Bring back the funny women

07 March 2008 - The Guardian - blog

Hollywood's silent classics were dominated by brilliant female comedians. Now, the best parts go to men. What went wrong?

I love watching silent films. Not only are they incredibly funny, they also offer a rare chance to see the best of female filmmaking talent, from the early comedies directed by Gaumont pioneer Alice Guy - including the mischievous L'Hiérarchie dans l'amour - to Mabel Normand playing a bandit in Should Men Walk Home? and Baby Peggy going undercover in The Kid Reporter.

In all the silent films from long ago - so long ago they're in black and white - the female comedians have great parts. The main character is often played by a strong, boisterous woman, with the supporting roles played by men. It's great to watch, because these days, whether in feature films, shorts or TV sitcoms, it's rare to see female comedians in these roles.

A favourite film of mine is Daisy Doodad's Dial with Florence Turner. A husband and wife enter a face-pulling competition, and as a result of Daisy's outrageous behaviour she is arrested and thrown into jail. She totally dominates the film, pulls great slapstick faces and is far funnier than any of the male characters.

All the sitcoms I love - The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em - are hilarious but male-dominated. Women are relegated to amusing sidekicks, wives, neighbours or friends.

Maybe the men making modern comedy feel a woman cannot carry a main comedic role. They certainly feel men can: Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams have all been leads in Hollywood comedies. But when a woman is given a part in a contemporary Hollywood comedy, unlike in the silent films of the past, she always has to be attractive. When I see Cameron Diaz in a film, guys say, "She's funny, she's cute". So it's not funny like Richard Pryor funny, it's funny in a kind of "she's cute, I fancy her, she's amusing, I want to sleep with her" kind of way.

In the good old days of silent films, women didn't even have to speak and they were still funnier than the men. And as for carrying a film by themselves, once you start watching you'll be transfixed and won't want any men to come in and ruin the party.

The Bird's Eye View Film Festival, a celebration of women filmmakers, runs until March 14. The Comedy Lab Gala is screened this Sunday, March 9.