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MOVIES : They Just Don’t Get It : FILM COMMENT : The men in charge of Hollywood are able to conceive of women’s stories only as male stories recast and retold

<i> Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday</i>

In an interview published a few months ago in the now-defunct national sports daily the National, baseball commissioner and former Columbia Pictures executive Fay Vincent was asked why people are angry about the exorbitant salaries paid to baseball players and not about those paid to movie stars.

The commissioner’s answer was like a little manifesto of sexism, even though gender was hardly mentioned. Here is what he said:

“We all tend to think of ourselves as failed baseball players but we seldom think of ourselves as failed movie stars. . . . Part of it is that we relate to baseball players. The ballplayer is no ordinary guy who can run and throw. We all can run and throw, but they can do it better. Very few people aspire to be movie stars.”

Beyond the dubious notion that more people relate to ballplayers than to movie stars, and his failure to note that the performances of athletes are easier to quantify than those of actors, Vincent’s answer is revealing in that it sweeps women along on exclusively male reasoning. “ We all tend to think . . . We relate to baseball players . . . We all can run and throw. . . .”

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Granted, he was being interviewed for a sports publication, but many women are interested in sports, particularly in the one promoting itself as the National Pastime. (We know women go to baseball games because the guys on the TV crews are always editing the crowd and providing close-ups for those of us at home. “Yo, Louie, blonde in a halter top behind third!”)

Vincent’s blind spot is shared by men in power in most places--witness the dumbfounded looks on the faces of senators trying to grasp the concept of sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings--but it is particularly insidious in the movie industry, whence Vincent came.

Movies, while supposedly reflecting society, have a vast influence on it. What they say about the way we live and think affects the way we live and think. Yet, almost every movie reaching theaters today has had to pass a battery of male tests so complicated, subtle and ingrained they are almost impossible to break down and examine.

From the moment screenwriters, men or women, begin developing story ideas, they are following guidelines written by men. Is there enough action? Enough tension? Is the male protagonist strong enough to appeal to a major actor, upon whose interest the script’s fate may ultimately hang? Will the story, even if it’s about women, appeal to the men who will decide whether it gets made and to the men who will be the major target of its advertising?

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Even when Hollywood appears to be catering to women, it’s more often a matter of patronizing them. In “Steel Magnolias,” adapted from a play about six Southern women, the filmmakers included an extraneous male character as a sort of phallic Maypole, something to ground the movie for the men in the audience.

The studios, prompted by a drought in fresh material and a consequent fall-off in ticket sales, are trying to reach out to women now, but the men in charge are able to conceive of women’s stories only as male stories recast and retold.

“Thelma & Louise” is an old-fashioned rogues-on-the-run buddy movie whose existential freeze-frame ending is a virtual repeat of the last image from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Some people declared it a feminist movie because women were kicking men around for a change, but becoming the brutes isn’t the same as equality.

“V.I. Warshawski” was Disney’s failed attempt to create a female Dirty Harry. The problem with it was that Kathleen Turner’s Warshawski, unlike the heroine of the popular French film “La Femme Nikita,” wasn’t dirty enough.

Blake Edwards’ “Switch” tried to have it both ways. It set out to please women by ridiculing men, and at the same time allowed the lechers to fantasize what it would be like to wake up in Ellen Barkin’s body one morning and stay in bed.

Four years ago, “Fatal Attraction” succeeded by inverting the tired theme of a psychopath terrorizing a suburban family, a plot that gets a real workout in Martin Scorsese’s just-released “Cape Fear.” But even “Fatal Attraction” tapped into a male fantasy, or rather a male nightmare: the one-night-stand returning as guilt with a grudge.

The way Hollywood views the role of women, both in movies and in the movie business, won’t change until society as a whole begins to “get it,” to understand that sexual equality doesn’t mean having women act like men and begin making attitude changes at the most basic levels. In the meantime, mainstream movies merely reinforce old thinking.

In “Cape Fear,” the motivation for the madman played by Robert De Niro hinges on the fact that his lawyer hid from him evidence that the woman he had raped and beaten was promiscuous, that she’d slept with three men in the month before he assaulted her. The implication was that had details of her sex life been introduced in court, a tactic being attempted in the William Kennedy Smith case in Florida, her attacker might have been found innocent by reason of her guilt.

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For many men, three lovers in one month would not be exceptional, let alone justification for a beating, and as we’ve been reading in the sports pages recently, three at a time wouldn’t be out of the question for some of the athletes Fay Vincent says we all relate to. Does anybody believe that if Chris Evert, at her peak, announced she was HIV positive because of “too many men” she would have become a national hero?

All this points to a twisted bit of male logic, the Golden Rule of the Church of the Double Standard (“Thou shalt not do as we do”). And it’s a reminder that in movies, as in sports, the game is played mostly by and for the boys.


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