Women & film
With female characters, why does Hollywood fear that the stronger they are, the harder they fail?

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 Chloƫ 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.)

What women will go see, observers agree, are groups of women in comedies, a la "Sex and the City," "Mamma Mia!" and "He's Just Not That Into You." (Each of them, it bears noting, was based on a popular TV show, musical and book.) "Women like going out in groups to watch women interacting in groups," says Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Hollywood.com. "And they are very loyal. If they discover something they like, they tell their friends about it. Women were social networking way before Facebook."

And what what women like, at least for now, Dergarabedian says, are traditional narratives. "There's no 'Bourne Identity' with a woman starring in it right now," he says. "It's almost as if in real life, women want to be empowered and in control, but on-screen they seem to like the old-fashioned damsel-in-distress, love-struck female."

A changing biz

This state of affairs distresses Melissa Silverstein, who tracks women's issues in the entertainment industry on her Web site Women & Hollywood. "One of the things making me nervous this fall is the box office of movies like 'Jennifer's Body' and 'Whip It,' " says Silverstein. "I call them 'girl-power' movies. They're the movies I dream about for my feminist future. And the fact that people didn't go to see those movies makes me want to weep.

"Figuring out how to reach women and young women is the challenge for this business. They don't know how to do it well. Car companies have figured it out, yet Hollywood has not figured it out."

One reason why we see fewer strong female leads these days is a changing business model, notes Silverstein. In the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s -- years when stars like Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Sally Field and Goldie Hawn were making movies in a diverse number of genres -- studios were not, as they are now, subsidiaries of multi-corporations, responsible for contributing to quarterly bottom lines. With economic pressures greater than ever, studios are looking for movies that are guaranteed to make $100 million their first weekend out. The result: More Paul Blarts, fewer Erin Brockoviches.

The upshot, Obst says, is that "it's easier for male executives to get jobs now, because they want to develop male-oriented material. Girls don't grow up reading comic books or playing video games, or with Transformer or G.I. Joe toys. So the material they're looking for isn't necessarily as familiar to female executives who read books, which is becoming practically a liability. That's a real problem. That's how it becomes systemic."

For his part, Dergarabedian sees the recent trend as part of a cycle that will eventually shift. "Maybe someone hasn't built the perfect beast yet," he says. "Ultimately, everything comes down to the movie. If the movie's good, it can cross over all kinds of lines and break all sorts of rules." Obst concurs. "Are we ever going to see strong women again in movies? We might see them in thrillers. We might see them in an elegant horror movie like 'The Silence of the Lambs' or 'Rosemary's Baby.' The movie just has to be a bang-out narrative with a star people want to see. But dramas? They're on television."

Meanwhile, Swank recently wrapped "Betty Anne Waters," based on a true story of a woman who put herself through law school to exonerate her wrongfully accused brother. It's a bona fide strong-woman drama, says producer Andrew Sugerman, in the tradition of "Erin Brockovich." The film has yet to be picked up, but Sugerman is optimistic. "We have a distributor very interested," he says.

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