Brie Larson signs on to tell story of free love and nineteenth-century presidential politics.
Last year, I talked about how it was Amazon’s big year of becoming a serious production house by buying a lot of serious movies. But there was something missing in that award-gathering arsenal: namely women. Contrary to their namesake, Amazon had spent much of their multi-level spying money on putting beefcake after beefcake onto the big screen. But times look to be a changing, as Amazon has announced signing on Brie Larson to both produce and star in a movie about Victoria Woodhull with a script penned by Ben Kopit, mostly known for having written some Brett Ratner movie that’s still in production. Woodhull, however, is known to most as the first woman to run for president, her 1872 candidacy for the office predating the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution by over thirty years.
Larson, like Woodhull, has always identified as an activist; earlier this year, she told Vanity Fair that “filmmaking is my form of activism,” explaining that hearing reactions to her first starring role in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 had shown her that movies can make acute differences in the lives of their viewers. And since scoring a Best Actress award for her turn as a mother living in the captivity of a rapist in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015), Larson has become a public face for the possibility of Hollywood to advocate on behalf the political lines she feels passionately about. In 2015, she told Variety that she wanted to drive movies that are “stepping outside of clichés and showing women and other races and other sexualities.” The next year, she was signed on to play Captain Marvel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a role that Vogue called the franchise’s “biggest female superhero, and a feminist icon.”
Even more recently, she refused to join in with the ritualized revelry associated with Awards Season, silently protesting Casey Affleck’s awards sweep. Accusations of sexual harassment and assault have dodged Affleck’s career and, for many, Larson voiced their disapproval of the golden-tinted validations.
Victoria Woodhull is a compelling figure outside of the tagline of her presidential run and one whose complexity has constantly evaded representation in the popular culture. Unlike Susan B. Anthony, whose religious convictions and celibacy have allowed her to become a pacified figure of purity nowadays cited regularly by abortion activists, Woodhull was married twice and identified often as a “free lover,” famously proclaiming that:
I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere… it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it.
Outside of her involvement in the women’s suffrage moment, Woodhull was party to a number of other interesting women-firsts: along with her sister, she was the first to found and run a Wall Street brokerage firm and, later, the first to found a newspaper. Their company, Woodhull, Claflin, & Company, attracted a rising class of society wives and widows, madams and their better-earning prostitutes, all making a killing in new license of urban life still tethered to countryside morality. Their newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, was the first to publish an English translation of the Communist Manifesto in the United States. The New York Times also notes that both sisters also “broke other sexual taboos by wearing men’s apparel ‐ business jacket, vest, and tie ‐ with shorter, ankle-length skirts.”
The challenge of any historical feature that utilizes a popular historical narrative is do something interesting or surprising with a story oft-tread in the schoolroom. Ava DuVernay, for instance, chose to highlight a particular set of historical events with Martin Luther King in her justly celebrated Selma. As did Steven Spielberg when contemplating the similarly tread territory of Lincoln (2012). Steve McQueen, on the other hand, took a relatively lesser-known piece of abolition literature in order to make a movie that was celebrated as a brutal picture of American chattel slavery.
The women’s rights movement has longed for such a picture to reach similar mass audiences. One of the biggest critiques lodged at Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette (2015), one of the latest high-profile movies to use the women’s suffrage movement as narrative material, was of its formulaic jaunt through historical totems. Liz Braun, of the Toronto Sun, called it “hollow at the cent[er].” The A.V. Club accused it of acute “dullness.” Woodhull’s story, however, offers less in the way of happy endings to decorate the post-credits scene. Her run for the presidency brought her in the negative spotlight of middle America and the anti-Vice crusades popular at the time. One of the many economic depressions of the late 1800s destroyed her business. She came to renounce both her beliefs and her country, spending much of her remaining life in England.
One of the few attempts to bring Woodhall to the popular imagination, a campy Broadway musical called Onward Victoria that starred Jill Eikenberry, closed after a single performance. But Woodhall’s image has remained in the back of the imagination: Onward Victoria was revived as recently as last year. “The problem with shows about Victoria Woodhull,” theater director Julianne Boyd once said, “has been that Victoria did so many wonderful things that it’s been hard to know which ones to deal with.” Decisions that we eagerly await Brie Larson making.