Fall Movie Preview
‘The Women’: 14 Years in Hollywood’s No Man’s Land
One movie! One zillion actresses! Inside director Diane English’s long, tortured trip to bring her remake of a 1939 classic all-gal comedy to the silver screen
By Missy Schwartz
Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. Fifteen years ago, no two actresses in Hollywood had greater pull. They were bankable powerhouses capable of generating $100 million-plus at the box office. They collected paychecks upwards of $8 million per role, among the highest in town. And in 1994 they decided to test their strength as a duo, signing on to co-produce and costar in New Line’s remake of The Women, the classic all-gal comedy about betrayed wives and backstabbing friends, directed in 1939 by George Cukor. Diane English, the Emmy-winning creator of CBS’ Murphy Brown, would update the script. James L. Brooks, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker, would direct. It was a mid-’90s dream team of talent that also included Blythe Danner, Candice Bergen, and Marisa Tomei, whose career was on the rise following her 1993 Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny. When they all piled into a conference room on the Sony Pictures lot one day in 1996 for the first table reading, the result was ”amazing,” says Ryan. ”To be funny in a read-through is really hard, and those women were great.” Adds English: ”There was a point where Julia squeezed my knee under the table because she was getting laughs – big laughs. You could see she was having a blast.” By the time they reached the last page of the script, everyone was pumped up, sensing they had a potential hit on their hands. According to English, the overall feeling was, ”Let’s go! Full steam ahead!”
Unfortunately, the ship hit the rocks, and The Women fell apart. The agonizing experience that followed stretched over more than a decade, and involved innumerable script revisions and what seemed like the entire female membership of SAG. Only English remained fully committed the entire time, determined to prove that a movie with an all-woman cast wouldn’t be roadkill at the box office. ”I got plenty discouraged,” says English. ”People would say, ‘Just let go. It’ll never get made.’ When I heard the words can’t be done, it became a mission. I think that’s what it takes for some of these films, just one idiot who sticks with it for the whole duration, refusing to back down.”
Now, all these years later, she’s about to find out if her doggedness has paid off. On Sept. 12, Picturehouse will release The Women, a $16 million indie that English wrote, directed, and co-produced. True to Cukor’s original, it boasts not a single man on screen. Ryan stars as Mary, a rich housewife forced to snap out of her pampered haze when she discovers her husband is having an affair with a younger woman (Eva Mendes). Annette Bening plays Mary’s best friend, Sylvie, an uptight, high-powered magazine editor. Bergen appears as Mary’s face-lift-happy mother, while Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Bette Midler pop up as various supporting characters. No question, it’s a talented cast, but it skews significantly older than the group that assembled in 1996. (At that first table reading, Roberts was 28, and Ryan, 34.) The mature cast won’t help attract the much-coveted Facebook generation. Yet English is hoping that her movie will bring in the same folks who recently made cash registers ring for Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City. ”I keep telling women, ‘You can’t complain that there’s nothing to see! When a movie comes out that’s for you, you’ve got to go vote with your wallet.”’
NEXT PAGE: ”I would go from studio to studio with my list of female ensemble movies that have made a ton of money, like 9 to 5, First Wives Club, and Steel Magnolias,” English says. ”And always the response was, ‘Well, that was a fluke’.”
When Roberts and Ryan first announced that they were remaking Cukor’s classic, which starred Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford, English immediately wanted in. ”I loved the funny conceit of no men,” she says. ”And because the original had a lot of old-fashioned ideas about women’s place in society, I thought, Okay, there’s a reason to remake it.” Everything seemed to be on track for a 1996 start date – until Roberts and Ryan became interested in playing the same role. To keep them both on board, English spent a year revising the script, which caused the air to leak out of the project’s tires. Brooks went off to make 1997’s As Good as It Gets…and never came back. Other directors dropped in and out, and New Line started going cold on The Women. As for Roberts, who eventually became an Oscar winner with a $20 million asking price, she too flew the coop. ”We kept in touch over all those years,” English says. ”But the timing was never right.”
By 2001, English decided that she might as well direct the picture herself, even though she’d never helmed so much as an episode of Murphy Brown. ”It was intimidating, but I thought, This is the only way to get this made,” she says. A few years later, she bought back her screenplay from New Line for a ”low seven figures.” All she needed was a studio to float the budget, which she’d slashed from $30 million to $20 million. ”I would go from studio to studio with my list of female ensemble movies that have made a ton of money, like 9 to 5, First Wives Club, and Steel Magnolias,” English says. ”And always the response was, ‘Well, that was a fluke’ and ‘No, it doesn’t pencil out for us.’ The feeling was, because it will attract one quadrant – women over 25 – that wasn’t enough.” Ryan was still on board (though no longer as a producer), but her drawing power had taken a hit after her affair with her Proof of Life costar Russell Crowe in 2000. And English still had to build the rest of the cast, which, at various points, was rumored to include Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Uma Thurman, Whitney Houston, and Queen Latifah. (None were ever officially attached.)
Finally, after being turned down by every single studio in town, English pursued the last possible option: develop The Women as an indie. She teamed up with producer Victoria Pearman, the president of Mick Jagger’s production company, and rounded up a stable of actresses willing to take a pay cut. This included the three-time Oscar nominee Bening. ”Annette lent a great credibility to the project,” English says. The actress had never been a fan of the catty, sexist undertones of the original play, written by Clare Boothe Luce. ”But I liked that the retelling of the story was different,” Bening says. ”It’s really about female friendship.” More important, she says, ”I just thought it was funny.” When English pitched The Women to Picturehouse president Bob Berney in fall 2006, he saw the all-female cast as an asset. ”The unique idea of not having any men in the film was a great publicity hook,” he says. ”There’s always a risk involved with movies like this – like Diane hadn’t done a feature before. But hopefully, it was a smart business move.”
NEXT PAGE: ”Obviously ours is an older audience compared to Sex and the City. But even if The Women does a small percentage of what they did, it’s great.”
The note of caution in Berney’s hopefully isn’t something you often hear in Hollywood, where the order of the day is spin, spin, spin. But the movie is far from a sure thing. During production in Boston last summer, rumors circulated that Ryan and Bening often had to step in when English’s lack of experience behind the camera became an issue. ”Every now and then, both Annette and I would sort of interpret movie jargon for Diane,” Ryan says diplomatically. (English denies any on-set crises, but admits being grateful for her two leading ladies’ ”very strong presences.”) The movie came in on time and on budget, but when executives at Warner Bros. (which had absorbed Picturehouse) saw a cut earlier this year, they were reportedly not impressed. ”I’m not privy to all the conversations that took place,” says English. ”But I don’t think it was their cup of tea.”
That is, until a cosmo-swilling gal named Carrie Bradshaw changed their minds. After Sex and the City opened to a record $57 million in May, Warner Bros. gave Picturehouse an extra $25 million to market The Women to the same crowd. They also bumped up the number of screens it would appear on from 500 to 2,000. All summer long, the Women trailer has been playing with Sex and Mamma Mia! to positive response, which Berney takes as a good sign. ”Obviously ours is an older audience compared to Sex and the City,” he says. ”But even if The Women does a small percentage of what they did, it’s great. I’d love it if we did $9 or $10 million opening weekend.” That’s a long way away from the blockbuster-in-the-making English once had her heart set on. But after dedicating at least some portion of every day of the past 14 years to The Women, the movie’s very existence is a triumph for her. ”I don’t know what I’m going to do with this big chunk of time now!” she laughs. Actually, she’s already begun developing an adaptation of Erica Jong’s 1973 feminist best-seller Fear of Flying. ”It might be as tough to get made as The Women,” she says. Fortunately, she’s one determined director. Mark your calendars for 2022.
Hollywood vs. Women
Six ways for Hollywood to stop alienating women. They go to movies. They bring their friends. There are 3 billion of them. So how come the big studios aren’t making more films for them?
By Christine Spines
When a hot script with several terrific roles for women recently circulated throughout Hollywood, it was received with the breathless enthusiasm of a rare-bird sighting. Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz circled two of the leads. Directors lined up. With that kind of reception, it was easy to assume the project was some sort of dramatic juggernaut, the kind of Oscar bait not seen since The English Patient.
Turned out it was an action movie called X-Girls, the story of three Playboy Playmates who take on the Eco-Challenge.
Clearly, these are tough times for actresses – not to mention female moviegoers. Not long ago, leading ladies could find great roles in all sorts of genres – witness the free-ranging careers of Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Jessica Lange – but these days even Oscar winners and megastars consider themselves lucky when they get to pin bunny tails on their bottoms. Women make up half the population, yet the studios continue to make movies and spend billions as if they didn’t exist, focusing virtually all their attention on luring men to the multiplex.
The indie world still offers opportunities (yielding statuettes for Charlize Theron in Monster, Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener, and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball), but here’s the embarrassing bottom line: In 2006, the major studios will release barely a dozen women-driven films.
Of course, it shouldn’t be this way. To put it in terms even Hollywood executives might understand, there are more than 3 billion potential ticket buyers out there with two X chromosomes. Women aren’t a special-interest group or a ”niche” market; they’re half the audience. Making movies that appeal to them (and maybe even to their husbands, fathers, and sons) is what we call good business sense. So, herewith, Entertainment Weekly offers six simple suggestions for how Hollywood can start giving women their due.
1 Stop ignoring the female quadrants.
Hollywood today puts its faith in a business-school approach to moviemaking known as the quadrant theory, a dull-edged marketing tool that divides the audience into four groups: men over 25, men under 25, women over 25, and women under 25. But rather than producing movies for each category – which might actually make sense – the studios are obsessed with reaching all four quadrants with the sort of magic bullet that hits only once every Titanic or so. And because Hollywood believes women will line up for ”guy” films more willingly than guys will for a so-called chick flick, the vast majority of movies right now are made for men.
It’s only when a rarity like The Devil Wears Prada squeezes through the system to become a hit (or, as studios like to put it, a surprise hit) that Hollywood remembers a second sex actually exists. After Erin Brockovich, Legally Blonde, Sweet Home Alabama, Mean Girls, and the Princess Diaries movies (we’ll stop there, since that takes us to an even $1 billion in worldwide grosses), why is it always a shock that a well-crafted movie made primarily for women can do well whether men buy tickets or not? ”I’m not sure young boys came to Prada, but that didn’t hurt our box office one iota,” says Carla Hacken, one of the Fox 2000 execs who oversaw the $124 million-grossing movie. (That’s about the same U.S. take as the male-driven Mission: Impossible III, which, typically for a guy movie, cost at least five times what Prada cost to make.)
The studios already pay some attention to younger females, serving them low-cost fare like Step Up (which has grossed a ”surprise” $65 million). That’s a good start. But we recommend that they start paying attention to the hugely profitable demographic of women over 30. (Who do they think the 25 million people who watched Grey’s Anatomy last week were, invisible elves?) After all, somebody bought $241 million worth of tickets to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and it wasn’t high school boys. And Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give didn’t earn its $125 million because comic-book geeks love Diane Keaton. ”That’s why I wrote it,” Meyers says. ”Because older women are discounted and disregarded [by the studios].” But it’s typical of the problem that when Meyers’ film was test-screening, she had to nudge her studio into inviting women Keaton’s age to check it out.
2 Spend less, make more.
Studios produce three flavors of movies nowadays: cheap genre pictures (The Grudge 2, Snakes on a Plane), big-budget franchises (Superman Returns, Harry Potter), and comedies for teenage boys and the men who act like them (Beerfest and Jackass Number Two). Midpriced dramas aimed at adults – traditionally the sorts of movies that target female moviegoers and often showcase actresses – are going the way of the spotted owl. Yes, there are upcoming films like Running With Scissors, The Holiday, and Dreamgirls. But where’s this year’s Sophie’s Choice? Or The Accused? Or American Beauty? ”I think a lot of people would look at those movies and say, ‘That’s a Lifetime movie,”’ says Fox Searchlight COO Nancy Utley. ”That used to be really good theatrical territory, and it’s been preempted [by cable].”
But, of course, it’s also territory that can make money. The English Patient cost only $27 million and grossed $79 million; Shakespeare in Love was made for $32 million and tallied $100 million. And even when the movie isn’t a home run, better to gross $52 million with a midbudget movie like The Lake House than with a bottom-line-destroying disaster like Poseidon.
3 Hire women writers, directors, producers, and execs.
Last year, only 17 percent of all the behind-the-camera talent working on the 250 highest-grossing movies were women, according to a San Diego State study. That depressing statistic has to have some impact on what sorts of movies are getting made these days. ”Most men probably aren’t going to sit down and write for a woman,” explains Meyers. ”I don’t know why they aren’t making more movies for women, except they don’t have the screenplays.”
Granted, there are plenty of women in positions of power – or at least there were until recently, before Sherry Lansing departed as head of Paramount, Nina Jacobson was let go at Disney, and Stacey Snider left her post as No. 1 at Universal for a less all-consuming, more family-friendly job overseeing live-action movies at DreamWorks. But even when these women were at the top, they had to become ”one of the boys” and prove that they could make movies with just as much testosterone as their male counterparts. (Sony chief Amy Pascal, the last woman standing at the head of a major studio, greenlit Sofia Coppola’s upcoming Marie Antoinette epic, but she’s also the one responsible for Stealth.) To make things right, Hollywood has to do more than just beef up the estrogen in its executive suites; it needs to get rid of the arrested-adolescent fraternity vibe that too often dominates the middle ranks of studio development. That means hearing from female voices – loud, clear, and often – throughout the creative process.
4 A note to actresses – embrace your wrinkles.
You’re not fooling anyone with the Botox and tummy tucks. By artificializing your youth, you’re only encouraging Hollywood’s Logan’s Run attitude toward actresses over 35 (and, by the way, paralyzing your facial muscles and purchasing inflatable-doll lips pretty much wrecks your ability to express any emotion but blank surprise). The fact is, you might have a better chance at an enduring career by wearing your crow’s-feet like a badge of honor than by having your face frozen into one all-weather expression. Jodie Foster, 43, who turns male-driven genres into dual-appeal movies by starring in them, had hits last year with Flightplan and this year with Inside Man. Annette Bening, 48, is flourishing in a variety of roles. Oscar-nomination buzz is building for 61-year-old Helen Mirren in The Queen and for 71-year-old Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal. And when Meryl Streep, 57, had her improbably touching red-eyed collapse in The Devil Wears Prada, we guarantee you she wasn’t thinking ”How do I look?”
In fact, as roughly as Hollywood treats women of any age right now, there is evidence that some people are starting to catch on to that great untapped market, grown-up women. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) wrote one of the leads of his untitled drama especially for his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, 44, and Mike White (screenwriter of School of Rock) created the central part in Year of the Dog for Molly Shannon, 41. And while nobody is predicting miracles, you do hear faint whispers of hope. ”After The Devil Wears Prada opened, I got calls from other studios and several high-powered male agents,” says Fox 2000’s Hacken. ”They all said the same thing: ‘I just think this is great for business.”’
5 Keep counting after the opening weekend.
Women, unlike men, generally don’t feel the need to be first in line on opening night. Quite the contrary, a lot of female filmgoers prefer to be coaxed into the multiplex by good reviews, an intriguing subject, and strong word of mouth; that’s also true for all moviegoers over 40, another demographic group that the major studios bizarrely insist on treating as some sort of obscure minority even though they make up 43 percent of the total audience.
But that sort of foreplay isn’t exactly Hollywood’s forte these days – studio marketers are more slam-bam-sorry-that-was-over-so-fast types. However, shrugging off that audience by assuming they’ll catch up with your movie on DVD is getting an entire generation of moviegoers out of the habit of going to movies – and that’s bad business. Remember, women didn’t rush to My Big Fat Greek Wedding when it first opened – it took weeks of building buzz. Our advice: Go slow. And by the way, it wouldn’t hurt to make the kinds of movies that generate good word of mouth, which means less money spent on digital effects and more spent on script development and rehearsal time (yes, it actually helps).
6 Studio executives, please clip and save:
Eileen Atkins. Maria Bello. Jennifer Coolidge. Frances Conroy. PenÃ©lope Cruz. Zooey Deschanel. Jennifer Ehle. Vera Farmiga. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Bryce Dallas Howard. Ashley Judd. Regina King. Lisa Kudrow. Rachel McAdams. Catherine O’Hara. Lupe Ontiveros. Tilda Swinton. Evan Rachel Wood. Michelle Yeoh.
There’s not an Oscar nominee on the above list. In other words, the talent pool is deep, diverse, and appallingly underused. So stretch your imaginations, lengthen your casting lists, and, unless you’re looking for red-carpet arm candy, stop worrying so much about who looks ”hot.”
Still not satisfied? Turn on your TV, watch the work being done by Kate Burton, Blythe Danner, Hope Davis, Edie Falco, Sally Field, Lauren Graham, Rachel Griffiths, Felicity Huffman, Virginia Madsen, S. Epatha Merkerson, Sandra Oh, Mary-Louise Parker, Robin Weigert, and Chandra Wilson, among many others, and hang your heads in shame that you’re not keeping them busy every hiatus.
Not happy with the screenplays you’re getting? Pick up the phone and call a playwright, a novelist, or a TV writer. Many of them are actual women, who may, even now, be writing about things that interest other women. Many of them are really good writers. True, not many have heard of the quadrant theory. But that’s a good thing.
Hollywood, it’s on you now. Get to work. And do better.
(Additional reporting by Hannah Tucker and Karen Valby)