The begged question: where are all the women architects?

Best way to enjoy an epistolary novel: see the movie adaptation first.

Characters are sorted, unnecessary ones discarded, or at least given less letters/emails/texts to write; the story line is focused, the dialogue scaled down, yet voluble.  And snappy. If  there is a smidgen of humor to be found in the novel,  a good screenwriter will turn the adaptation into a clever comedy.

(Fair warning: the only “correspondence-literature” I have liked are Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Jean Webster’s “Daddy Long Legs.”  Both read when I was 12.)

Cate Blanchett as Bernadette Fox.

Maria Semple is lucky to have her 2012 bestseller “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” treated with the reverence AND amiable disrespect it needs to shake off the preciousness of the novel.  Director Richard Linklater has co-written the screenplay with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo and found a winner in Cate Blanchett as the indomitable Bernadette.

Blanchett can dig into a character, imbue her with almost frightening passion, and in the film’s first 20 minutes, her Bernadette is so off,  so manic, you understand why her female neighbors fear and shun her. When she displays a quirk too many, her annoyed husband (played by Billy Crudup) stages an intervention with a shrink ready to haul Bernadette away.

Kristen Wiig stars as Audrey and Zoe Chao as Soo-Lin in Richard Linklater’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE. Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

But Bernadette disappears first.  She has a tendency to do that.  Twenty years earlier, as a recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, Bernadette was hailed as the future of urban architecture. An icon was born. Then poof – gone.  The only house she ever built – the first Green House – gone.  Why? What was the Huge Hideous Thing that derailed her career?

Unraveling a long-ago trauma makes us see Bernadette as the person she was meant to be:  not the unhappy housewife holed up in a ramshackle house on a hill, but a joyous spirit, meant to soar and create thrilling wonders.  Her old college professor (Laurence Fishburne) sums her up: “If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”

Emma Nelson as Bee Branch.

Of the many questions “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” raises, the least interesting one is if Bernadette will be found. What this movie makes you wonder is, “what happened to all the women architects? Surely they exist?”

You know your Famous Architects (the “Starchitects”).  There is God’s own architect (Antoni Gaudi), the crossword guy (IM Pei),  the waterfall  guy (Frank Lloyd Wright), the funny guy (Frank Gehry), the brutalist (Le Corbusier), and the Finn (Eero Sarinen).  All guys.  There is Zaha Hadid, of course, the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker prize, architecture’s Oscar, but then? Google gives you two – TWO – women’s names, both unknown to me: Denise Scott Brown and Jeanne Gang.

Google also leads you to a recent NYT article about the dearth of women architects: half of all architect students today are women, but few (barely 20%) stick with the industry. Inherent gender inequality is one explanation. Until 1972, with the adoption of Title IX of the education amendments, most US architecture schools would not admit women.

Billy Crudup stars as Elgie Branch.

So Bernadette had to endure professional disrespect, which might explain her mental instability, but a second interesting theme of the film concerns the lack of acceptance given people with extraordinary talents. Especially women with those talents.  Perhaps extra leeway should be afforded gifted women when they fail to act within societal norms?

Bernadette’s daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) certainly thinks so.  A defender of her brilliant mother, Bee is an unusual movie teen in that she actually gets along with the parental unit she is supposed to hate.

Billy Crudup’s Elgie is the standard Hollywood Husband, though.  The family has relocated to Seattle where busy, elitist, fawned-over Elgie is “swallowed whole” by Microsoft.  Crudup’s good looks normally makes up for conventionally written characters, here they falter.  

Kristen Wiig shows up in the important part of Bernadette’s frenemy neighbor Audrey, and Laurence Fishburne adds heft and sensibility as the mentor who still sees Bernadette as the brilliant student she once was.