This essay is just one big series of spoilers so watch out.
We make a particular cheer noise when a popular female actor who we took for granted in her youth returns after a long break we imposed on her for not being in her youth. We made it when Kajol returned to dance in later SRK movies. We made it when a long-haired Demi Moore appeared on the beach with a surfboard in Charlie’s Angels.
We made it when Sandra Bullock emerged out of that spacesuit in Gravity. Oh, we’ve missed you, says that noise. We’ve missed you and you still look good, says that noise. Then the noise mutes into the long hum of appreciation for the sharp sexual appeal of Heroines that Return, now that the frills of faux girlishness has been stripped away. Did you always look that good, asks that noise.
My teen years had a lot of Sandra Bullock. Sandra being adorable, being hassled, trying to save the world from a virus or whatever was going on in The Net, saving the world from a bomb-rigged bus, all of it, every last one being done with a thick layer of self-deprecation. In the rom-com While You Were Sleeping, Sandra wore Meg Ryan-ish oversized sleeves and soft sleepytime clothes. But unlike Meg Ryan, Sandra always carried a tiny capsule of reality. In While You Were Sleeping she famously told Bill Pullman who needed to borrow clothes, “if you fit into my pants I will kill myself.”
But when you make that welcome back noise for Sandra in Ocean’s 8, she doesn’t care. As in Gravity, in this movie too Sandra as Debbie Ocean Emerges — this time out of her jail uniform, out of 5 years of prison into the world and into the glamorous clothes of her choice. The familiar charming nose is there but none of the Manic Pixie smiles of the 90s. Her enjoyment of the clothes and the hotel sheets and bath bubbles, she cons her way into, is unsmiling, matter-of-fact. As she assembles and trains her crew she has CEO face firmly on.
(Here is the crew she assembles:
1. Cate Blanchett as Lou, Debbie’s favourite partner and friend
2. Mindy Kaling as Amita a jeweller who wants to move out of her mother’s home
3. Sarah Paulson as Tammy a highway robber turned suburban mother
4. Rihanna as Nine Ball a cool, reticent hacker
5. Helena Bonham Carter as Rose Weil,a fashion designer who has fallen on very hard times
6. Awkwafina as Constance, a quick-fingered pickpocket and minor con artist)
Debbie rarely smiles in the rest of the movie either but we viewers relax into the luxurious bath bubbles of Ocean’s 8. The movie is deeply coded with feminine pleasures — every single pair of astoundingly beautiful pants that Lou wears, the jewellery, the assymetrical revelation of Bullock’s back, Debbie and Lou’s quick exchange about Rose Weil’s declining design sensibility (‘those Edwardian collars, a travesty’) Tammy’s kind lies to her child as she is leaving for multi-million scam, Rihanna’s deep affection for her tiny younger sister. It’s in an outsized jar of Nutella, in the the layers of buttons, rings, glittter and fancy phone covers and jewels and trailing trains of clothes in every scene. It is in the miniscule size of the getaway speed boat (a toy) and the satisfaction in Lou’s voice that they engineered a heist that big with selfie sticks dirt cheap on Amazon. It is in Amita’s longing when she asks why they have to rob the Met Gala, when she’d rather go to the Gala.
It’s in the delicious sequence when Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway as a Hollywood star) makes long sex noises as she puts on the diamond necklace. In a jugalbandi of nutty-beautiful, Daphne mumbles to the necklace, “Oh wow, look at you, it fits, it fits,” and Rose mumbles back, “It fits.”
It fits. Feminine pleasures lie in Constance’s careful assembling of a sandwich, a back-to-basics reminder of the kind that you see in Sara Paretsky novels where VI Warshawski sometimes pauses rising action to cook meals, wash laundry and clean house. It’s in giving Serena Williams a jubilant speaking part and in the camera catching Anna Wintour crushing on Roger Federer as in real life. There is an obvious and ironic signalling when Daphne (Anne Hathaway slays in this role) tells the crew she wants to be part of the heist because she doesn’t ‘have that many close female friendships.’ Lou asks, “you are becoming a criminal because you are lonely?’ (It also made me giggle because I remembered that back in 2008 IRL Anne Hathaway dated a big conman. A bit like Winona Ryder’s character doing a bit of stealing in Black Swan.) But it is also in the less obvious scene when Debbie and Lou bully Rose in the beginning — the two hardcores of the female trio hitting the softcore, what could be more familiar? It is in everyone telling Rose to play it cool with Daphne when they first meet: Indifference is an aphrodisiac.
One leaky bit in the plot amused me because it was about taking leaks or women’s loos. (What didn’t amuse me is the movie ending with Debbie’s denouement being a return to her perhaps dead brother.) In my heated pursuit of feminine pleasures, I know as surely as Debbie Ocean is sure of success, that the loo is so so unlikely to be empty during the Met Gala. Even last year that’s where dozens of guests crowded on the floors of the loos to smoke illegally and take sexy, goofy selfies.
The truth is Ocean’s 8 is really about women worrying about mortality and resisting being aged out by male standards. In Daphne’s predictable anxiety about her actor competition who is young enough to sell a perfume called Youth. It is in Rose Weil’s feeling that her design career is over. It’s in Rose telling an anxious Daphne that she looks ‘like Barbie’, in a good way and Daphne’s deep gratitude. But it is also in the layers and layers of older women actors cast by Gary Ross in this movie, taunting the audience with their brilliance and the fools who don’t give them full scripts year-round. Debbie deploys a quartet of old ladies in one stage of the con, knowing they will not be considered threats. But in casting Marlo Thomas, Dana Ivey, Mary Louise Wilson and Elizabeth Ashley to play helpless old ladies, oh, a cinematic memento mori, if ever there was one. In casting the brilliant Helena Bonham Carter as Rose it reminds us that her lot in life should not be just to play Merchant Ivory confections or Tim Burton grotesqueries.
Ocean’s 8 often reflects women’s annoyance that they are considered either too old or too young to do their job. You see it in Nine Ball’s face and voice when Debbie asks if her younger sister Veronica (Nathanya Alexander) can really solve a big technical problem. “Really? Did you just ask me that?”
Ocean’s 8 is also about women being profoundly bored by the rules that the world has for them. Tammy admits to it and says it straight up when she admits she wants to join the caper because she is bored. Can I also note that this is a movie in which, as far as I remember, no female con artist ‘uses sex’ to get anything done — an impossibility in the history of Hollywood heist movies or even Hollywood which requires all heroines to stand by the highway with her skirt hiked to get a lift.
Instead the approach is defined in Debbie’s line, “it’s a him. I don’t want a him. A him gets noticed. A her gets ignored.” So they hide in plain sight. At one point Lou is hiding in a halal truck, doing haraam things as my friend pointed out. They hide diamonds in dishwater. They assume that Daphne the Hollywood star will never register the appearance of a POC woman staff member in the loo.
And this is why at the end of the movie when the happily-ever-after scenarios for each of the eight women resembles some Y-Combinator-meets-Cheryl Strayed ad for material success and self-actualisation fabulousness, you don’t mind at all. I mean, don’t you want to watch a full movie with Anne Hathaway playing a bitchy, smart movie director? Don’t you want to watch Cate Blanchett drive down the Pacific Highway on a motorcyle? Don’t you really, really want to watch Rihanna and Nathanya Alexander play a pair of sisters and hackers in a full movie?
Right in the beginning Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) of the original cast arrives to save Debbie from herself. Isn’t it enough to just know that you can pull off this heist, he asks her, do you have to do it? Debbie’s look of smiling contempt is so fantastic that I wish it could be borrowed for everytime you are told by a man that you should be pure and spurn the trappings of power. I wish I could go back in time and give it to the brilliant women CV Raman refused to give a Ph.D to.
The theme of pursuing what you are good at, continues through the movie. It is in the sheer efficiency of every single player in the jewel theft displaying what romance novel readers recognize as competence porn. It is in several lines of dialogue. Debbie to best friend/partner/possible lover Lou, “Don’t you want to do things you are interested in?” Later, Lou: Why do you need to do this? Debbie: It’s what I am good at. There is a key moment when I was afraid that they would make Debbie succumb to American sentimentality (as Sandra Bullock had to in Gravity and become obsessed with her daughter back on earth) But instead she says to the crew with light-handed irony, “I want you to remember we are doing this for the 8-year-old girl lying in bed, dreaming of becoming a criminal.’ It is in Debbie reminiscing about how she planned the big heist in jail and got herself thrown into solitary for some peace and quiet. It is in that brilliant moment when the just amazing Amita loses her Minnie mouse voice and becomes a bass. It’s even in the soundtrack when Kellis sings, “I’m bossy/I’m the first girl to scream on a track/I switched up the beat of the drum/That’s right I brought all the boys to the yard.
Talking of boys in the yard, right in the beginning Debbie arrives at the art gallery to threaten her ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) who framed her. As she prods him with a knife and jail terminology she tells him, “inside, you are what we would call a pretty girl.” But she only cuts off his two buttons and laughs about it, reminding me of that eternal truth “Women are afraid of being killed. Men are afraid of women laughing at them.”
It does seem that Debbie practices Shine Theory, a concept created by writers Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow in 2013 that argues that powerful women make the greatest friends. As Roxane Gay said, “if you and your friend(s) are in the same field and you can collaborate or help each other, do this, without shame. It’s not your fault your friends are awesome. Men invented nepotism and practically live by it. It’s okay for women to do it too.” I was reminded strongly off it in a scene when Rose Weil in the deep underground storage of the jeweller’s office, keeps saying, “I must have the sun, I must have the sun,” and Amita echoes, “She must have the sun.”
I turned 39 on Friday and the trailer that preceded Ocean’s 8 reminded me how annoyingly sexist Hollywood remains. A Star Is Born reboot directed by Bradley Cooper in which Cooper also acts — as the man who helps find a singer (Lady Gaga!) find herself. Lady Gaga needing help from a dude! Lady Gaga! Whose name credit appears after Bradley Cooper!
After leaving the movie I stepped on the escalator and thought of how annoyed I had been lately by the Maroon 5 video that covers a lazy, sexist song with a set of cameos from the coolest women of Hollywood. (When my friend and I grumped about the grossness of Cardi B collaborating with Maroon 5, we had to comfort ourselves with a line from a previous unlikely Maroon 5 collaborator, Nicki Minaj, “She is on a diet but her pockets eating cheesecake.’ Here is to women artistes’ pockets eating cheesecake.)
But between the giant bores of Bradley Cooper and Maroon 5 there was Ocean’s 8 and I couldn’t have picked anything better to age to.