starred in 80s films The Fly, Transylvania 6-5000 and Earth Girls are Easy, and later to the director Renny Harlin, with whom she made 1995’s Cutthroat Island, a rare flop on her CV. Her most recent marriage, to Reza Jarrahy, a surgeon, ended in 2017. Would she marry again?
“Oh man … I don’t think so. But with my track record people might be sceptical. I keep trying to get it right,” she says.
With Jarrahy, she had her daughter when she was 46 and her twins when she was 48. I tell her that I had twins when I was 38 and was shattered, so I can’t imagine how she coped at 48. “I always felt lucky that I had my kids late, because I just feel like I changed so much. I always knew I wanted kids, but what I was doing waiting that long, I don’t know. I never tried before, in other words. But it’s been great. And twins are fun!” she says.
A text message comes through, and it is from one of her sons, telling her that he has ordered a takeaway. “Oh, he’s probably starving!” she gasps guiltily. “Mommy’s just busy talking about herself again.”
Davis can’t remember when she first realised she was a feminist. But in the early 90s, she repeatedly described A League of Their Own to journalists as “a feminist film”. “Can we write that?” the journalists asked, shocked. “It was so insane how shame-filled [the word] was then. And then there was that whole thing with [people saying] ‘I’m not a feminist BUT …’ I hate that,” she says. She can, however, remember when she realised she wanted to be an actor. “I was three years old, and how I even knew it was a job, I have no idea, because we were only allowed to watch Disney movies, which were animated.” Has the job lived up to her expectations? “Oh, yeah!” she says with a big smile. She doesn’t feel it let her down, in the end? Her smile shrinks, then vanishes. “Oh, yeah. I do feel let down.”
• For more about the Bentonville film festival, visit bentonvillefilm.org.