Even the 'It' girls hit a glass ceiling

Times Staff Writer

So far, my search for intelligent chicks in the summer movies is proving to be a bust.

Last week, I went on opening day to see "Made of Honor" with my friend Jodie, a recovering romantic-comedy writer. It had been a rough week. We needed our Friday afternoon guilty pleasure -- as I suspect did the almost entirely female audience. "Made of Honor" is a gender-reversed retelling of the Julia Roberts 1997 hit, "My Best Friend's Wedding"; in this case, the rueful hero is a womanizing cream puff played by "Grey's Anatomy's" McDreamy Patrick Dempsey.

About 10 minutes into the movie, we were all but hurling our popcorn at the screen.

Here's the range of female characters: slut, nasty slut, stupid slut, mean slut and fat friend. Our heroine, played by Michelle Monaghan, was allowed to be . . . a cipher, with no discernible personality other than an ability to guess what dessert would most satiate McDreamy. I'll take the Judd Apatow world of "Knocked Up" and "40-Year-Old Virgin" any day -- the men might be schlubs, but the women are faster, smarter creatures. I'll take crumbs if I have to.

Is it me or is it a little depressing to see Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow slumming it as pretty Pepper Potts in the "Iron Man" juggernaut? At 35, the svelte Paltrow is playing what some directors call the handbag part, the accessory, the girlfriend role, a warm-body-type role usually assigned to the likes of Jessica Alba, Katie Holmes or a legion of interchangeable Bond girls.

Undeniably her agents over at CAA are doing a little jig that Gwynnie is now in the highest-grossing film of her career and has been reintroduced to a legion of moviegoers who were into "Bob the Builder" when she was doing "Shakespeare in Love." People who've become accustomed to the voiceless, blanded-out Paltrow of fashion spreads and Estee Lauder ads will be surprised to see her fey sense of irony, her capacity for sly humor that creeps out when she's actually acting.

Still, nearly 10 years after she claimed her Oscar in a fairy-tale pink dress, Paltrow's assuming a part that she would have played while she was climbing her way to the top.

Ditto for Cameron Diaz, another pretty 35-year-old who rocketed to success 10 years ago wearing sperm in her hair in "There's Something About Mary." She also played second banana to Roberts in "My Best Friend's Wedding," donning the role of the threatening fiancee, and almost stealing the movie when she responds to Roberts' challenge to sing karaoke by croaking horrifically but with the gusto of the eternally plucky. Now she's taking the Brittany Murphy role opposite Ashton Kutcher in "What Happens in Vegas," which opened (quite successfully, it should be noted) last Friday.

On the plus side, Diaz and Kutcher are evenly matched in this battle of the sexes. On the downside, he plays a doofus, and she gets to be a shrew, which is inherently more unlikable. Also, Diaz would certainly have a case for justifiable cinematographer-cide, as director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti managed the perverse task of making one of the most beautiful women in the world look battle-worn. Maybe using Klieg-light lighting isn't the best idea for a romantic comedy, though wouldn't you know it, Kutcher still manages to look unabashedly dewy.

The "It" girls of the '90s have hit cinematic middle age, and this being Hollywood, their biceps are well-honed, but their options are limited. If this is what passes for career growth, maybe each of these talents should think a little bit more about . . . TV, which these days is a good place for an actress to reignite her career (Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, etc.). I still believe in these women, each with her own idiosyncratic flavor, a kind of all-American sunniness that should have a spot in the theatrical canon. So I called the experts to find out what the town thought had happened to their careers, to justify such paltry creative options. No one spoke on the record, so I'll summarize the gist. According to the career-makers, Paltrow was always too classy for the masses, a silver-spoon princess more admired than beloved, except by Harvey Weinstein. Then at his Miramax apex, Weinstein kept thrusting her into movie after movie until finally "Shakespeare" struck pay dirt.

He then threw her into that egregious stewardess flick, "View From the Top," which she followed with such pandering-to-the-crowd misfires as "Shallow Hal" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." Finally, she married her rock star, packed her bags for England, and motherhood, and left fighting over the best roles to the alpha-actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts.

Undeniably, Paltrow is on the cutting edge of trendiness. Opting out for motherhood is very fashionable for those who can afford it. The private Westside schools are loaded with an amazing array of doctors, stock brokers, private bankers, even movie execs, who no longer work and now devote themselves to pureeing vegetables and driving car pools, sometimes with the maniacal zeal of Danica Patric.

Unlike Paltrow, Diaz still gets loads of money (in the range of $10 million for "Vegas"). "She might be an eighth as talented as Gwyneth, but she will always be bigger and better paid," notes one talent manager, even though Diaz hasn't appeared in a live-action hit since 2003's "Charlie's Angels" sequel.

One of the smartest agents I know explained to me that Diaz was caught in the "woman-girl syndrome." Like Melanie Griffith and Meg Ryan before her, she skyrocketed to fame essentially playing grown-up girls. But that's not a stereotype she can keep playing deep into her 30s.

Then there's the problem of the zeitgeist, in which romantic comedies, once the premier incubator of female star talent, have become an endangered species. Of late, the creative Politburos that run the studios have collectively decided that only men are entitled to their romantic fantasies, that love stories should preferably be told from the male perspective. The success of Will Smith's "Hitch" and the Apatow canon have ensured that.

At least the "Sex and the City" women are coming later this month to put a little X chromosome back into the equation. Carrie and company were allowed into big-screen existence based on the success of the TV series, and it's difficult to believe that a story of four middle-aged female friends would have been allowed to be born in the studio system proper.

Will my search for intelligent life be over? I (and millions of other women) can only hope.

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

Times staff writers John Horn and Chris Lee contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction Movie actresses: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about the careers of actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz misspelled the last name of race car driver Danica Patrick as Patric.
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