When Hollywood was still adult, they were called "women's pictures." They revolved around eternal issues like the tension between personal happiness and wifely duty or motherhood, and the shape these issues took could be as varied as powerhouse tear-jerkers such as "Imitation of Life" and no-holds-barred melodramas such as "Mildred Pierce." Today they are called "chick flicks," and they refer to any movie that a girl or a woman is most likely to attend alone or with her gal pals, or with her local chapter of Oprah's Book Club.
The theory goes that if guys attend, it's to win points with the women in their lives. The simple act of attending a chick flick can be viewed as a gesture of incomparable self-sacrifice. But if you gauge who gains the most from this adventure, it's got to be the male of the species.
A movie like "The Holiday," the latest chick flick from Nancy Meyers ("What Women Want," "Something's Gotta Give"), makes you wonder, "How lucky can a fella get?" Not only does it star Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, it also promotes a perfect fantasy of sexual equality. Meyers wants to spread the word about classic romantic comedies like "His Girl Friday" and "The Lady Eve" -- farces that people the eternal erotic runaround with men and women of equivalent charm, wit and velocity. She also loves those '70s films in which hurt or angry women find comfort with individualistic and attractive fellows like Kris Kristofferson in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Blume in Love," or Alan Bates in "An Unmarried Woman."
When guys get dragged to a Meyers chick flick -- even one as slack and erratic as "The Holiday" -- they know their species will receive a fair shake. Sure, the action will feature some male dastards. In "The Holiday," for example, there's Rufus Sewell as the columnist who exploits the editorial prowess of his colleague Winslet, though he knows she's carrying a flame for him. And there's Edward Burns as the film composer who cheats on film-trailer tycoon Diaz, then blames her for being sexually and interpersonally incompetent.
But even they get the benefit of making a date look kindly and selfless to his gal, at least by comparison to the lugs on the big screen. And the characters played by Jude Law and Jack Black -- respectively, a witty, charming book editor (Winslet's brother, Diaz's lover) and a jovial, enthusiastic film composer (destined to be Winslet's soul mate) -- provide fantasy images that, apart from Law's wicked handsomeness, any guy could and would emulate. Merry and bright as a white Christmas, they're the opposite of superheroes. They let women take most of the initiative. They show their vulnerability, endlessly. Law even helps clinch his romance by admitting he's an easy weeper; Diaz confesses she cannot weep at all.
Meyers has a knack for bringing out the open, playful side of sometimes-mannered male stars, whether Mel Gibson in "What Women Want" or Jack Nicholson in "Something's Gotta Give." Meyers does great work with Law in "The Holiday," who turns reaction shots into come-ons through the comic wonder in his eyes. A couple of years ago, Law starred in the remake of "Alfie" done by Meyers' ex-husband and former partner, Charles Shyer, and Law pushed way too hard.
In "The Holiday," under Meyers' appreciative gaze, he appears to have learned how to succeed in romantic comedy without really trying. He's a "sensitive man" who's still a man. He puts no pressure on Diaz, yet he exerts a spell. It's as if Meyers has excised his surfeit of ego. He no longer hides behind, mocks or sells his good looks. He always seems to be asking Diaz the right question -- not "How could you turn your back on me?" but "How could you turn your back on us?"
As increasing numbers of women take command of the camera, and as chick flicks start to mean movies made by women, the genre has begun to exert a more profound pull on male audiences, especially at the dating stage. Perhaps because they can't fall back on buddy-buddy badinage or fall into macho competition, female directors can bring out the most subtle dynamics in male performers. Check out how that happened with Charles Grodin in Elaine May's "The Heartbreak Kid," with John Heard and Peter Riegert in Joan Micklin Silver's "Chilly Scenes of Winter," with Sean Penn in Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and with Nicolas Cage in Martha Coolidge's "Valley Girl."
Female directors are often more in touch with their masculine side than male directors are with their feminine side. They often supply a more rounded view of masculine-feminine joy and antagonism.
Critics ridiculed Barbra Streisand in her directorial debut for not giving Mandy Patinkin a single song to sing in "Yentl" (1983) -- but that high god of macho John Huston thought it was "extraordinary," and Patinkin has never registered so strongly as a virile presence in anything he has done since. In the scenes in which a cross-dressed Streisand rouses diverse feelings in Patinkin and in Amy Irving, the actor-director revels in the permutations of male and female sexuality -- and doesn't erase the differences.
And though Streisand was roundly mocked for her shrink character's designer fingernails in "The Prince of Tides" (1991), she didn't win the praise she deserved for handing her scenes off to Nick Nolte and, as a director, turning this longtime Hollywood dauphin into a king of dramedy. Nolte has always been an expressive actor, but in "The Prince of Tides," without losing his muscular sardonicism, he let his lava-like emotions sneak up on you and then explode.
Michael Sragow is a film critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.