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COVER STORY : Women and Hollywood : It’s Still a Lousy Relationship

The rumor swept across town like a summer brush-fire, as incendiary as it was unsubstantiated: The head of a major studio had distributed a memo to the top brass counseling them to sidestep all “female-driven” projects--no matter which actresses were “attached.” Another version put the message a bit differently: Though women are fine in secondary roles such as helpmates or girlfriends, beware of awarding them leads.

An agent at ICM, informed of the edict by an insider who claimed to have seen the memo, passed the tidbit along to a number of clients, but neither she--nor anyone else--has been able to produce the actual document. Still, that the gossip was accepted as gospel speaks to a central issue facing the industry today: the difficulty of finding substantial roles for actresses and getting movies with female stars off the ground.

Statistics released by the Screen Actors Guild in August provided depressing documentation. Actors, it seems, earn twice as much as actresses, snagging nearly 71% of all feature film roles--and the discrepancy increases with age. Even the top actresses encounter career roadblocks as they approach their middle years, a time that is financially golden for their male counterparts. At last count, women over 40 were cast in less than 9% of all film and TV roles.

The findings moved Meryl Streep, keynote speaker at SAG’s first National Women’s Conference this summer, to quip: “If the trend continues . . . by the year 2010 we may be eliminated from movies altogether.”

Each studio can point to a handful of projects to refute the evidence and charges of bias. Sally Field is co-producing “Dying Young” with Julia Roberts in the lead for 20th Century Fox. This Christmas, Cher, Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci will be featured in Orion’s “Mermaids,” a film that explores the coming of age of three women. Paramount is shooting “The Butcher’s Wife,” a comedy with Demi Moore, elevated to star status with the blockbuster success of “Ghost.” Columbia has a modest hit on its hands with “Postcards From the Edge,” which co-stars Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

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Still, there’s no questioning the fact that fewer films with a female focus are being made today than perhaps at any time in movie history. Nor that academy members will have to rack their brains to come up with five best-actress nominees for 1990.

“Actresses have a much tougher time now,” says producer Mark Johnson (“Rain Man,” “Avalon”). “There aren’t nearly as many good roles. In the ‘40s, you had the great romantic comedies with strong women characters. Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis outdrew the men. In the ‘50s, Doris Day was as much of a draw as Rock Hudson. Elizabeth Taylor was enormous in the ‘60s, (Barbra) Streisand in the ‘70s. But, for at least five years now, we haven’t had a real strong female box office draw.”

That’s a major obstacle in the eyes of studio executives, whom writer William Goldman (“All the President’s Men”) compares to baseball managers--"Intelligent, overworked men and women who wake up each morning with the knowledge that they are going to get fired.”

Never known as risk-takers, in an era of escalating production and marketing costs they’re even more under the gun. Working with contracts that usually run three years, and with stockholders breathing down their necks, studio heads in the ‘80s began pandering to the youth audience whose repeat business held the hope of blockbusters. Playing to that undiscriminating age group meant a proliferation of formula films with costly special effects featuring the same handful of increasingly pricey male stars.

“Movies are so expensive that the studios want to hedge their bets,” says Lisa Weinstein, producer of “Ghost.” “They go for the five or six big male names--Cruise, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy, Willis--to bring the audience in.”

Producers report they are often encouraged to pair an actress with a male co-star as a safety net--or to cast six of them at a time to maximize appeal as in “Steel Magnolias.” Says Ricardo Mestres, president of Hollywood Pictures: “Casting has become a business decision instead of a creative one.”

Actresses like Rachel Ward (“After Dark, My Sweet”) find such thinking a turn-off. “In Hollywood, you’re not an actor but a commodity,” she says. “I realize that we are talking about ‘show business’ and not ‘show art,’ that there’s a capitalist philosophy at work. But it’s a perpetual dilemma being an actress. Had I known what I was heading into, I would never have become one.”

In 1961, according to the Quigley Poll of U.S. theater owners, three women were among the top 10 box-office money makers (Elizabeth Taylor was No. 1, Doris Day No. 3, Sandra Dee No. 6). In 1981, Dolly Parton was fourth, Jane Fonda fifth, Bo Derek eighth and Goldie Hawn ninth. Last year, only one actress made the grade, and just barely: Kathleen Turner, who ranked 10th. “It’s almost impossible for a female to ‘open’ a movie now,” says one former studio head. “It just doesn’t work. People don’t come. A movie like ‘Ghost’ succeeded conceptually, on its own terms, not because it had Demi Moore.”

According to the conventional wisdom, Bette Midler can pack the house in a comedy for that all-important first weekend or two. And Streisand is a gimme in a musical. But hot young actresses such as Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts are still considered question marks, while veterans like Jane Fonda, Glenn Close and Jessica Lange are perceived as generating more respect than revenues. “The older actresses are in a bind because the audience is fickle,” says Sid Ganis, former president of Paramount Pictures’ motion picture group. “It wants younger women. It thrives on new blood.”

When it comes to age, Hollywood--like the rest of American society--applies a double standard. While men are said to mellow with age, maturing like fine leather, women--even in this environmentally conscious age--are much tougher to recycle. As far back as the 1930s, Bette Davis marveled that men “see themselves as permanently appealing and (not to) think it at all strange that they are making love to actresses who could well be their granddaughters.”

Not much has changed. It’s still routine for male stars to have on-screen affairs with women half their age. European women such as Jeanne Moreau continue to play romantic roles well into their middle years. But when an American actress like Joanne Woodward hits 40, she also hits a wall--relegated to such roles as spinsters, school marms or Alzheimer’s victims. Where women are concerned, our youth-oriented culture finds sex and age antithetical--if not mutually exclusive.

Female leads are expected to possess a certain glamour quotient--even when the story says otherwise. And, while unorthodox types such as Charles Bronson or Roy Scheider are considered acceptable romantic leads, criteria for women are more conventional. Take “Mama, There’s a Man in My Bed,” Coline Serreau’s French farce about the unlikely love affair between a rich and handsome white industrialist and a poor, overweight black cleaning woman. When Walt Disney Studios announced that it was remaking that film in English, it seemed unlikely they could improve on Firmine Richard, the Antillean-born actress who appeared in the original. And they didn’t. By casting sleek, sultry Sheryl Lee Ralph--Broadway’s original Dreamgirl--in the role, they ensured it won’t be the same movie. When it came to choosing an actress to star in “White Palace,” a film adapted from a novel about a 27-year-old yuppie and a 43-year-old pear-shaped waitress, Universal opted for . . . Susan Sarandon. Beauty, the old adage notwithstanding, is not in the eyes of the beholder.

A double standard also exists in Hollywood’s threshold for deviance. Bette Davis was a handful to work with; Marilyn Monroe’s tantrums and lateness legendary. But it’s the rare actress today--unless she’s producing as well as starring--who is given the same latitude as the big male stars.

The situation is exacerbated by Hollywood’s growing dependence on the international market. Scripts are now analyzed in terms of worldwide appeal, which works against those character-oriented comedies and dramas frequently favored by actresses. “The pictures that travel best are those in which language isn’t central,” says Mike Simpson, vice president and co-head of the motion picture department at the William Morris agency. “That usually means action-adventure pictures--almost always with male leads. Third world countries, in general, have a macho attitude toward film.”

There are some notable exceptions, as Sid Ganis points out. “It’s a major exaggeration to say that only action plays well,” he says. “ ‘Children of a Lesser God’ grossed twice as much foreign as domestic, and ‘Shirley Valentine’ was a smash hit in Europe, which is used to smaller films.”

When assessing box-office clout, Simpson stresses that actresses are not competing on an even playing field. “Since only a quarter of the pictures coming out star women,” he says, “they have much less chance to break out.” Shirley MacLaine agrees: “You hear all the time that no woman can ‘open’ a film. That has something to do with the fact that we don’t have a chance to do subjects that are all that profitable. It’s really a case of the chicken and the egg.”

Would “Total Recall” have been successful with an actress in the role played by Arnold Schwarzenegger? Some women in the industry think so, but the question is probably moot; to get the movie made, Carolco Pictures covered the film’s $60-million plus budget by pre-selling its rights in U.S. and foreign markets based on Schwarzenegger’s box-office appeal. No one believes that could have been pulled off with a female star.

Anyhow, in the minds of many, women and action just don’t mix. “The studios don’t want actresses in non-traditional roles,” says one production executive. “The conventional wisdom is that ‘Aliens’ would have done twice as much business if Sigourney (Weaver) were more traditionally ‘feminine.’ I don’t agree, however.”

Though such thrillers as “Blue Steel,” which starred Jamie Lee Curtis, and “Fatal Beauty,” with Whoopi Goldberg, failed to take off, a couple of test cases are upcoming. Interscope Communications and Nelson Entertainment are in post-production on “Eve of Destruction,” in which Renee Soutendijk co-stars with Gregory Hines as a research scientist pursuing a deadly robot she created in her own image. And in January Fox will start shooting “Alien III,” giving the audience another glimpse of Weaver as a gunslinging inter-galactic super-heroine.

Hollywood increasingly employs a “more is more” attitude when it comes to violence. Witness the excesses of this summer’s action menu: “Die Hard 2,” “RoboCop 2,” “Another 48 HRS.”

The solution, says Shirley MacLaine, now starring in the character-oriented “Waiting for the Light,” goes beyond giving women an equal piece of the pie. “We want a different brand,” she says. “Who in her right mind is interested in going out and killing 30 million people in the first two minutes? The problem is less the number of roles available to women than the film industry’s discomfort with projects involving relationships, feelings, communication--the kind of things women are more likely to go into than men. It’s strange because TV has had such success in that area. One night of prime-time makes the movies look like they’re walking backwards . . . so I can’t understand why they think the audience isn’t there.”

Producer Lisa Weinstein agrees. “The issue is not just women, but allowing room for diversity,” she says. “Studios don’t know how to make small films now. If every studio made two or three $12-million movies a year, there’d be room for a different kind of story.”

The stories sent to Rachel Ward recently have caused her to throw up her hands in frustration. “I’ve read 25-odd scripts in the last five weeks and in all of them, the women were there so they could get (expletive) on Page 50,” she says. “That’s what happened to me, prancing around in a red bathing suit in ‘Against All Odds.’ I thought ‘After Dark, My Sweet’ would be different. It started out as a nice little woman’s role, but the story was ultimately told totally from a man’s point of view--much more so after the editing. You’re still battling even when you’ve got your role. It’s a bit of a men’s club out there. Women are relegated to doormats or sex objects. Producer Joel Silver said in Vanity Fair that the only way he wants women in his pictures is either naked or dead. Unfortunately, he reflects a lot of what other people think--and is just pig enough to say it.”

Actress Dyan Cannon has received several directorial offers in the past five years, but has been noticeably absent from the big screen. She’s not condemning what’s out there, she says, just looking for some balance. “We need more stories about women--not little girls,” she says. “They cater to the youth audience. You don’t see women, full-blooded women like Myrna Loy or Carole Lombard--women who can be both strong and vulnerable. These days, you have to be one or the other.”

The lack of women at the top rungs of the studio ladder obviously contributes to the problem. Though the development ranks are overwhelmingly female, no woman is in a position to “green-light” a film.

“In the end, Hollywood reflects the sexism and racism of society in general,” says Susan Tarr, vice president of Isis Productions, Cher’s production company. “Wealthy white males run the industry. There’s a spate of violence and action covering the map--the product of male thinking and sensibility.”

The tenor of the times doesn’t help. “Films mirror what’s going on around them,” says William Morris’ Simpson. “In the 70s, the feminist ideals were firmly entrenched. Then the movement tailed off and the public--and the movies--followed suit. At the end of the day, studios are interested in making money, not in carving out a new social path.”

Overt examples of discrimination against actresses are hard to document, but the signals come through loud and clear. “Producers want their films to be made,” says Weinstein. “When they receive the implicit message that studios aren’t interested in films starring women, that at the end of the road there may not be a green light, they’re less likely to try.”

Screenwriter Goldman calls Hollywood a very sexist town. “They don’t want women because they don’t want women . . . it’s as simple as that. If Glenn Close is in a disaster like ‘Immediate Family,’ they say there is no ‘Glenn Close Audience.’ Richard Gere, meanwhile, can be in seven flops and they still think he’s a star. If he was a women, he would never have landed the part in ‘Pretty Woman.’ ”

That a romantic fantasy like “Ghost” and a romantic comedy like “Pretty Woman” are the two top-grossing films of the year seems to verify an audience hunger for less brutal fare.

“Paramount realized that there were all these action-adventure films coming out--of which they made their fair share--and decided to slot ‘Ghost’ for a certain segment of the audience: women,” says Weinstein. “Patrick (Swayze), after all, is a guy women find very attractive. Women came and took their boyfriends. And their boyfriends told their friends about it. There’s an ingrained belief that it’s easier to get women to ‘men’s films’ than vice versa--especially among the under-25s. Maybe ‘Ghost’ will change their minds.”

The experience of “Beaches” and “Stella” certainly didn’t help. “‘They were the worst kind of women’s movies--sloppy sentimental, no reality,” says one leading studio executive. “If that’s the kind of women’s film that surfaces, men and women both turn from it with loathing.”

Still, there’s no sidestepping the verdict delivered at the box office this summer: Enough is enough. Overwhelmed by the sameness of the high-concept, higher-priced offerings out there, many moviegoers opted to stay home. “The action-adventure genre seems to be getting a little tired,” acknowledges Hollywood Pictures’ Mestres. “Perhaps that will whet people’s appetite for something different. If someone only feeds you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ham and cheese starts to look very good.”

The actresses aren’t holding their breaths. “Women have to lead the race themselves,” notes one development executive. “No one will do it for them. There’s no wave moving forward. No train leaving that you have to catch. It goes in droops and dribbles, one step forward, two steps back.”

Ron Meyer, president of Creative Artists Agency and an agent who represents such talent as Jessica Lange, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda and Cher, says that the self-help movement has been in place for awhile now. “Recognizing that they won’t be in pictures with doors being kicked down, actresses aren’t sitting around bemoaning their fate,” he says. “Most have their own development companies to generate material. Incidentally, actresses aren’t the only ones tired of the leaning, both here and abroad, towards men kicking ass. Every macho man wants to do something sensitive and meaningful.”

Dyan Cannon has devoted three years of her life to “The End of Innocence,” which she describes as “the story of a woman learning to live within the rules so she can break them.” Cannon is the writer, director and star of the $3.5-million film, which will be released by Skouras for a week in December in advance of a January nationwide release.

“I’ve done this for one reason,” Cannon says. “Because the interesting stuff that was coming to me was few and far between. And given the scarcity of decent roles, the competition for each one was tremendous. The industry today is like a treadmill. We’re going faster and faster, but not breaking new ground. I’m convinced that low-budget pictures can make some bucks--and I’ve put my money where my mouth is.”

Cannon’s project was financed by friends. Others aren’t so lucky. If, at first, they’re able to sidestep the studio system, at some point, they’re still at its mercy.

“Men would be delighted if we stopped complaining and just did our own thing,” says MacLaine. “We do, we develop our own projects--then get 50 cents from them for budget and salaries. That goes for marketing and distribution too. I’m developing a project about Louise Brooks’ relationship with critic Kenneth Tynan. It’s about human feeling, so it will, of course, be treated as an ‘art’ film--defined before it goes out. With less money allocated for advertising, opening in fewer theaters, it will obviously take in less. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The current plight of actresses would have seemed far-fetched in the early days of film when women were valued at least as much as their male colleagues. In 1910, when production companies responded to public pressure and abandoned their attempt to conceal the identities of their actors, Florence Lawrence was the first to be consciously marketed for her star value. No longer just “The Biograph Girl,” her name was the first ever to appear on a movie poster. Vitagraph retaliated by lifting the wraps on one of its own actresses, Florence Turner, featured in a national publication in May of that year. During the silent-screen era, childlike waifs such as Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters drew big at the box office while Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson also logged in strong.

During the 1930s and 1940s a new feminine ideal emerged: worldly types such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck with strong appeal to women who, for the most part, selected which movies to see. Perhaps half of the films released were “women’s films,” major vehicles for major female stars under contract to the studios. They portrayed the poor girl who, by dint of sex and other wiles, rose in society (Joan Crawford in “Possessed”), the career woman who succeeded through wit and style and grace (Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth”), the Spider Woman luring innocent men to their doom (Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity”), the “kept” woman who fell in love with tragic results (Dunne again in “Back Street”). About “Back Street,” one critic wrote: “Swell romance, a little tear-jerking and a woman’s picture--which means a money production.” Commercial success and female appeal were inextricably linked.

Women continued to suffer on screen throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lana Turner in such pictures as “Imitation of Life,” Elizabeth Taylor in “Butterfield 8,” a role that earned her an Oscar. More upbeat images were provided by Doris Day movies, variations on the classic romantic comedies that featured Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert. The coming of television in the late ‘40s, however, changed the face of the industry.

“Television, without question, cut off the older audience, and women lost control of the moviegoing dollar,” says film critic and historian Richard Schickel. “The person deciding which film to see became a guy under 25 who usually headed for action films. Actresses were relegated to semi-supporting roles or to prestige films which took aim at the Oscar nominations essential to their business. It became a very tough marketplace for them.”

Throughout the early history of Hollywood, actresses’ salaries kept pace with those of men. Adolph Zukor paid Pickford $10,000 a week in 1916 and guaranteed her half the net profits from all her films. Gloria Swanson received about $300,000 a film in the late ‘20s--as much as Douglas Fairbanks--and a weekly salary more than double that of Buster Keaton. At one time, Mae West and Barbara Stanwyck were the highest-paid women in the country.

Today, the belief that only male stars can be trusted on marquees dictates the terms of salary negotiations. In an interview last December with The Times, Streep complained: “I make half of what Dustin (Hoffman) makes, half of what (Robert) Redford makes, half of what Jack (Nicholson) makes. There are different rules for men and women . . . and I think it stinks.” A month ago, she elaborated on the issue in the Miami Herald: “If there are four good roles a year and 60 women are beautifully qualified to play them, they’ll go to the first one and try to get her cheap, and if they can’t, they’ll go on to the next one. We all cut our salary demands. And that’s a happy economy for the people who pay us.”

Sigourney Weaver, who is reportedly receiving $4 million plus a percentage of profits for “Alien III,” told an interviewer that while she is well-paid, she must make five pictures to equal the amount her male co-stars make in two. Raising the possibility of a boycott by actresses if the situation isn’t remedied, she charged: “It’s just sexism. Pure and simple.”

Nonsense, says producer Mark Johnson. “The truth is that it all has to do with the market. More people go to see Jack Nicholson in a movie than Meryl Streep in that movie.”

Rachel Ward agrees with Johnson. “We don’t appeal to the same number of people, so we have to take the whole scale down a bit,” she says. “Anyhow, who needs $11 million? It’s just ego and a power trip. Women should take the lead and take less to make the pictures we want to make. You can’t take risks on a big budget. We can’t have it both ways.”

If principle won’t turn the industry around, the bottom line might. The industry can’t afford to ignore storylines appealing to more than 50% of the population. Besides, the line of the moment is that “feelings sell.” “The current situation has less to do with women than with the machine,” says Kate Ginsburg, who has a production company with Michelle Pfeiffer. “Box office has less to do with quality than with merchandising--the ability to buy a T-shirt. When a movie starring a woman does $15 million on opening weekend, things will change.”

According to Roger Birnbaum, president of worldwide production for 20th Century Fox, that’s not an impossibility. “These days the big numbers are $100 million, and the right actress with the right material can blast through that.”

“If you have a good female-driven story, people will go see it,” concurs Gordon Crawford, senior vice president of Capital Research Co. “It was Julia Roberts and not Richard Gere who carried ‘Pretty Woman.’ As usual with Hollywood, reality and perception are often miles apart.”

One highly placed studio executive forecasts that, just as teen flicks were replaced by cop/buddy movies, they, too, will be edged out by the growing market for adult films.

“Women as attractions in movie theaters can come back because women make up at least half of the audience,” he says. “Whether that will happen this year or three years from now, however, I can’t say.”

Small consolation, however, for the current crop of actresses.

“For those of us over 30, it’s fairly frustrating,” says Rachel Ward. “I’ve talked with other actresses and the big issue is: How much are we prepared to compromise? It’s always a risk. If we get too precious and stick to our standards, we don’t get to work. We’re frightened that we won’t have the opportunity to fulfill our potential. Our time might be past by the time the pendulum swings back.”


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