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A Trio of Exceptional Movie Women

Whatever their other exceptional qualities, “The Accidental Tourist,” “Working Girl” and “My Stepmother Is an Alien,” three of the holiday’s comedies--or semi-comedies or would-be comedies--have an especially interesting trio of women characters. And they are played by actresses whose sheer adorability level is phenomenal: Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith and Kim Basinger.

These are actresses who are liked, if that’s not too passive a word, by men and women equally, already a rare and pleasant phenomenon. Each one plays a gutsy outsider--way, way outside, in the case of Basinger’s extra-terrestrial--and each one is resilient and resourceful, exactly as we’ve come to expect contemporary, liberated heroines to be. They are the creations of very different writers and directors; a novelist, a playwright/screenwriter and a phalanx of comedy writers. Yet the way each woman’s character works seems to reflect the retrenchment around us more than any liberated successes. These are very definitely “vive la difference” ladies; they revel in it, and audiences seem to revel right along with them.

The charismatic outsider, shattering complacency and safe behavior, is hardly new; if there are reportedly only a dozen basic plots in the world, that one is probably No. 2. We’ve seen that character in Darryl Hannah’s mermaid in “Splash,” as Melanie Griffith--again--in “Something Wild,” Michelle Pfeiffer in “Married to the Mob,” Whoopi Goldberg in “Clara’s Heart” or Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Such forces aren’t always benign; a few years ago, in “Smooth Talk,” it was Treat Williams’ terrifying Arnold Friend.

Such jolting characters are more often men, and men whose characters are more richly detailed: Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places,” Nick Nolte in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (and before that, his prototype in “Boudu Saved From Drowning,” Sidney Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night,” and Robin Williams in almost everything but especially “Moscow on the Hudson” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” “Gandhi” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” are built around exactly such obstreperous men. The only newness to this season’s model is that now these classic shaker-uppers are enormously appealing women.

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Beautiful actresses with a nice comic bent are invariably called their decade’s Carole Lombard, but that doesn’t hold here. Lombard, even when she was playing a hick, was clearly a sophisticate. And she was a feminist before her time. Bring her back now and those qualities would only be intensified.

Whatever other remarkable qualities Basinger and especially Davis and Griffith’s characters possess, they’re more earthy than sophisticated. Basinger is vastly knowledgeable, of course, but you could never call that gurgling giggle the weapon of a sophisticate and no one is going to call any of them them feminists. Pungent confrontation is not their style, nor is forging ahead on their own. They succeed by acting as catalysts in the lives of their men.

Geena Davis’s Muriel Pritchett gently challenges William Hurt’s Macon Leary back to life, out of his profound mourning for the death of his 12-year-old son. Off-center, clearly “unsuitable” but radiantly positive, Muriel is a risk taker, drawing Macon to risk a little of himself, in contrast to his wife of 20 years Sarah (Kathleen Turner), who understands him so completely that he has no room left to grow or to surprise himself.

As Celeste, the alien (and the only conceiveable reason to endure this strained, charmless “comedy”), Basinger forces Dan Aykroyd’s widower scientist to greater achievements, almost in spite of himself. He has made a great scientific leap inadvertently. Now to save her planet and because she knows the basics of his work herself, Basinger inspires him to duplicate his triumph and, presumably, to build from it.

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With Harrison Ford in tow, Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill impulsively crashes a society wedding in order to make a crucial business contact. Her chutzpah makes Ford’s corporate type cringe, but only until he gets used to the idea. Once the ruse is working, he’s as inspired at improvisation as she is.

What all three women do is to open doors for these slightly square men, but they’re in no hurry to bolt through them themselves. That would apparently be unseemly, unwomanly aggressiveness. To drive home that point, a large part of “Working Girl’s” fun comes from watching Sigourney Weaver, as just such a woman, get hers.

Does this trio succeed only because they are adorable, gorgeous or cuddly? We’re not supposed to think so. A lot of screen time and a great deal of ink is expended to show just us how smart they are. Basic smarts, dimmed only slightly by lack of advantage in at least two cases.

These women are real , or the movies’ equivalent of real, which means blue collar and struggling. (We except Basinger, whose whole civilization is so far above our own that you wonder why she bothers to trifle with any of us, once she had what she wanted.) You might take film reality with a grain of salt; as a friend remarked acerbically after “Working Girl,” “Sure, she succeeds because she’s so smart; it doesn’t hurt that she also looks sensational running around in her teddies, either.”

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We take from movies reflections of life or ways of behaving. Out of this trio of love stories, from very different sources and sensibilities, what seems to have emerged is a woman who mixes the pure lovability of a ‘50s Marilyn Monroe with contemporary accomplishment and intelligence. She’s a strange hybrid, and perhaps her success with today’s conservative-leaning audiences is that she soothes sensibilities ruffled by the strides of liberation.

But you know how potent these images are when you hear, as I did last week, an accomplished, extremely successful and beautiful woman say that she studies these actresses fascinatedly, to see how the “girly-girls” work. She may learn, but I wouldn’t count on it working outside of the movies.


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