With strong female characters, Hollywood suffers from a fear of failure

By Ann Hornaday
Sunday, October 25, 2009

To earn her two Oscars, Hilary Swank went mano a mano with Clint Eastwood in a boxing ring and sucked face with Chloë Sevigny. But her toughest test yet might be this weekend, when box office numbers for "Amelia" come in. The historical drama, about the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart, represents a major risk in Hollywood, where studio executives have been increasingly chary of making movies about strong women. If "Amelia" earns respectable receipts, chances are it will be dismissed as a lucky break. If it fails, it will be cited as yet more proof that strong female protagonists are box office poison.

Reached by telephone last week, Swank -- who also executive produced "Amelia" -- was optimistic. "I think things ebb and flow, and someone out there who crunches numbers probably affects that," she said regarding studios' reluctance to make films about strong women ("Amelia" was produced and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, a subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox). "Then I think art has to override it, and the numbers people say, 'Oh right, that works.' It comes in and out."

Strong women, for now anyway, are out. Two years ago, when the Jodie Foster vigilante thriller "The Brave One" failed at the box office, industry blogger Nikki Finke reported that a Warner Brothers production executive announced to staffers that the studio would no longer produce movies featuring female leads. This past summer, actress and writer Nia Vardalos blogged on the Huffington Post that when she was pitching a project to a studio executive, he asked that she change the female lead to a man. Why? Because "women don't go to movies," he told her. "When I pointed out the box office successes of 'Sex and The City,' 'Mamma Mia!,' and 'Obsessed,' he called them 'flukes,' " she wrote.

Will 'Amelia' fly?

On paper, at least, "Amelia" should be a surefire hit. The high-gloss portrait of 1930s pilot Earhart recalls such audience favorites as "Out of Africa" and "The English Patient" in its sense of epic romance and period glamour. Swank gets to flirt with two dashing leading men, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor. And she plays an enduringly fascinating icon, a free spirit who vanished mysteriously in 1937, leaving behind a tantalizing myth that combined speed, adventure, proto-feminist brio and American optimism.

The only problem? No Manolo Blahniks! No Abba! No vampires!

Consider: It's been nine years since Julia Roberts starred in "Erin Brockovich," about a nervy legal assistant who wound up taking on corporate America. Nine years before that, Jodie Foster starred in "The Silence of the Lambs," in which she played a quietly courageous FBI agent. Of the top 10 movies of 2009 so far, only one features a woman in a leading role: the romantic comedy "The Proposal," starring Sandra Bullock. "Julie & Julia," which is close to breaking the $100 million barrier, is the only hit film that features a "serious" female protagonist -- Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep.

In an era when women in movies fall along a spectrum defined by Hannah Montana and "Twilight" on one end and "Sex and the City" and "Mamma Mia!" on the other, where are the screen heroines of yesteryear, who could be strong, serious and sexy?

"Dramas are dead," says producer Lynda Obst ("Contact," "The Invention of Lying"). "Some of the greatest parts for women -- the Academy Award parts for women -- are often in dramas, and this is the worst time for dramas since I've been in the business for the last 10,000 years." More than ever, Obst adds, the movie business is geared toward the young men who go to movies most frequently. "And by and large that's a comedy audience and an action audience. To get a project greenlit now, studios are requiring more and more what we call 'unaided awareness,' which is where you get this addiction to toys and comics and old titles. And dramas don't live there."

To understand the situation of women in Hollywood right now, one need look no further than Drew Barrymore, whose career over the past year perfectly crystallizes the good-news/bad-news dichotomy. The ensemble romantic comedy she produced and starred in, "He's Just Not That Into You," was a hit. "Whip It," the girl-centric action comedy that marked her feature directorial debut, was not -- even though it put Barrymore in the company of a remarkable crop of female directors with movies out this year: Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Nora Ephron, Karyn Kusama, Lynn Shelton and Lone Scherfig (whose effervescent coming-of-age film, "An Education," opens Friday), to name just a few.

But Barrymore also delivered a stunning dramatic screen performance in 2009. Not in a major motion picture, but on HBO, in "Grey Gardens" opposite Jessica Lange. "Dramas are still alive in television," says Obst, "which is why we see some of our greatest actresses emigrating to TV, everyone from Mary-Louise Parker to Glenn Close to Holly Hunter."

To cries of "I call sexism!" most insiders agree that it's more complicated than that. "I don't think it's sexism," says writer-director Rod Lurie, whose films "The Contender" and "Nothing but the Truth," as well as the television series "Commander in Chief," all featured strong female leads. "Because Hollywood will do whatever it takes to make money. They are not taking a principled stance against women. They just don't see the audience as going there.

"I'll tell you something," Lurie continues. "When we were researching 'Commander in Chief,' which was about the first woman president, we found that men supported [the idea of] a woman for president more than women did. Women's top priority was security, and they felt more comfortable with a man for that reason. Women are the predominant buyers of tickets at movies, but they don't seem to support in any great strength going to see 'The Brave One' or 'Duplicity' or 'Changeling.' " (The failure of "Duplicity," the Julia Roberts caper comedy that came out earlier this year, is often mentioned as yet another death knell for meaty women's roles.)

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