Women move into the lead

Special to The Times

Younger or older, women are proving to be a force in American films these days in unprecedented ways, showing they can lead and carry a film on their own terms. Indeed, for the first time in 60 years, women are on top -- or at least above the title -- with Hollywood planning and structuring high-profile movies for them.

For example, Rob Marshall’s exhilarating 2002 film version of “Chicago” won notice not only for being the first musical to have won the best picture Oscar since 1968’s “Oliver!” but also for being a female-driven film focusing on two “deviant” women, played by Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both of whom were nominated for Oscars (Zeta-Jones won). Competing with “Chicago” for best picture was “The Hours,” which offered leading roles for Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. (Kidman and Moore were nominated for Oscars, and Kidman won). Moore’s stature carried another major film, “Far From Heaven,” in which the men played subordinate roles.

In many cases, top actresses are doing it on their own, without much help from men. Take Sandra Bullock, who might have been the trailblazer for the new trend of female star vehicles that lack strong male parts. An engaging performer whose career is built on an updated screen image of “the girl next door,” Bullock has been a star for nearly a decade, beginning in 1995 with “While You Were Sleeping” her first solo vehicle.

Cashing in on her high likability quotient, Bullock has played smart women. She’s also a shrewd businesswoman who often produces her movies through her company. The films that Bullock’s fans want to see, mostly light romantic comedies such as “Hope Floats” and “Miss Congeniality,” depend on star appeal and bankability -- the ability to open a film with her name alone. In the process Bullock has gone from making $500,000, her paycheck for “Speed,” to a reported $12.5 million per picture.


Bullock has paved the way for other talented women. Last year boasted more than two dozen female star vehicles in both mainstream Hollywood and independent films. Aussie actress Cate Blanchett, who took Hollywood by storm with “Elizabeth,” which she dominated from first frame to last, headlined in two films: the bio-pic “Veronica Guerin,” in which she played the tough Irish journalist who risked her life as an investigative crime reporter, and the western action-drama “The Missing,” in which she played a rugged mother who must survive the Indians and the elements pretty much on her own.

Though neither film was a box-office hit, they demonstrated the versatility of Blanchett and the refusal of many contemporary female stars (Kidman, Zellweger and Moore also come to mind) to be typecast.

Other actresses who used their clout to get movies made include Charlize Theron, who deglamorized herself to play executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the recent indie film “Monster,” which she also exec-produced. Similarly, Neve Campbell initiated, produced and plays the lead in “The Company,” the current Robert Altman dance film.

The list of female vehicles is much longer if one adds non-American but English-speaking and foreign language films, such as the recently opened “Japanese Story,” in which Toni Collette, mostly known for character roles (“The Sixth Sense,” “About a Boy”), plays the lead. The always dazzling Charlotte Rampling now is enjoying a major comeback. Two years ago, she scored in Francois Ozon’s “Under the Sand,” and last year, she co-starred in the psychological thriller “Swimming Pool,” Ozon’s first English-speaking film and an art-house hit.

To be sure, the percentage of women directing and writing films remains woefully low, but even here there was reason for hope in 2003, with a number of well-received films by women, including Sofia Coppola’s critically and commercially successful “Lost in Translation” and such art-house hits as Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider” and Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen.”

In designing female vehicles, the specific film genre seems to be less relevant than ever. Halle Berry made history in 2002 when she became the first black actress to win the lead Oscar. Berry continues to make waves, demonstrating that she is not only versatile but also can open a film with or without backing from men. “Gothika,” the creepy horror picture, a genre usually reserved for men, was a modest box-office success, and it’s likely that Berry’s next vehicle, “Catwoman,” will make a splash too. The 2002 horror flick hit “The Ring” featured Naomi Watts in the lead, and in last year’s popular remake of “The Texas Chain Massacre,” the protagonist is Jessica Biel.

Jennifer Lopez is another actress who has had success in different genres. Ever since the musical bio-pic “Selena,” for which she was paid $1 million, the then record for a Latina actress, Lopez has been calling the shots, placing herself above the title with little support from male partners. The results are mixed, as was evident in such films as “The Cell” or “Enough.” But Lopez, like Bullock, has her own production shingle and is determined to be in control.

The films of Bullock and Lopez often suffer from the same problem that afflicted the filmsof Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck: lack of support from strong men. Davis seldom starred with men who matched her eminence or talent, such as Paul Henreid in “Now, Voyager” or Gary Merrill in “All About Eve.” It may be significant that in some of their recent vehicles, Bullock and Lopez have appeared with more prominent male stars: Hugh Grant in Bullock’s “Two Weeks Notice” and Ralph Fiennes in Lopez’s “Maid in Manhattan.” (The teaming of Lopez with her romantic partner Ben Affleck in the disastrous “Gigli” proved that real-life romance rarely translates to the screen.)


Film history repeats itself, though not necessarily in a progressive or predictable manner. In the 1930s and 1940s, at the height of the studio system, there were more female than male stars. In those years, audiences could see two or three movies per year with such stars as Katharine Hepburn, Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck and Greer Garson. With the exception of Hepburn, who appeared with Spencer Tracy in nine pictures, the other women were the stars of their films even opposite male roles.

How things have changed

The prominent status of female stars nowstands in sharp contrast to their position in Hollywood a generation ago. Sadly, Hollywood’s second “golden age” (roughly from “Bonnie and Clyde” to “Raging Bull”) is one of the sexiest periods in American film but one in which a huge gap prevailed between women’s positions in the socio-economic order and their cinematic representation. The most negative portrayals -- trivializing and condemning career women -- occurred just when women were beginning to make their mark off-screen.

First, there was a paucity of lead roles for women. For a while, women seem to have disappeared from the big screen. One of the weakest years in Oscar history for female performances was 1975, when there were barely five worthy female roles. The nominees that year were Louise Fletcher, who won for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (arguably a supporting turn), Isabelle Adjani in “The Story of Adele H.,” Ann-Margret in “Tommy,” Glenda Jackson in “Hedda” and Carol Kane in “Hester Street.” Ellen Burstyn, who had won best actress the previous year, pleaded with her peers not to nominate actresses in the lead category as a protest against Hollywood’s marginalization of women.


The only woman among the box-office champions of the time was Barbra Streisand. The period’s most popular stars were men who boasted macho images: Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson.

Thirty years later, the new female vehicles reveal encouraging signs. Blanchett, Zellweger and Kidman navigate more smoothly between mainstream Hollywood and indie-hood, switching effortlessly from lead to supporting roles (and vice versa) without the stigma of typecasting.

This has always been the privilege of male stars, evident in the careers of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, all of whom have excelled in both lead and character roles.

The current range of roles allotted to women is wider than ever. The most viable female stars are in their 30s -- most Oscar winners are in this category. But female lead roles now span the spectrum, from teenagers and twentysomething stars, such as Kirsten Dunst and Scarlet Johansson, to women in their 50s, such as Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Helen Mirren and others.


Times have changed. At Keaton’s and Rampling’s age, 57, Davis and Crawford were relegated to horror queens or caricatures of their screen images. But when you look at Streep in “Adaptation” or Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give,” they are as commanding and appealing as they were 25 years ago. That Hollywood is starting to recognize this is a reason for hope in 2004.

Emanuel Levy is a film historian and author.