Substantive roles make 2002 year of the woman

'50s suburban housewife, against the era's grain, confronts her husband's homosexuality and her own taboo extramarital yearnings.

Two flappers cynically manipulate Roaring '20s media to win sympathy for killing their men. A real-life Mexican painter overcomes injury, illness and the philandering of her more-famous husband to leave behind a legacy of tantalizing art. And a fictional version of novelist Virginia Woolf serves as one member of a feminine trio of troubled souls grappling with life, children and sanity.

Wives, mothers, artists, lovers and lunatics: Could there be a more compelling assortment than the characters that headline many of this year's Oscar contenders? More to the point: All of these contenders, from "Far From Heaven," "Chicago," "Frida" and "The Hours" respectively, star women. Nicole Kidman, upon winning a Golden Globe for "The Hours," after a quick plea for more such roles for actresses, put it with arresting understatement: "We're interesting."

After a decade when male angst and action dominated the movies, women are making a staggering comeback. This year there's a tight race for best actress, as well as best actor: No need to toss in a few so-so nominees from films nobody saw. That's heartening news for performers like Kidman, naturally, but also for all women who love movies and men who love both.

"I don't think anybody went out there and decided, 'Hey, let's support women this year,' " says Salma Hayek, star and co-producer of "Frida." "But it shows there is an audience. People are interested. Now we have to decide how to make the most of it."

"I do think this year has been amazing, not just for good women's roles, but for good roles for older women," says Molly Haskell, film critic and author. "Women used to stop playing sexy romantic leads in their 30s. Now, you've got Meryl Streep cavorting around swamps and doing steamy scenes in `Adaptation' in her 50s."

As for the output as a whole, Haskell enthuses, "I haven't seen anything like this since I've been writing about the movies, and that's three decades now."

The list is certainly long. Despite all the men in "Chicago," Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones are its stars. Men are the kind of backdrop in "The Hours" more commonly provided by women in cinema, while "Far From Heaven" exquisitely follows, moment by moment, the external and internal experiences of the housewife played by Julianne Moore, who's rarely out of frame. Elsewhere, in "Unfaithful," Diane Lane, for once, serves as the cornerstone character in a sexy thriller, not her husband, Richard Gere.

Slightly less celebrated, but also notable, entries include "Talk to Her," "Real Women Have Curves," "Personal Velocity," "The Good Girl" and "Lovely and Amazing." And this year's biggest independent movie moneymaker, breaking all previous records? "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," written by, starring and essentially all about actress/auteur Nia Vardalos.

Not quite a trend

Is there something in the ether? Have the movies turned a corner?

Yes and, probably, no. "I think what's happened this year is an accident," says Hayek. "A lot of female-driven projects turned out to be the best movies."

"I don't think it's a trend, it's more what I'd call a cycle," says Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival. "In any given year, you see certain cycles for any number of reasons. There are years with a lot of good African-American roles, like last year. There are good roles for women this year, but where does it come from? Who knows? When the talent emerges that studios think they can market, they take advantage."

Show Hollywood the money, in other words. But exactly what kind of box office impact is this handful of movies making?

"They're all doing pretty well, although most are in somewhat limited release," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., an L.A.-based box-office tracking firm. "They still represent small box office overall, except for `Greek Wedding,' which has made more than these others combined.

"While they may not be in the top 5 week after week, they're still filling seats," he adds. "That matters, but ultimately the big challenge is in filling seats in 3,000 theaters."

Unlike "Spider-Man" (last year's No. 1 blockbuster) and its $403.7 million domestic take, "The Hours" so far has taken in $18.5 million in 548 theaters. "Frida" has netted $23.2 million and "Far from Heaven" $13.5 million. "I don't know of any plans to put these movies in 1,000 theaters," Dergarabedian says.

The cream of the crop could well prove to be "Chicago," which has already racked up $50 million in 623 theaters and this weekend gets a real test as it moves to 1,600 venues. "I think `Chicago' is poised to make more than $100 million, no matter what, and that's a hit," argues Dergarabedian.

Action blockbusters dominate

Still, all these grosses pale against testosterone action blockbusters, like "Spider-Man," "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "Star Wars II -- Attack of the Clones" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the top four highest grossing pictures to come out in 2002. But check out No. 5: "Greek Wedding," with $238.5 million so far and still playing.

"But that's an anomaly," Dergarabedian adds. "You have to go all the way down the list to No. 17 to find `Sweet Home Alabama,' the next female-oriented success. I don't think we're on the frontier of a female-driven blockbuster like `Spider-Man.' But I will say that the love story is intruding more and more into the testosterone-driven movie. Many think the reason `Spider-Man' made over $400 million is its love story involving Kirsten Dunst. Halle Berry gets credit for `Die Another Day.'"

Similar synergy got credit for the phenomenal success of "Titanic" in 1997 and its appeal to both men and women.

What now seems a long, long dry spell wasn't always with us, of course. "There were wonderful roles for women in the '30s and '40s," says Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, who teaches film at the University of Oregon. "So many genres addressed women characters, from the melodrama to romantic comedy to film noir. Barbara Stanwyck did them all. Comedy in `The Lady Eve,' noir in `Double Indemnity' and melodrama in `Stella Dallas.' And, of course, there were Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne and so many more.

"Some of this continued into the '50s," she adds, referring to the era when Douglas Sirk's melodramas ("Far From Heaven" is a kind of homage) played alongside biblical epics and westerns. "But in the '60s the buddy movie arrived, and Robert Redford and Paul Newman edged out romantic couples."

"When I was writing about this in the '70s, it was a disaster," concurs Haskell. "For years, they had to bump up supporting actresses into the best actress category in order to get five nominees for the Oscars. Things started picking up in the '80s, with Streep, Jessica Lange and Glenn Close, but men still dominated."

As for the '90s, Karlyn notes, "It seems that Julia Roberts was the only woman who could bankroll a movie."

Among this year's bonanza, Hayek is a kind of unsung heroine. Unlike most of the other movies up for big awards, her female-driven project is truly female driven. Besides her role as co-producer, the movie also boasts a woman director, Julie Taymor. All 10 movies nominated for best drama or best musical/comedy in the Golden Globes were directed by men. ("The Hours" and "Chicago" won.) All five nominated screenplays were written by men, including "The Hours," based on Michael Cunningham's novel, and all six nominees for best director were male as well. Taymor, to Hayek's indignation, was overlooked.

"We are only 25 percent of the [film] community, and our careers are shorter in all branches, including acting," Hayeksays. "We make less money. As for directing, the figure I heard was that women directors represented only 10 percent of all movies last year."

'We have to do it ourselves'

But she halts her own complaint. "We can talk about how hard it is for women to make movies. But we could also say how important it is and how we women need to make them." She spent eight years preparing "Frida," and she recently directed a movie herself, "The Maldonado Miracle," for Showtime. She amends, in a way, Kidman's plea by tossing one at fellow women: "Don't sit down and wait for someone to do it. We have to do it ourselves."

"I agree, but there's also a new generation of young male directors who are making interesting movies about women," Haskell says. "`Secretary,' `Igby Goes Down' and `Roger Dodger.' These young directors don't seem threatened by women, and that's something I never thought would happen."

Haskell hesitates to credit Hollywood studios too much. "From where I sit, it's foreign and independent films that deserve the real credit."

Sundance's Gilmore is more generous.

"Critics awards have been all over the place this year," he says. "There 's `Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' `25th Hour' and `Adaptation,' too, which aren't particularly woman-oriented. In a way, this has been a great year for genres, for re-exploring and reinventing the classic melodrama, in movies like `The Hours' and `Far From Heaven,' and the musical with `Chicago.'"

Adds Gilmore, whose terrain, after all, is independent cinema, "This has been one of the best years for art cinema coming out of the studios in a decade."