A Year to Bemoan the Plight of Women in Hollywood? : Debate: As the academy celebrates women in film, many in the industry criticize the sexual discrimination and harassment on and off the screen.


On the same day the Academy Awards will celebrate “Women and the Movies,” Hollywood talent agent Wallace Kaye is scheduled to go on trial. He is accused of the sexual battery of eight actresses.

Although the events are at first glance unrelated, when weighed together they do dramatize a show-business deceit. Despite proclamations to the contrary, Hollywood continues to be divided by sexual discrimination and harassment both subtle and profound.

The charges against Kaye, which he refutes, highlight one end of the spectrum.


The agent encouraged actresses, none of them well-known, into improvisational acting scenes in his Burbank office, investigators say. As the actresses performed seduction scenes at Kaye’s urging, the agent allegedly “would wind up clumsily attacking them,” according to Mark Collier, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case.

Kaye was arrested in October, soon after a policewoman posed as an aspiring actress and was herself a victim of Kaye’s advances, Collier said.

If true, it is the kind of sexual assault hard to either miss or argue. More difficult to detect in Hollywood--but perhaps equally injurious because of its frequency--is subjugation. While less blatant, there is much evidence that show-business women are underpaid, underemployed and, most visibly, cast as subjects of sex or violence or both.

Women of color and older women face even more discrimination, industry observers say and statistics show.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences settled on the “Women and the Movies” theme at the same time many were criticizing the on-screen depictions of women, especially in “Basic Instinct,” the story of an icepick-wielding novelist.

“If there was a woman in the movies last year, she was either killing or being killed,” says Harriet Silverman, executive director of the trade organization Women in Film. “What does that say about women?”

Naomi Foner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Running on Empty,” said the academy’s theme selection was probably motivated by guilt, not a sincere attempt to honor the so-called “Year of the Woman.”

“It’s clearly ludicrous, unless you want to talk about the year of the psychotic woman,” she says. “I’ve been appalled by the misogyny in the movies, from ‘Basic Instinct’ to ‘The Temp,’ ” a recent release about a driven secretary whose idea of office help includes murdering her boss’s rivals.

People have complained, too, about a variety of films in which women have placed upon them a monetary value for sex. In the increasingly popular every-woman-has-a-price genre, Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” went for $3,000, Uma Thurman rated $40,000 in “Mad Dog and Glory,” Sarah Jessica Parker fetched $65,000 in “Honeymoon in Vegas” and Demi Moore topped the list at $1 million in the upcoming “Indecent Proposal.”

A planned May seminar about women’s roles is titled “Naked or Dead,” a comment “Lethal Weapon” producer Joel Silver made not long ago about how he wants women depicted in his pictures.

“It was a comment that resonated so strongly in the industry that there had to be a certain amount of truth to it or it would have gone away,” says Patrick Scott, an organizer of the seminar, which is sponsored by several Hollywood groups.

If women aren’t being cast as naked or dead, they’re not really being cast at all. Meryl Streep remarked a few years ago: “If the trend continues . . . by the year 2010 we may be eliminated from movies altogether.”

According to the Screen Actors Guild, men earn twice as much as women and grab 71% of all roles. While casting directors can look fondly upon such aging men as Clint Eastwood or Jack Palance, they do not always do so in reverse: Women over 40 are placed in less than 9% of all film and television roles.

Women may make up the majority of the population, but they make up just 10% of the Directors Guild of America. When counting lower-level DGA positions such as assistant directors and production associates, the figure grows to only 18%.

Actress Alexandra Paul says that most scripts she reads have one woman’s part for every five men’s roles. She recently completed the film “Nothing to Lose,” in which she had the only woman’s part of substance.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t that many good roles for women,” the 29-year-old performer says, “and most are for characters who will provide a bit of glamour and sex. We are so culturally immersed by this depiction that we don’t see the inequality anymore.”

Currently starring in the TV series “Baywatch,” Paul says, “If I was totally, politically correct, I’d never be able to work.” Asked if “Baywatch,” featuring lifeguards in bathing suits, is exploitative, she says: “It is a little, but I can find reasons to justify it. No one’s killing one another. It does have skin and that’s why some people turn it on. But there’s men’s skin too.”

Anne Marcus, a veteran television writer, says, “I still think we have a long way to go in portraying women on the screen in an equal way with men. We are changing things, but slowly.” Television, she says, has made more progress than movies.

Audiences have, of course, embraced an assortment of recent films casting women as people with their own hearts and minds, not pawns in some man’s chess set. They include “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Enchanted April,” “Howards End,” “A League of Their Own,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Rambling Rose” and “Steel Magnolias.”

Nevertheless, of the 10 women nominated for best actress or supporting actress in this year’s Oscars, only four performed in movies produced or released by U.S. studios. The others acted in independent or foreign productions such as “Indochine” or “Passion Fish.”

Many agree 1992 was a terrible year for quality women’s roles, including Oscar producer Gilbert Cates, who called it “indisputable.”

There have been recent, single years in which women were offered roles equal in quality and substance to men. There has been little consistency, though, and not since the 1960s have women’s roles routinely excelled. In 1968, for example, the best actress nominees were Katharine Hepburn for “The Lion in Winter,” Joanne Woodward for “Rachel, Rachel,” Patricia Neal in “The Subject Was Roses,” Barbra Streisand for “Funny Girl” and Vanessa Redgrave in “Isadora.”

Contemporary movies also stand in the shadows of films from the ‘40s and ‘50s, when exceptional parts went to such stars as Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, Gloria Swanson, Judy Holliday, Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne, Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman and Greer Garson.

A decade ago, the Top 10 box-office stars included four women: Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, BoDerek and Goldie Hawn. These days, only Julia Roberts is considered by studio number crunchers popular enough to carry a movie, even a clunker such as “Dying Young.”

Screenwriter Foner says she couldn’t find financing for her next movie, called “A Dangerous Woman,” even with Debra Winger committed to star. “I had to produce it myself to get it made,” Foner says. “There was more drama in raising the money than there is in the movie.”

The reluctance of the major studios to produce films by, about or starring women can be traced to the shortage of women in positions of Hollywood power. The argument follows that as long as males rule the studios, males will rule the movies.

Indeed, only one woman--Paramount Picture’s Sherry Lansing--chairs a studio, and every studio has as its head of production a man, typically young and white.

“The joke is that it’s true that this is the year of the woman. But no one has told us who the one woman is,” says Midge Sanford, the co-producer of “Love Field,” for which Michelle Pfeiffer received a best-actress nomination.

Sanford attributes the shortage of women’s films to both paternalism and worries over box-office performance.

“It seems to me that in the past year or so, studios have become less risk takers than they were in the past,” she says. “They just fall back on, ‘What are the things that seem to be risk free? An action picture with a big male star. . . .’ And I think men don’t know what women want.”

Both “Love Field” and “A League of Their Own,” Sanford notes, were developed but ultimately abandoned by Paramount and 20th Century Fox, respectively.

“The head of development at every studio is a man,” she says. “You’re talking about the people that are going to say yes to putting something into development. Women can fight to get a project into the system. But the people who make the decisions are men.”

Both Sanford and Women in Film’s Silverman say that popular women’s films are often dismissed as “flukes,” thereby limiting the future for similar titles.

“But if there were more of these movies made, the box office would increase,” Sanford says. “When there is a movie that has a great female lead and is appealing to women--whether it’s ‘Enchanted April’ or ‘Fried Green Tomatoes'--there is a tremendous audience out there. If you give them what they want, they will come.

‘I think the problem is that they’re not given enough of what they might like.”

One cure, Silverman says, is to keep away from movies that relish in negative depictions of women. “We’re telling women to boycott: Don’t go see this crap. Don’t let your children go. Don’t go with your significant other,” she says.

Paul hopes there will come a time when women are offered roles of whole human beings, not one-dimensional, female versions of male action heroes.

“In deciding what good women’s roles are, we have to be careful not to define them the way men’s roles are defined,” she says. “Just because a woman has a gun and shoots people--is that really a good woman’s role, or are we just falling into a kind of male-dominated society’s view of what is a good woman’s role?”

For the time being, most women can’t be that picky.

In Hollywood, they’re just lucky to work.