Thinking On The Bechdel Test: “The Bone Collector”

I thought to brush up my writing skills and do some film critique on the Bechdel Test and a film I haven’t seen in a long time. I choose The Bone Collector (1999). It was directed by Phillip Noyce also known for directing such films like Rabbit-Covered Fence (2002) and The Giver (2014). From the IMDB’s webpage for the film:” Quadripeligic ex-cop Lincoln Rhyme was looking forward to his assisted suicide when he got the news: some sicko was abducting people in a taxi and leaving them to die in particularly sadistic ways. With time counting down between each abduction and possible death, Rhyme recruits rather-unwilling Amelia Donaghy, haunted by her cop father’s suicide and thinking she’s next, into working the crime scenes to track down the killer.”

I choose this film on the basis of “choosing a film we haven’t watched in a long time”. I originally remember seeing this film sometime in grade school (yes, I know it has an R rating, blame the negligent baby sitter) Also I was impressed because while I knew there were many crime dramas, I couldn’t find many where there was a women as a cop or a detective in a leading role. As victims? Sure. As one line having roles as cops with lesser prestige or sectaries? Sure.

I always remember reading about the research some acting talent did for their roles: Queen Latifah spoke with caretakers, Denzel Washington prepared by talking with quadriplegics, including Christopher Reeve. Speaking of quadriplegics, this marked the first time I could remember seeing an actor play one on the big screen.

So of course when I first saw the film I was heavily invested in the roles that the female characters would have upon hearing that Angelia Jolie would play one and one in a prominent role. At that point in my life I wasn’t aware of the Bechdel test and now thinking about to what my mind vaguely remembers about it, I believe that the film won’t pass it. There was a scene between Jolie’s character and Latifah’s later but I’m betting that they talk about a man, either the serial killer or Lincoln Rhyme, Washington’s character.

In a film that has a running time of one hour and fifty-eight minutes, the first time one woman speaks to another is at the twenty six minute mark. It is Thelma telling Solomon (Michael McGlone) and Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) to enter Lincoln’s apartment to because he has requested Donaghy to question her about the photos she took at the crime scene. Even then, it is not a conversation and Thelma is not even speaking to Donaghy directly — she in the company of another, a man. After the thirty-six minute mark, Lincoln instructs Thelma to direct Donaghy to use a computer to help in the investigation. The two women don’t talk to each other on screen.

After the one hour and fourth minute mark when discussing evidence left at a crime scene: hair is found but not human hair — rat hair that has been shaved off. The tension in the room gets lighter after Eddie Ortiz (as Luis Guzman) announces that they are “looking for a rat that shaves”. Then Thelma picks up the banter and tells the room that she’s known a few in her lifetime and asks Donaghy if she has known any which she replies with a “More than a few”.

This is almost a dubious one as no one is talking about actual rats anymore but of awful men, and in the women’s case the joking around could extend to male partners or romantic interests which deepens and personalizes the joke on their end. An example that almost passes but the personalization of the rats to men (hah!) fails this example.

Angelina Jolie and Queen Latifah in The Bone Collector (1999)

Later after the one hour and almost twenty minute mark after Captain Cheney (Michael Rooker) dismisses Lincoln and his team off the investigation, Donaghy comes to the apartment. She and Thelma exchange greetings upon her entrance. This almost passes until Thelma tells her “He’s been worried about you”, referring to Lincoln to which Donaghy replies, “Yeah, sure” not wanting to acknowledge his admiration or concern for her. It does work to help explore the relationship between the two that is budding still, even if they are dismissed from the case — these two are good for each other. They work good as a team and the work is giving Lincoln a reason to reconsider his plans for assisted suicide and helping Donaghy recover from the trauma from seeing her death father’s body and helping to hone her skills.

Yet this example fails the test if you’re watching and you don’t pause — bringing the focus back to a man. Just a few minutes later around the one hour and twenty fourth minute mark, after Lincoln suffers through another seizure while Donaghy is there Thelma reveals the depth of his health issues to her. She explains how he fears the increasingly often seizures and the big one that will make him a vegetable and how he already has plans in motion to self-terminate to which Donaghy is horrified to hear.

One very last example of women talking to each other that just barely failed was a quick interaction in the last ten minutes of the film: an unnamed woman who is presumably Lincoln’s new nurse opens the door and says “Good evening” to which she is responded with a “Merry Christmas” by Janina (Yahsmin Daviault) who is later identified by Lincoln as his sister. I almost missed this interaction because it happens so fast since it’s at the tail end of the film — plus the nurse is also not named.

The Bone Collector does not pass the Bechdel test and the examples of women having conversation are indeed mostly named characters, women in the main cast, in the top billing yet their very short conversations always revolve around a man or the personification of an animal to a man. Sadly, the film doesn’t pass the more difficult, 60 second minimum version of the Bechdel Test either. What could have been included for it to pass? More women, of course and more women talking to each other. In the whole almost two hours, Thelma and Donaghy speak to each other and they are brief conversations at that. I’d suggest having Thelma call another female caretaker or a female doctor and ask about her day minus work if that one woman has a male patient. They could talk about what they plan to do after their shifts, “Girl, I can’t wait to take a loooooong bubble bath” and a “ME TOO!” would pass just barely.

After rewatching the film after so many years I realized that they were no other female police officers or detectives or forensic people or any position that had another woman. Donaghy really was a special unicorn in an already male dominated field — which doesn’t bode well for representing women in the police force. Where are they?! It is New York City! Having even just a handful of women present helping out the police in various positions with names could have helped the film pass the test. Placing one in the team at Lincoln’s apartment alongside Eddie Ortiz , Detective Kenny Solomon and Detective Paulie Sellitto (Ed O’Neill) for a few lines of dialogue with our leading actress would have worked.

Angelina Jolie, Michael McGlone, and Ed O’Neill in The Bone Collector (1999)
Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector (1999)

To be fair, Angelina Jolie’s character Amelia Donaghy is central to the plot and has many lines of dialogue. While her working with Lincoln proves to be beneficial for both of them because they work as a team, she’s the “eyes” on the crime scenes and he’s the “brain” helping to pieces together the clues — it is apparent that her apprenticeship under him helps hone her skills greatly to where she can be her own person. She figures out where the killer’s final destination is before Lincoln does; which is his apartment. She even saves the day by firing the shot that kills the serial killer before he can take the life of his intended target proving to be capable and timely and very certainly someone cut out for the job. We could argue that she gains at least some of her own agency before the film is through even though being molded on the way there by Lincoln.

Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector (1999)

One reading of the film can include a very subtle message that “only a special few are fit for the job”, and for women there can only be that special unicorn, that single Amelia Donaghy. There can only be one Angelina Jolie!

Also perhaps that women can make no friends in this line of work as there are no other women to be found! (Hah!) Having more female characters, even unnamed ones having not even meaningful conversations wasn’t something that served the plot: the majority of female characters with speaking roles in the film are victims with Thelma being the last one in the final arc of the film.

Even considering the results using an intersectional lens still marks the film to fail the Bechdel test as the only other woman to hold a conversation with another woman is in fact, Thelma who is African American. There is no other woman of color for her to speak with in the entire film, let alone woman. Unless we’re counting the two women of color, two Black women do speak to each other in the film towards the end — yet does it really serve as meaningful as only one is named and they both have less than five lines together? A “Good evening” to a “Merry Christmas”?)

A biopic about an esteemed woman could fail, Animated films fail all the time (Hello Pixar!) Crappy movies pass the test all the time while films that go on the win Oscars fail the test, proving it is not a test of personal taste. 1999’s The Bone Collector is yet another film that centers on its male characters and doesn’t think forward enough to question what other roles women can have in this story besides victims and “the special one”. It is tragically yet another film that doesn’t value the representations of women enough on the screen and off as well.

See more about the Bechdel test via video and commentary on Feminist Frequency.

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⭐️ Writer, Editor & Media Scholar with an affinity for red lipstick living in California. Writes about literature, art, cinema & amazing women. ⭐️

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