1. Ben Dickson, “Mike Mills' New Film Is a Love Letter to the Women in His Life,” Elle, December 20, 2016, http://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/reviews/
[return to text]

2. Mills both scripted and directed Beginners. It tells of the emotional reconciliation of a son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), with this father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). The latter divorced Oliver’s mother, has already died of cancer when the movie opens and late in life openly came out as gay. The movie It explores not only gender but also ageism.

3. Both Altman and Scorsese often directed movies that focused upon seemingly independent women, such as, for example, Altman’s 3 Women (1977) and Scorsese’s Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974). That such directors adopted forms that rejected classical Hollywood is not to say, however, that their movies were always non-sexist. For example, Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) romanticizes male friendship, views as tragic the suicide of its defeated male novelist (Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade), and depicts as castrating the novelist’s rich, unfaithful wife (Nina van Pallandt as Eileen Wade).

4. For an early, insightful examination of how selected directors and genres have exposed Hollywood’s myth of the happy ending, see Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York: Penguin Books, 1974).

5. Christopher McKittrick, ’What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.” Screenwriting, January 19, 2017,
and Matt Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: ‘I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir,’” Deadline: Hollywood, January 4, 2017,

6. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD (March 28, 2017). Admiring how the French New Wave had “broken open film language,” Mills cites, for example, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), as well as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) as his inspirations. He also cites Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) as a source for his nonlinear narrative. Moreover, in seeking to recreate a “period piece” about the late 1970s, Mills acknowledges imitating the style of 70s filmmaker Woody Allen, citing Annie Hall (1977) and Stardust Memories (1980), as well as Allen’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis, in particular.

7. Haskell, From Reverence to Rape,137.

8. “I feel like sometimes this movie is a weird combination of Howard Hawks meets Alain Resnais,” says Mills in Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: ‘I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.’”

9. Mills has described Godard’s influence as follows:

“….The way I use historical stills to tell part of the story, but also to disrupt my film. I think it both makes my film and my fictional characters seem more real, because it contextualizes them, but it simultaneously points out that my thing is a fiction and there’s a neat frisson there. That gesture of both bolstering my film and pointing a finger at its construction is a very art school kind of move

"It’s mostly that, and just also if you’re an art school student, I don’t know if it’s a law, but Godard is your favorite filmmaker. [Laughs] Godard is such a multi-disciplinary, non-linear, non-narrative centric filmmaker, so that was one of my main points of entry.”

Grober, “20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: 'I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.’”

10. Mills deliberately writes his script so as to include both dialog and images. Speaking about the “documentary-like constructions, with photos, archival footage, and voiceover narration” in both Beginners and 20th Century Women, he has observed,

“That’s all in the script, and even a lot of the exact visuals are put into the script. I went to art school, so thinking of objects of design, culture, books, texts, movies, is part of my toolkit and comes very naturally to me.

“A lot of those lyrical essays I do as dual dialogue, and on the left side of the page I do the narration and the right side I list all the visuals because they go by quickly. It’s all part of the plan.”

McKittrick, “’What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.”

11. The 20th Century Women script, which was nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Original Screenplay can be found at the following site:

12. Mills has described the filmmaking process as follows:

“Definitely. I really like to customize the script for the actors. It’s not by much, but little tweaks.

"More than changing it, it’s usually adding stuff. My rehearsal process involves a lot of improvising with the backgrounds of the characters, kind of like a Mike Leigh process, but obviously not as intensive. We spend two weeks focusing on everything that led up to the story, and try to find different ways to experience that.

"Sometimes I interview the actors in their characters. You often find out very interesting things that really galvanize your actors and get under their skin. That’s a part of my process, in not just making a personal movie but also a well-acted movie that hopefully can speak to other people.

"On set we do a little improvising here and there, or I’ll ask the actors to do a certain line differently in each take just to make the scene come to life. Then the actors don’t know what’s being said, and the person who’s looking doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. It sort of turns all the lights on very brightly. So there are little changes all the way through.”

McKittrick, “‘What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.”

13. Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: “I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.”

14. Godard is, of course, well known for the following aphorism: "A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order."

15. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD (March 28, 2017).

16. These still photographs were taken during the 1970s, and Mills has said that he sought to reproduce the 1970s “clean” look of photographer Stephen Shore. Ibid.

17. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What is Cinema? trans. Hugh Gray (Los Angeles: University Press, 1967)

18. Mills claims that his actors during rehearsals familiarized themselves with their characters and that he then allowed them to improvise. According to Mills, about 20% of the film resulted from their improvisation. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD. To the extent accurate, the participation by the actors in the creation of the film’s dialogue would add to the sense of a narrative that is both fiction and documentary. Given how closely the film hews to Mills’ screenplay, however, it’s questionable the extent to which the actors did participate.

19. See, for example, the following passages:

“Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers…suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”

“Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is more acute since cameras gave us the means to ‘fix’ the fleeting moment. We consume images at an ever faster rate and…images consume reality. Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete.

The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality…”

Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux,1978), 82, 179.

Sontag rejected Walter Benjamin’s viewpoint set out in his celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Where Benjamin criticized original artwork as elitist and praised photography for its reproductive aspects and movies for its democratization of art, Sontag viewed photography as enslaving us within Plato’s Cave.

20. Grober, “’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: ‘I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir.’”

21. Elise Nakhnikian “Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women, Memory, and Collaboration,” Slant Magazine, December 20, 2016,
Mills’ surrogate, Jamie, acknowledges that inevitable failure when in voiceover he tells us, “I’ll try to explain to [my son] what his grandmother was like  — but it will be impossible.”

22. Fixing things is an obsession of the U.S. movie male. A classic example may be found in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008). The film admires its main character, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), because he has filled his garage with household tools and is skilled at fixing things with these tools, a skill that he successfully passes on to his surrogate son, Thao Lor (Bee Vang).
[return to page 2]

23. This god-complex is most common in science fiction stories, beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). More recent science fiction movies, particularly movies about AI, carry this complex to its logical, if dystopian, conclusion. See, for example, Ex Machina (2015) and Alien: Covenant (2017).

24. Jamie underscores that observation when he reads to Dorothea the following from the Sisterhood Is Powerful anthology:

“I have a capacity now for taking people as they are, which I lacked at twenty; I reach orgasm in half the time and I know how to please. Yet I do not even dare show a man that I find him attractive. If I do so, he may react as if I had insulted him. I am supposed to fulfill my small functions and vanish.”

25. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

26. Manohla Dargis, “1 Teenage Boy and 3 Mothers in ‘20th Century Women,’” The New York Times, December 27, 2016,

27. Mills has explained why he opened 20th Century Women with the shot of the burning Ford Galaxy.

“I needed to say ‘Dad’s gone.’ That was a way to get into that story: As they start talking, you learn that. I needed to establish this as a man-less world. And then, of course, ’79 is kind of the beginning of the end of American industrial strength. The beginning of the end of the unions and the end of Detroit. The beginning of the end of the big car. And that’s a big Ford Galaxy, which my mom had and loved… Anyway, I thought it was a good and funny way to talk about the end of masculinity. Carter’s such a non-patriarchal president, and the ’70s can be thought of as one of our more feminine decades. Cars are male to me.”

Nakhnikian, “Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women, Memory, and Collaboration.”

28. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD. Leigh’s personal dramas are simultaneously, of course, highly political. Moreover, his films, too, sometimes evoke the same whimsy that threatens to upset Mills’ films. See, for example, Leigh’s High Hopes (1988), and Life Is Sweet (1990).

29. The U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973) held that a woman’s constitutional right of privacy extended to her right to choose to have an abortion. The Court, however, qualified that right, noting that it must be balanced against a state’s right to regulate health and potential life. As the United States has turned increasingly conservative, the Supreme Court has increasingly tiled in favor of a state’s right to regulate. For example, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) the Court upheld a state’s right to deny state funds, facilities, and employees connected with abortions. Thus, a woman’s right to abortion remains bitterly contested.

30. The second-wave of feminism in the United States obviously included many historically important events, including theGovernment’s approval of the Pill in 1960, the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the passage of Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act (barring gender discrimination) in 1964, and the march in NYC of thousands of women in 1970.
[return to page 3]

31. Not surprisingly, the film depicts only excerpts from the broadcast of President Carter’s speech. The quotes in the text represent a lengthier excerpt. A complete transcript may be found at

32. President Carter’s complete quote from his speech was as follows:

“Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped the new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world. We ourselves are the same Americans who just 10 years ago put a man on the moon. We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality.”


33. By way of example of how far U.S. social culture has come, who today could imagine as inalienable rights the “four freedoms” – freedom of speech, of worship, from want and from fear – articulated for “everywhere in the world” in the 1941 State of the Union address delivered by Dorothea’s President Roosevelt? When Roosevelt delivered his speech, World War II had begun in Europe and Asia, but the United States had not yet entered the war. A complete transcript of Roosevelt’s speech may be found at

34. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

35. Mike Mills, “Making 20th Century Women,” 20th Century Women, DVD. While claiming elsewhere in this special feature that 1979 could be anytime, Mills acknowledges his nostalgia for this particular moment.

36. See, for example, Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).

37. For some this fragmentation by the Internet represents a form of individual empowerment. See, for example, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012). For others such fragmentation has resulted in an unprecedented sense of personal loneliness as well as a corporate consolidation in the production and distribution of “things.” See, for example, Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2011) and Susan Crawford, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Mills agrees with the latter view. Thus, his film is also a “love letter” to a “physical era” when you needed to travel to physical locations, in contrast to the contemporary, online digital era. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

38. Mike Mills, “Audio Commentary,” 20th Century Women, DVD.

39. The United States in 2018 with President Trump in the White House often seemingly reenacts such Frank Capra films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Where, however, Capra was satirical in his depiction of populism, today the irrationalism of American Madness (1932), the racism of The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and the materialism of It Happened One Night (1934) apparently represent simply different options with “moral equivalence.” Michael D. Shear and Maggie Habermanaug, “Trump Defends Initial Remarks on Charlottesville; Again Blames ‘Both Sides,’” NY Times, August 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/us/politics/trump-press-conference-charlottesville.html

40. Mills’ original script includes the following scene that’s been deleted from the film as released and in which Jamie is wandering outside after he has left Julie following her refusal to have sex with him in a motel room:


Jamie, strung out and tired is walking down a dirt road next to an agrarian field. As he walks, a group of 30 or so Latino migrant workers cross the road and the frame. They’re heading to work, some are as young as Jamie it seems, he stops as they all cross him, none of them look at him. Two different worlds.”

Mike Mills, “20th Century Women” screenplay, 91,

This shot would obviously have underscored, if briefly, the economic and racial divide in the United States in a film focused almost exclusively upon its white, middle class characters. Mills has seemingly authenticated this screenplay in Kevin P. Sullivan, “20th Century Women writer-director explains the script's unusual format.” Entertainment, February 22, 2017,

41. For an analysis of how neoliberalism has impacted supposedly feminist films, see, for example, Hillary Radner, Neo-Feminist Cinema, Girly Films, Chick Flicks and Consumer Culture (New York: Routledge, 2011)

42. The second-wave feminist slogan “the personal is political” originated apparently in an essay by Carol Hanisch published in 1970 and the text of which can be founded at

43. George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977), xiii and 578.

44. That women are discriminated against financially and otherwise is surely clear. In the movie industry alone there are numerous recent studies documenting how women remain undercompensated, their relatively few lead roles, and their overwhelmingly stereotypical roles. See “Inequality in 800 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2015,” Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, September 2016,

“It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2016,” Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University,”

and Irene E. De Pater, Timothy A. Judge and Brent A. Scott, “Age, Gender, and Compensation: A Study of Hollywood Movie Stars,” Journal of Management Inquiry (2014),

45. The conservative message of both films is most explicit in their endings. The 40-Year-Old Virgin ends with Carell losing his virginity so that he may marry and bed his true love to the satiric tune of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," an anthem for the 60s counterculture of “free love.” Schumer in Trainwreck puts the lie to her divorced father’s warning that monogamy is not realistic, and the film ends with Schumer performing with the all-women cheerleaders of the NYC Knicks basketball team to the delight of her true love, a sports doctor.

Interestingly, Judd Apatow, the director of both films, has expressed admiration for 20th Century Women.

“Judd Apatow told me that he was ‘wrecked’ by a scene, near the end of ‘20th Century Women,’ when Jamie skateboards while holding on to Dorothea’s VW Bug…Apatow said, ‘Mike’s films make me think of my late mother, and how I handled that relationship, and—how can I do better with the people around me?’ He paused, choking up, and finally said, ‘Mike’s films make me proud to be a human being.’”

Tad Friend, “Mike Mills’s Anti-Hollywood Family Films,” The New Yorker, January 7, 2017,

46. McKittrick, “‘What guides me is the real person.’ Mike Mills on 20th Century Women.”

Go to Postscript notes