The Daily Herald
Women see few leads in films
October 20, 1988
It’s close to impossible, because the film business has conditioned audiences to expect male leads, actresses and industry observers say.
“I sit through these movies and I keep thinking, ‘When is the woman going to come on so I can have someone to relate to'”‘ said actress Jobeth Williams, who starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill.”
“It’s very frustrating, because for every one woman role there are five or six or 10 written for men.”
Williams, in an interview at Toronto’s recent international film festival, said a lack of significant roles for women bothers her both as a moviegoer and as an actress.
The names of leading men that spring to mind- Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Tom Selleck, Tom Berenger, Harrison Ford, Robert DeNiro, Paul Newman, Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson, Richard Gere, Sylvester Stallone.
Women? Meryl Streep, Cher, Bette Midler â€” maybe.
“I can only go through so many movies where men try to work out their problems with each other or teenage boys try to get their puberty over with,” Williams said. “I keep saying it’s got to change. It’s really frustrating.”
Theresa Russell, who shared top billing with Debra Winger in “Black Widow,” and who made most her f i lms with husband-director Nicholas Roeg, agreed there is a lack of leading roles for women.
“There are about five good scripts for female leads and there are five top actresses,” Russell said. “Even top names will go and audition and get turned down ”
But Shirley MacLaine, at the festival to promote “Madame Sousatzka,” in which she plays a strongminded, eccentric piano teacher, urged women not to “just sit around and wait”
Actresses must develop their own scripts and go out of their way to play “unpretty” character roles, she said.
“I’m not saying that these actresses are more concerned with cosmetics and glamor than the parts,” MacLaine said “But I am saying that having been through it myself, there comes a time when you decide you want to play more real people than have theatrical glamor.”
Barbara Sternburg, film professor at Toronto’s York University, said the lack of roles for women stems from a lack of women in the industry, and “all the way along the line it’s made very clear that they’re really not accepted.” In “Calling the Shots,” a documentary screened at the festival, women directors and producers discussed problems they had getting films made.
Most powerful men in the industry are not comfortable with women directors, said Canadian director Sandy Wilson They are comfortable with women who are “actresses, wives, secretaries, people they can dismiss or divorce.”
Kay Armatage, a Toronto professor and member of the festival’s film selection team, said few major movies focus on women because studios target films for an 18 to 30-year-old audience.
That target group is drawn largely, from couples on dates, and studies indicate a man has greater influence over what movies to see.
Between 1930 and 1950, studios wanted strong characters played by actresses such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn because moviegoers primarily were women, Armatage said.
During the Depression, women stayed home. During World War II, a new market emerged â€” the independent working girl