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Historically, poison was considered a woman’s weapon. Poison is covert — it can easily be slipped into food and drink or simply be mistaken for herbs and other medicinal tinctures. While men across various cultures generally had more freedom to publicly fight out their conflicts, women often had to wage silent warfare in the shadows. Poison, though, doesn’t always come in little glass vials.
In three of some of the most talked-about film awards contenders of 2021, forward-thinking wives wield acidic words to accrue and exert power on behalf of their weaker husbands. It’s a literary trope debated in just about every high school English class across the U.S.: Are biblical Eve-like women inherently malevolent and megalomaniac, or are they victims of a hegemonic power structure that forces them to channel their existential desires through their mate? The determined female leads of A24’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, MGM/United Artists’ House of Gucci and Amazon’s Being the Ricardos worm-tongue their husbands all the way to the top, only to see their growing fiefdoms eventually crumble under the weight of marital pressure. Yet instead of questioning whether these women are evil or power mad, I’d first ask: Were these men even worth it to begin with?
In these three films — one a medieval adaptation of a Shakespearean classic, the other two period dramas about real-life women who used their talents to promote their husbands — female protagonists sublimate their natural shrewdness and charisma through their partners because their wifely roles ultimately keep them locked in a stagnant second-class position.
In Joel Coen’s gothic and expressionistic Tragedy of Macbeth, Frances McDormand resumes her femme fatale origins in Blood Simple to play literature’s ultimate marital marionettist. The actress has never looked more beautiful, has never growled with more ferocity. Lady Macbeth is a minor noblewoman of a desolate, northerly kingdom. Even just the possibility of becoming queen, gaining just that much more authority in her social sphere, is enough to have her cajole her husband (Denzel Washington) into committing regicide so he can ascend the throne himself. Lady Macbeth rejects the femininity that imprisons her, scorning her husband for being “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” to adequately execute the murder. She plots the details herself and, even though she isn’t the one who directly plunges the dagger into the king, she’s felled by her festering guilt and suicidal spiral.
More than 500 years later, Lady Macbeth remains a household reference because of her desperate wish to be “unsexed” — to become masculine, and thus violent — in order to claim the power for which she strives. She subverts the traits associated with her gender, imagining infanticide and intentionally emasculating her husband to challenge him into acting. She doesn’t do this altruistically to raise Macbeth’s profile, but to promote her own. He’s a pawn, and his mental feebleness leads him to tyranny and tragedy.
The women of Ridley Scott’s wild crime drama House of Gucci and Aaron Sorkin’s by-the-book biopic Being the Ricardos, on the other hand, seem to be genuinely enthralled by love. Yes, they want their own talents recognized, but they also want to stride into a room hand-in-hand with their husbands. They’re perhaps even willing to walk one pace behind in order to save their fragile marriages. Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) and Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) are both skilled performers: Patrizia a sex kitten who wears her femininity and desirability like armor, Lucy a literal thespian who forgoes her Hollywood starlet ambitions when her comic talents prove to be more marketable. Their respective sexuality lures two men who lack their own natural drive and/or cultural capital. Patrizia seduces Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), a gangly drip who would rather become a simple lawyer and remain estranged from his elite family than vie to become the head of a billion-dollar fashion firm. Lucy seduces Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), an up-and-coming Cuban musician who has the raw business acumen to succeed in show business but not the social (or racial) clout.
Patrizia assumes the role of the ideal Italian matriarch, directing her natural warmth and gregariousness toward her husband’s family so they will eventually welcome the prodigal son back into the fold and think it was their idea all along. Lucy, a taskmaster comedienne who controls every detail of her hit sitcom, cannot ultimately control Desi’s continued infidelities. She ends up playing a humiliating tug-of-war with I Love Lucy‘s showrunner, writers, sponsors and studio executives to score an executive producer title for her co-star husband. Both women want their partners to be the best men they can be, and their loving machinations do work, but only for so long. Their interfering eventually spurs their husbands’ insecurities, driving them each into the arms of other less “demanding” women. Patrizia resorts to murderous revenge. Lucy, as interpreted by Sorkin, lives in fear that one day their kingdom will come crashing down on their heads because of the cracks in her marriage.
I personally don’t read Lady Macbeth or the fictional versions of Patrizia Reggiani and Lucille Ball as villainous. I instead see them as products of their time — women who either had little recourse for education and self-determined upward mobility or little room to blossom alongside their partners without inciting the men’s jealousy. Washington’s Macbeth descends into despotism and is dethroned; Driver’s Maurizio bankrupts his family business and is assassinated in a hit orchestrated by Patrizia; Bardem’s Desi nearly obliterates his career by gaslighting his wife. Were they worth all the sacrifice? I think not.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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