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The Girlfriend Experience: Steven Soderbergh’s leading ladies

Thirty years ago, filmmaking innovator Steven Soderbergh blew audiences away with his provocative feature debut at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and he was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or for Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

It was a landmark win for the film that ushered in a new wave of indie cinema. Since then, Soderbergh has continued to push the boundaries with his movies, never afraid of failure and always steering clear of the ordinary. As a result, he’s earned a reputation as one of the most daring, unpredictable, and exciting filmmakers around.

One characteristic that remains constant in Soderbergh’s movies is the presence of strong, independent, and complex female characters and we’re here to celebrate that fact by looking at some of the auteur’s most ferocious leading ladies.

Unsane (2018)

Sawyer Valentini played by Claire Foy

Soderbergh’s most recent project is an ambitious one to say the least – a psychological horror thriller filmed entirely on an iPhone. Claire Foy (The Crown) stars as the central character Sawyer Valentini, a woman who relocates to escape from the man who’s been stalking her for the last two years.

When she is unwittingly committed to a mental institution, she is confronted by her greatest fear – but is it real or is it a product of her delusion? Foy brings fear, tension, and intensity to the film with her stunning portrayal of a woman on the edge of sanity.

Logan Lucky (2017)

Mellie Logan played by Riley Keough

In another of Soderbergh’s fantastic experiments, the filmmaker funded, created, and produced Logan Lucky himself in a bid to prove it’s possible to create a blockbuster without the assistance of Hollywood’s studios.

While the narrative focuses on two brothers (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) as they attempt to pull off a heist during a NASCAR race in North Carolina, their sister Mellie stands out as the only woman in this eccentric, criminal group by defying sexist stereotypes. As a result, she’s an absolute scene stealer.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich played by Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman) is pure sass as the unemployed single mother who becomes a legal assistant and in turn almost single-handedly brings down a corrupt Californian power company. She’s a woman with it all – brains, beauty, intellect, and she’s a good mother. In other words, Brockovich is the ultimate boss bitch.

Traffic (2000)

Helena Ayala played by Catherine Zeta-Jones

In Soderbergh’s daring commentary on the war on drugs, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Helena is another of the director’s female characters who doesn’t rely on a bro to save the day.

After learning of her husband Carlos Ayala’s true profession as a drug distributor and the prospect of life imprisonment for him and death threats against her child, she decides to take matters into her own hands. This includes liaising with assassins to organize a hit on witnesses and figuring out major drug deals with cartel kingpins. Oh yeah, and she’s six months pregnant. Boss

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Chelsea / Christine played by Sasha Grey

We’re all for porn stars, turned actresses. Here we see Sasha Grey in her career-defining role as a young attorney in training who leads a double life as a high-end escort, offering the “girlfriend experience” to wealthy businessmen.

Regardless of the debates surrounding the sex work profession, there’s no denying Grey’s character is strong-minded & hardworking – and answers to no one, much like Sasha herself. Chelsea has got nothing on these Toowoomba Escorts though.

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Isabel Lahiri played by Catherine Zeta-Jones

It might be the sequel in the Ocean’s series, but we thought Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Isabel Lahiri deserved a mention as one of the most badass female characters in the movie franchise. As Complex pointed out, the Europol agent “gets props for being the only cop in the Ocean’s series smart enough to foil Danny (George Clooney) and the gang, in large part because she’s the daughter of world-renowned master thief LeMarc.”

Che: Part One (2008)

Aleida March played by Catalina Sandino Moreno

Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) plays Aleida March with stunning intensity as Che Guevara’s revolutionary second wife and member of Fidel el Castro’s Cuban army. The couple stand side by side with their rifles in hand during the battle to topple the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Hasta la victoria siempre!

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (2018)

Ann Bishop Mullany played by Andie MacDowell

In the film that brought Soderbergh to prominence, Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day) plays a woman trapped in a sexually and emotionally unfulfilled relationship with her husband John (Peter Gallagher), who is incidentally sleeping with her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

The tensions in their marriage bubble to the surface when a friend from college (James Spader) who’s been drifting for years pays a visit and starts filming Cynthia and Ann as they talk about their sexual desires.

Magic Mike (2012)

Joanna played by Olivia Munn

Flipping the switch in so many wondrous ways, Soderbergh’s camera focuses on the world of male stripping in this film about a professional dancer who teaches a younger performer how to party, pick up women, and make easy money.

What’s great to see in the film (in addition to the female gaze getting a look in) is Olivia Munn’s Joanna, who is aloof to her relationship with Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) as she’s just not about that commitment bullshit. Finally a female love interest who is not the persistent, needy one.

Out of Sight (1998)

Karen Sisco played by Jennifer Lopez

In one of Jennifer Lopez’s (The Boy Next Door) finer big screen moments, she plays the smart, sexy Federal Marshal who becomes the unfortunate love interest to George Clooney’s criminal kidnapper Jack Foley. Like many of Soderbergh’s female characters, Karen Sisco has a sharp wit and dominates in a macho environment.

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