Hollywood's Men Are Mostly Where the Action Is

Angelina Jolie is the rare actress who can carry action films that do big business abroad. Hollywood typically counts on actors such as Will Smith, above, in "Hancock"; Denzel Washington, Matt Damon and Tom Cruise.
Angelina Jolie is the rare actress who can carry action films that do big business abroad. Hollywood typically counts on actors such as Will Smith, above, in "Hancock"; Denzel Washington, Matt Damon and Tom Cruise. (Frank Masi -- Columbia Pictures)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Want to be a big deal in the movie industry? There's one sure-fire way to increase your chances: Be born male.

According to 157 film-industry professionals surveyed recently by Forbes magazine, actors are far more reliable than actresses when it comes to the one measure Hollywood values most: money. The publication set out to determine the most "bankable" actors and actresses in Hollywood -- that is, who's perceived to be best at attracting money to a project, who sells tickets once a picture is released, and who keeps the cash rolling in afterward from DVDs and the like. The magazine asked film people to rank some 1,400 actors and actresses on their moneymaking power.

The result: Men vastly outnumbered and outranked women by a wide margin. Only four actresses (Angelina Jolie, tied for No. 2; Julia Roberts, No. 11; Meryl Streep, No. 16; and Nicole Kidman, No. 22) ranked among the 30 most bankable. Just 28 women were among the top 100, and only 185 were in the top 500 (for the record, the Hollywood suits rated Will Smith as the most bankable of all).

All told, male stars were almost twice as likely to be considered bankable by film-industry types as their female counterparts.

It's tempting to dismiss this result as another example of Hollywood sexism. That is, since men run the movie business, it's no surprise that movies reflect the tastes and preferences of men. But it's not really that simple. Since Hollywood is also a business that is acutely sensitive to the whims and shifting desires of its customers, sexism couldn't pay without the audiences' complicity.

As it happens, the survey says a few things about the movie business but a lot more about moviegoers.

The first thing to consider is how Hollywood has changed since the days when Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Shirley Temple were the most popular stars on the studio lot. Back then, says Patricia Aufderheide, a communications professor at American University who studies film, the studios cranked out lots of inexpensive movies primarily for domestic consumption, featuring stables of contract players. But since the 1960s and '70s, the studios have evolved into financiers and marketers of films that earn most of their money abroad. This has radically altered the kinds of movies that get made, and who stars in them, she says.

Because the most reliable cross-border films are big-budget action movies -- car chases, shoot-'em-ups and explosions speak pretty much the same language in Dubai as in Dubuque -- men have a built-in advantage for these heroic leading roles, she points out. Thus, the male-centric action genre all but guarantees full employment for the likes of stars like Smith, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon and Tom Cruise.

The only actress who has consistently broken into this men's club is Jolie, points out Anne Thompson, a film blogger and the former editor of the movie magazine Premiere. In hit movies like "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and the recent "Wanted," audiences have accepted Jolie as a gun-toting, butt-kicking spitfire -- a track record no other actress in history can claim, she says.

A few women -- Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" films, for example -- have occasionally pulled this off, but only when the plots call for them to protect a child. Jolie, on the other hand, isn't dependent on this story device. "I don't think the culture was ready for this before," Thompson says of Jolie's action-heroine status. "It wasn't able to accept women with guns."

But this raises a question: Since not every film is an action pic, wouldn't women be as important, as "bankable," as men in other kinds of movies, such as romantic comedies? Don't women, more so than men, flock to movies like "Sex and the City" and "Mamma Mia!"?

Yes, but the market for these films is far more limited than comic-book blockbusters like "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man." Romantic comedies tend not to open with the same box-office numbers as the latest action, sci-fi or horror movie, and don't play as well outside the U.S. market. Romantic comedies also carry a dreaded label: "chick flick."


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