In charge: Women CEOs in American cinema

A distant ancestor of the recent women CEO films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The upcoming film Bad Blood depicting the rise and fall of Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is creating strong interest. The film is based on her company’s collapse, which at one point, was worth more than $9 billion. The company’s forunes were based on flawed technology, blatant lying and sheer gall. After whistleblowers exposed it, Theranos collapsed. At one point, Holmes was the world’s youngest billionaire, and her personal and corporate disintegration was sensational news. Such a story is too enticing for Hollywood film executives.

While Bad Blood is based on a true story of corporate greed, some recent fictional creations explore the same territory. I Care A Lot (Prime) and a limited TV series, The One (Netflix), also share a theme of a strong and highly capable woman leading an organisation. Whatever the strengths of these CEOs, they are also both deeply flawed.

The movie I Care a Lot (2020) was written and directed by Johnathan Blakeson. The film stars Rosamund Pike as a court-appointed guardian who seizes older people’s assets for her own financial benefit. She identifies and targets a vulnerable or isolated older adult. With the backing of corrupt medical and nursing home officials, she locks them away from legal or family support.

Pike plays Marla Grayson, a scammer who makes a living by convincing the legal system to grant her guardianship over elders that she argues cannot take care of themselves. To do so, she ensures they cannot contact any outside support, or she targets those with little or no family support. This guardianship causes great distress to some remaining relatives. Grayson strips away their assets and milks them until they die – when they are cashed out. The business is highly immoral, but the film is a black comedy demonstrating that the clever and ruthless can exploit the most vulnerable. Marla Grayson has few redeeming features, but she is utterly fearless after she goes a step too far in imprisoning a relative of the mafia. Her fight with the mafia is the spine of the film.

While I Care A Lot is positioned in a remotely possible real-world, The One is a TV series that takes some basic scientific ideas and then stretches them to the limit of plausibility. A brilliant scientist Rebecca Webb develops a business using her DNA-based matchmaking service.  You can find ‘the one’ which is your soulmate or your one true love. Webb is a driven businesswoman who will not even flinch at murder. Webb, played by Hannah Ware, seems unstoppable with her business ready to float on the stock exchange, and billions are to be made – until a body is found in the Thames. The evidence points to Webb being the murderer of her co-founder.

One common thread in these shows is that women CEOs contain some form of deep-seated flaw. For Grayson, it is her absolute indifference to the pain and suffering she creates among the elderly and their relatives. In Webb’s case, it is her ability to lurch suddenly into violence to get what she needs. Whatever the strengths of these women in business, they are also both deeply unsound.  It raises some interesting points about the depiction of successful women – does the entertainment industry prefer women to have serious shortcomings when they are successful?

The portrayal of flawed women acting as CEOs has a long tradition in Hollywood. A distant ancestor of these films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Despite the success, her daughter remains ungrateful and destructive. Mildred Pierce cannot see the evil she is fostering pandering to her daughter’s every materialistic need. Her drive for money makes her blind to the consequences. In each of these depictions of successful businesswomen, there is a deep flaw embedded in their character.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sideline his family, and destroy all he touches. Indeed, the evil CEO is almost a stock figure in American fiction. In response, in the 1950s, the ultra-conservative ideologue Ayn Rand, in her Screen Guide For Americans, specifically said that industrialists should not be smeared.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sideline his family, and destroy all he touches. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Rand was partially correct as the evil corporate magnate/cattle baron/landlord is a familiar enough figure in American cinema. After her testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947, Rand wrote the guide in November 1947 to eradicate communism from the screen.[1] The 12-page leaflet said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man should not be smeared; that failure and the collective should not be glorified; and that communist writers, directors, and producers should not be hired.[2] The impact of the guide has been overstated. Rand bragged that the arts section of The New York Times had printed it in full; however, it was only mentioned in summary in a small article.[3] What Rand would make of the current crop of depictions of CEOs would send her spinning in the grave.

One other trait in these recent films is a downtrodden male counterpoint to the female CEO in The One and I Care A Lot. One aggrieved male seeks violent revenge on the female CEOs, and despite their success, the women can be cut down by their attacks. In I Care A Lot, the aggrieved man wears a red baseball cap like the ‘Make America Great Again’ caps worn by former President Donald Trump supporters. Trump was elected as a ‘wrecker.’ In an era where Trump supporters have stormed the Capitol building, these films reveal a savage undercurrent. The films also show an underlying male rage against female success.


[1] Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and Song of Russia : Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2005) 176.

[2] Ayn Rand, ‘Screen Guide For Americans, The Motion Picture Alliance for American Ideals.’ https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupid?key=olbp26775/ (accessed January 8, 2020).

[3] Thomas F Brady, ‘Alliance Group Issues Screen Guide for Americans’, New York Times, November 16, 1947. Rand’s memory may have confused The New York Times with the anti-communist newsletter Plain Talk in November 1947, which did print it in full. 

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