BootLeg Betty

BetteBack September 6, 1991: Studios – Womens’ Pictures Don’t Make Money

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Daily Herald Suburban Chicago
September 6, 1991


In Hollywood, a huge popular success has always spawned imitations.

When “ Easy Rider,” “ Midnight Cowboy” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” lit up the box office in 1969, they generated a whole decade’s glut of male buddy movies, from “The French Connection” to “The Deer Hunter.” Then “Star Wars” and other big-budget spectacles started a cycle of action-adventure movies built around male superheroes.

A bunch of baseball movies trailed “Bull Durham,” and the success of “ Dances With Wolves” will surely launch a whole wagon train of Westerns.

Every hit movie produces a slew of carbon copies, with one single exception. Two of the biggest hits of 1990, “Ghosts” and “Pretty Woman,” were love stories with female protagonists.

As I write this, two of the most successful movies of 1991, “The Silence of the Lambs” and “ Sleeping With the Enemy,” have also had women as their central characters. This summer’s rule-breaking “Thelma & Louise” has done decently at the box office, while generating a major controversy about the roles of women on the big screen.

If Hollywood plays by its usual rules, shouldn’t we expect to see a barrage of women’s movies well into the ’90s?

Don’t bet on it. The usual logic vanishes when women are involved.

Suddenly Hollywood abandons its typical practices because of a jumble of unspoken and irrational assumptions.

When asked why Hollywood doesn’t make more movies about women, studio executives invariably reply that women’s pictures don’t make money. They explain that they are only reflecting public taste.

If one points out that “Terms of Endearment” and “Steel Magnolias” were box-office hits, the response will be that those movies were flukes. Now that several more strong women’s films have clearly caught the public’s fancy, it is harder to argue that these hits are freak accidents. Yet the executives continue to ignore the evidence.

No matter how many dismal action movies like “The Hard Way” falter, Hollywood keeps churning them out. Obviously, the people in power simply feel more comfortable with all-male movies and they aren’t going to let any verifiable data cloud their prejudices.

“You see the same stuff in movie after movie,” Bette Midler said. “I don’t want to see blood and gore or be scared to death in every movie.

The only kinds of pictures the studios want to make are male action pictures and teen comedies. They’re frightened of strong relationship pieces.”

Even the cautious Hollywood press hqs begun to complain about the absence of female characters of depth, mystery and vitality. As Meryl Streep explained when she spoke to a Screen Actors Guild women’s conference last year, she did not object simply to the scarcity of women in important positions behind the camera.

“Where I felt starved,” Streep said pointedly, “was as a member of the audience, as someone with daughters and a son. Where are their role models like the ones I had when I grew up? Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball
— those big, formidable presences who were important people in their films.”

Despite the popular image of the old studio moguls as boors, they had far more respect for women than today’s better educated executives. One of the first movies that Louis B. Mayer produced was directed by a woman, Lois Weber, and he entrusted important positions to women at MGM.

The crass Harry Cohn, similarly, relied on several women to help him make decisions at Columbia. Perhaps because they harbored no doubts about who had absolute power, these men weren’t threatened by strong women. And they were just as interested in stories about women on the home front as they were in tales of men at war or cowboys on the range.

Their confidence in the audience resulted in a rich cross section of movies and the studio moguls spent just as much time nurturing their female stars as they did the men.

Budgets were modest, as were studio expectations for most movies.

A women’s picture might cost $1 million to produce, and if it took in $5 or $6 million, it was a smashing success.

If “Stella Dallas” or “Woman of the Year” or “All About Eve” had had to gross $75 million to break even, film history might have been different.

There was also a rich diversity among the female stars and writers who could imagine every kind of woman’s role. There were the downto-earth comediennes like Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell; the patrician Katharine Hepburn and the ethereal Audrey Hepburn; the sexy tarts like Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe; the tough career women like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck; the exotic imports Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich; the versatile musical performers Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland, just to name a few.

We can’t boast of the same variety today. Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger and Julia Roberts are all variations on the same type — sexy but vulnerable kittens with an endearing pout but without a lot of brainpower.

Of course, there are many gifted actresses with different qualities, but they haven’t had the opportunity to create a memorable person in film after film.

Women virtually disappeared from the screen in the ’70s, unable to compete against such great teams of the era as Newman and Redford, Hoffman and McQueen, Sutherland and Gould.

For several years there, it was difficult to find five women to nominate as best actress, so women in essentially supporting roles, like Valerie Perrine in “Lenny,” helped fill the category. In 1975, Louise Fletcherwon an Oscar for a relatively small part in “ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” because the competition was so slim.

Forced to go international in that year’s search, the Academy also nominated Isabelle Adjani in “The Story of Adele H” and Glenda Jackson in “Hedda.” There were more European actresses nominated in the ’70s than at any time in film history, and it wasn’t because Hollywood had suddenly become cosmopolitan in its outlook.

The ’70s were also the era of “The Godfather,” “Jaw s” and “Star Wars,” when studios discovered that huge action pictures could deliver grosses like never before. This realization coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. Afraid to portray a female character that was not politically correct, besieged producers took the path of least resistance and simply eliminated women altogether.

In a way, Hollywood never recovered from that decade of silence and evasion. It still seems baffled by the changing roles of women in society and continues to waste some of its most gifted actresses.

After the success of “When Harry Met Sally,” Meg Ryan was given her own production company to develop movies. Not one of her own projects has yet made it to the screen, and Ryan’s last appearance was little better than a walk-on — the embarrassing role of Jim Morrison’s mindless, masochistic common law wife in “The Doors.”

Some producers have decided that one way to improve the lot of women in films is to cast women in roles that traditionally have gone to men.

Thus Sigourney Weaver has scored considerable success playing a machine-gun-toting super-hero in the “Alien” series, Jodie Foster is an FBI agent matching wits with a psychopath in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Kathleen Turner is a hard-boiled detective in “V.l. Warshawski.”

Goldie Hawn has practically built her career in the last decade by playing a woman in a m an’s world in such films as “ Private Benjam in” and “Wildcats.”

Some of the strongest champions of better women’s roles have been men. It was Alan Ladd Jr., when he was running 20th Century Fox, who effectively put an end to the cycle of male buddy movies when he made “Julia,” “3 Women,” “The Turning Point,” “ An Unmarried Woman,” “Alien” and “Norma Rae” within a three-year period in the late ’70s.

And Ladd is also the executive who backed the strong “ Thelma & Louise.”

Actresses have had to become producers to find rewarding roles, but continue to face tremendous resistance/Bette Midler says that Disney, with whom she has a long-term contract, wants her to keep churning out light comedies in the vein of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” or “Outrageous Fortune.” When she tries to veer from that familiar image, her bosses frequently balk.

“You want to be trusted after all these years,” Midler says. “ Ifs not as if I just got off the bus. But it’s still a struggle to do any movies in a different style.

Midler and her partner in All Girl Productions, Bonnie Bruckheimer, have pushed harder than most to make movies with a strong female characters. Sally Field has also been quite aggressive, even taking the unusual step of producing a movie for a younger actress, Julia Roberts, who stars in Field’s production of “Dying Young.”

However, some actresses who have had the clout to develop and produce their own movies haven’t always created meaty women’ roles.

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