Laverne Cox Paper Magazine (Yellow Background). Photo: Joshua Kissi, Courtesy Atrbute Marilyn Monroe. Photo: Milton H. Greene © 2022 Joshua Greene. Marilyn Monroe™; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: The Estate of Marilyn Monroe LLC. © 2007 SAKURAN Film Committee © Moyoco Anno/Kodansha Winnie Harlow – Arms Above Head (Photographer: Albert Sanchez). Courtesy Albert Sanchez, Inc.
Laverne Cox Paper Magazine (Yellow Background). Photo: Joshua Kissi, Courtesy Atrbute Marilyn Monroe. Photo: Milton H. Greene © 2022 Joshua Greene. Marilyn Monroe™; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: The Estate of Marilyn Monroe LLC. © 2007 SAKURAN Film Committee © Moyoco Anno/Kodansha Winnie Harlow – Arms Above Head (Photographer: Albert Sanchez). Courtesy Albert Sanchez, Inc.

Dr Britt Romstad Talks GODDESS: Power, Glamour, Rebellion at ACMI

The Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, Australia will be showing an extraordinary immersive exhibition highlighting the contributions of women in screen culture: Goddess. As part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, Goddess opens at ACMI on 5 April 2023, before touring internationally.

This immersive and expansive exhibition ‘invites audiences to celebrate the power and complexity of the goddess on screen’. It features a look at the heroines and villains of cinema all around the globe, from Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, to Tilda Swinton in Orlando, from Pam Grier’s Blaxploitation film career, to Elaine Crombie in Kiki and Kitty. There’s even an in depth look at Academy Award winner Michelle Yeoh’s fight-ready outfit from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Attending the opening of the exhibition is Geena Davis, who will be a Keynote Speaker at the Being Seen on Screen Conference on Wednesday 5 April 2023.

Ahead of the exhibitions launch, Nadine Whitney spoke to Dr Britt Romstad (ACMI Director of Experience and Engagement), who holds a PhD in cinema studies and gender, about the vital exhibition and how important it is to honour the achievements of women in the industry.

Goddess runs at ACMI, Fed Square, Melbourne from 5 April to 1 October 2023. For further details, visit

Nadine Whitney: What did it take to get this monumental exhibition off the ground?

Dr Britt Romstad: It’s a massive undertaking creating an exhibition from scratch. This is the first major homegrown Melbourne Winter Masterpiece exhibition we’ve done at ACMI since the 2018 WONDERLAND (now available to see in Perth). It’s been in development and production and being built for a number of years. Partly it’s taken a long time because of COVID related delays but also because the work in making an exhibition of this size is huge. The initial idea and drive behind Goddess was in part inspired by the conversation in the #MeToo movement and we wanted to continue that conversation. We were in a moment where the whole film industry was discussing gender and power, and it just felt right that ACMI would be leading a conversation around all those themes with all of our expertise. That was the starting point.

There has been a lot of work the curatorial vision and bringing that to life. The curators of the exhibition are Bethan Johnson and Julia Murphy. The work of choosing which people to be in the exhibition is hard. Partly that was determined by which of the stories you want to tell. The other part of building an exhibition is getting the right elements to show. It’s a combinations of objects, costumes, props, drawings and so on. Of course some of the stories you tell are determined by the objects you have access to. It’s a pretty major project that the whole organisation gets behind to deliver.

NW: It is an extraordinary undertaking as the exhibition isn’t just about programming films, but showing costumes, scripts, ephemera, design. The exhibition will also be showing some very important films, including Nina Menkes’ documentary Brainwashed: Sex- Camera- Power in possibly it’s only Australian screenings.

BR: Yes, this is one of the great things about putting on an exhibition at ACMI is that we can scaffold it with a range of programming. The Goddess, and the themes explored in Goddess are so plentiful and rich and can be fleshed out across our film program, our public programs, and also our partner events.

As part of our film program, which is co-curated by Clare Steward (formerly of The BFI), we have ‘Divine Trailblazers’ which looks at the work of women on screen who are over fifty who are really celebrated. Obviously that is very pertinent right now. Look at the recent awards, we have women like Cate Blanchett, Michelle Yeoh, Viola Davis, Nicole Kidman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Frances McDormand, and Angela Bassett. They are well past that ‘point’ where conventional Hollywood has said that they are useful, powerful, or worth looking at. It’s really exciting.

NW: It’s incredibly invigorating. The two women who were up for Best Actress at the Academy Awards who were the favourites were Blanchett and Yeoh. The two favourites for best supporting were Jamie Lee Curtis and Angela Bassett. The landscape has changed in a lot of ways. Frances McDormand winning her third award for Nomadland (a film directed by a woman, Chloe Zhao) for example in her sixties but not playing a “grandmother” role. There is a distinct change in what is empowering in older women appearing on screen; like we see Viola Davis and Michelle Yeoh as action stars in their films as well as mothers and caretakers.

BR: The exhibition mostly focuses on Hollywood, although there are a handful of stories from other film centres. Hollywood has been very clear about the fact that women over forty become invisible unless they turn up in a way that is monstrous.

NW: Like the Robert Aldrich led ‘Hagsploitation’ era.

BR: Yes, exactly. In terms of how the exhibition is structured the curators have been working to look at what the scope of the exhibition is. They have pulled together a handful of themes and told stories around them.

The first is around ‘Crafting the Ideal’ and it looks at the way in the female body has been idealised, exoticized, and politicised in the film industry. That section opens with a story around Marilyn Monroe who was in many ways the epitome of the Hollywood sex symbol ideal. But it was such a carefully moulded construction right from the outset.

The exhibition works really hard to tell stories about people we know, or people we think we know, but tells stories that might surprise us. So the Goddess that the exhibition looks at is one that is powerful and fighting against stereotypes and pushing against the boundaries. There are stories there around Marilyn Monroe that exhibition tells that may illuminate people because she has become shorthand for victim and being a passive object who has been traumatised by Hollywood.

The exhibition tells the story about how Marilyn quite actively fought for more control over her representation and also just basic demands as a worker, such as how much she was paid and to be able to have input into the decisions around what films she’d make and who would be directing them. She had more agency than we may have understood of her.

Once we’ve moved through looking at the Ideal we move through to the point where those ideas are challenged by the work that is presented in the subsequent sections. The next section is ‘Gender Bending’ which looks at the way in which the prescriptive binary has been shifted by a number of people. In that section there is Marlene Dietrich and her famous tuxedo from Morocco. Alongside that display there will be costumes from Sally Potter’s film starring Tilda Swinton, Orlando. Orlando as a film is an important feminist text of the 1990s that explores the dissolving of the boundaries of masculine and feminine and the performativity of it all.

From Gender Bending we go into ‘Dangerous Women’ so that is where we have a bit of commentary and stories around Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and the Hagsploitation genre where older women are turned into monstrous creations like in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. We also look at 1950’s Sunset Boulevard (featuring former silent star Gloria Swanson). One of the things that the exhibition will be really good at is teasing out some of the nuance because obviously in many ways the Hagsploitation genre is one that has worked to punish the older woman but on the other hand it has also given her a vehicle to express herself and produce indelible and wild performances, which are very pleasurable to watch. There is an inherent tension the stories that the exhibition tells.

NW: Bette Davis was a phenomenal performer, and the interesting thing is that people are going to remember her acting from works like Now, Voyager and All About Eve alongside films such as Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and they aren’t going to see her as less for the later roles.

BR: Oh, absolutely.

NW: One of the exhibition’s major events involves the participation of Oscar winner and activist, Geena Davis.

BR: It’s very exciting. Geena Davis is the ambassador for the exhibition. We are also presenting our ‘Being Seen on Screen’ symposium in partnership with The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Many people may not know that Geena is not only an award-winning actor but has also done a lot of work in advocacy in the representation of women on screen. The story around her establishing The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is really interesting. It taps into two things. She noticed that as she got older, that once she hit forty despite the fact she was kind of in the prime of her career suddenly the roles dried up. Also she had a daughter and was watching film with her and she was really conscious of the fact that a lot of the movies they were watching didn’t put girls or women into the central roles. So there was a real desire to understand what was going on, so Geena Davis funded this piece of research into representation on screen. From that initial piece of research The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media was born.

It’s amazing to see someone who started out as an actor evolve that way and become such an essential advocate. As part of the symposium Geena Davis will be there. She will give a keynote talk and she’ll also have Madeline Di Nonno who is the President and CEO of The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Alongside those speakers we will have a whole range of important women from the screen industry in Australia.

NW: You also have Sophie Hyde speaking who is an Australia director who had to leave Australia to really have her work recognised. She is committed to telling stories about sex, sexuality, gender identity, feminism – she’s an important voice in cinema.

BR: We are so lucky to have a range of significant voices joining us for that conversation. The beauty of being at ACMI is that we can supplement the exhibition with a really rich material. And the other thing is the Goddess publication which is written by a range of women that supplements the exhibition and broadens the conversation further. It provides commentary on themes that are in the exhibition that spill out further. It’s a fantastic book, it’s beautiful. You can get online through the ACMI shop.

NW: Also the exhibition will have the Goddess Nights which will be immersive performances by women musicians and DJs.

BR: There will be three of those across the run of the exhibition and the first one in on the 25th of May. The idea is femme-centric music line-ups and they’ve been chosen specifically to tie in with the themes of the exhibition. It’s a big celebration. The exhibition will be open on those nights from 7pm to 1am. You can enjoy the exhibition but also celebrate the artistry of women musicians, also.

NW: The Winter Masterpieces run across a series of Melbourne cultural institutes such as the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s really great to see ACMI getting funding in a manner that recognises that screen art and culture is as vital as “fine art.”

BR: We’re happy about that too!

NW: What do you think the key reason to come and see Goddess is?

BR: The exhibition operates on a number of different levels and I think it will appeal to people in different ways. I think there is a really sophisticated analysis of the representation of the Goddess on screen which will be presented in a way that is absolutely beautiful and the gallery will be spectacular. Coming along for just the experience of being in the space and seeing the costumes, the objects, there will be really large-scale screens with lots of content from amazing films. For people who just love to come along for the buzz of a great event there will be lots to keep them there as well.

In terms of what we want people to think about; first and foremost we want to put the Goddess front and centre of the conversation and we want to tell people some things about the Goddess on screen that they may not have thought about. They may discover Goddesses that they didn’t know about and stories and moments in screen culture that they didn’t know about previously, and hopefully they will come away thinking about those stories and it will lead them to do more research and watch more of these incredible films that are showcased in the exhibition.

NW: It is so vital that people understand how hard women have worked in the industry. For people who will see Nina Menkes’ documentary there is a scene where the pioneer academic Laura Mulvey is sitting in confusion saying essentially that she thought we would have gender parity by now.

BR: That is one thing I will say about the exhibition and something I really enjoy. It does show moments from across the span of time and it does show that there are moments where women were doing vital work in all eras. It’s easy to assume that we move in a linear journey from the dark ages to a time of enlightenment. Throughout the history of film there have been breakthrough moments that have shaped screen culture and have challenged our ideas about femininity and have left a lasting impression. They have been amazing and entertaining at the same time. I think that’s one of the subjects that the exhibition covers really well.

NW: I don’t think that history is teleological. There may have been Cecil B. DeMille there was also Dorothy Arzner who broke through and made boundary breaking films. For all the American comedy directors there are also Amy Heckerling, Penny Marshall, and Elaine May. For the Australian New-Wave we have Gillian Armstrong who is as important as Peter Weir. We have a stable of male noir directors, but there was also Ida Lupino. Women who contributed over the decades and made a palpable difference in Hollywood and world cinema.

BR: There are still stories that have not been told. Or if they have been told they have been forgotten or erased. In this exhibition we have a space to luxuriate in their contributions and celebrate them and it’s critical.

NW: I look forward to seeing the exhibition and seeing films I haven’t seen. For a lot of people it will be the first time that they will experience some of these artefacts and culture.

BR: In addition to the ‘Divine Trailblazers’ part of the exhibition there will be a screening of a relevant film every Sunday at ACMI and it will give people a chance to see the full film that they see a clip of in the exhibit. Some of those films are not always easy to access so there is an opportunity for people to really go deep.

NW: In a manner the exhibition pre-started with two events recently run by Cinemaniacs; Peaches introducing Jesus Christ Superstar and Bikini Kill introducing Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.

BR: It’s going to be a year we really do focus on gender and the role women have played. In addition to those events we also just finished hosting The Melbourne Women in Film Festival. It’s a thread that we will be concentrating on this year through our programming. The exhibition goes until October 1st so there’s plenty of time to see it, but there will also be extra things that are happening in ACMI and our various spaces that complement the exhibition.

NW: I look forward to it with all my heart and I congratulate everyone who has been involved in putting together such a wonderful, informative, and beautiful event.

BR: Thank you.

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) Roadshow
Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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