Daily Herald Suburban Chicago
September 6, 1991
In Hollywood, a huge popular success has always spawned imitations.
When â€œ Easy Rider,â€ â€œ Midnight Cowboyâ€ and â€œButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidâ€ lit up the box office in 1969, they generated a wholeÂ decadeâ€™s glut of male buddy movies, from â€œThe French Connectionâ€ to â€œThe Deer Hunter.â€ Then â€œStar Warsâ€ and other big-budget spectaclesÂ started a cycle of action-adventure movies built around male superheroes.
A bunch of baseball movies trailed â€œBull Durham,â€ and the success of â€œ Dances With Wolvesâ€ 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, â€œGhostsâ€ and â€œPretty Woman,â€ were love stories with female protagonists.
As I write this, two of the most successful movies of 1991, â€œThe Silence of the Lambsâ€ and â€œ Sleeping With the Enemy,â€ have also had women as their central characters. This summerâ€™s rule-breaking â€œThelma & Louiseâ€ 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, shouldnâ€™t we expect to see a barrage of womenâ€™s movies well into the â€™90s?
Donâ€™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 doesnâ€™t make more movies about women, studio executives invariably reply that womenâ€™s pictures donâ€™t make money. They explain that they are only reflecting public taste.
If one points out that â€œTerms of Endearmentâ€ and â€œSteel Magnoliasâ€ were box-office hits, the response will be that those movies were flukes. Now that several more strong womenâ€™s films have clearly caught the publicâ€™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 â€œThe Hard Wayâ€ falter, Hollywood keeps churning them out. Obviously, the people in power simply feel more comfortable with all-male movies and they arenâ€™t going to let any verifiable data cloud their prejudices.
â€œYou see the same stuff in movie after movie,â€ Bette Midler said. â€œI donâ€™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. Theyâ€™re frightened of strong relationship pieces.â€
Even the cautious Hollywood press hqs begun to complain about the absence of female characters of depth, mystery and vitality. As MerylÂ Streep explained when she spoke to a Screen Actors Guild womenâ€™s conference last year, she did not object simply to the scarcity of women in important positions behind the camera.
â€œWhere I felt starved,â€ Streep said pointedly, â€œwas as a member of the audience, as someone with daughters and a son. Where are theirÂ role models like the ones I had when I grew up? Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball
â€” those big, formidable presences who were important people in their films.â€
Despite the popular image of the old studio moguls as boors, they had far more respect for women than todayâ€™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 werenâ€™t threatened by strong women. And they were just as interested in stories about women onÂ 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 womenâ€™s picture might cost $1 million to produce, and if it took in $5 or $6 million, it was a smashing success.
If â€œStella Dallasâ€ or â€œWoman of the Yearâ€ or â€œAll About Eveâ€ had had to gross $75 million to break even, film history might have beenÂ different.
There was also a rich diversity among the female stars and writers who could imagine every kind of womanâ€™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 andÂ 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 canâ€™t boast of the same variety today. Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger and Julia Roberts are all variations on the same type â€” 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 havenâ€™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,Â 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 â€œLenny,â€ helped fill the category. In 1975, Louise Fletcherwon an Oscar for a relatively small part in â€œ One Flew Over the Cuckooâ€™s Nestâ€ because the competition was so slim.
Forced to go international in that yearâ€™s search, the Academy also nominated Isabelle Adjani in â€œThe Story of Adele Hâ€ and Glenda Jackson in â€œHedda.â€ There were more European actresses nominated in the â€™70s than at any time in film history, and it wasnâ€™t because Hollywood had suddenly become cosmopolitan in its outlook.
The â€™70s were also the era of â€œThe Godfather,â€ â€œJaw sâ€ and â€œStar Wars,â€ when studios discovered that huge action pictures could deliverÂ grosses like never before. This realization coincided with the rise of the womenâ€™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 â€œWhen Harry Met Sally,â€ 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 Ryanâ€™s last appearance was little better than a walk-on â€” the embarrassing role of Jim Morrisonâ€™s mindless, masochistic common law wife in â€œThe Doors.â€
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 â€œAlienâ€ series, Jodie Foster is anÂ FBI agent matching wits with a psychopath in â€œThe Silence of the Lambsâ€ and Kathleen Turner is a hard-boiled detective in â€œV.l. Warshawski.â€
Goldie Hawn has practically built her career in the last decade by playing a woman in a m anâ€™s world in such films as â€œ Private BenjamÂ inâ€ and â€œWildcats.â€
Some of the strongest champions of better womenâ€™s roles have been men. It was Alan Ladd Jr., when he was running 20th Century Fox, whoÂ effectively put an end to the cycle of male buddy movies when he made â€œJulia,â€ â€œ3 Women,â€ â€œThe Turning Point,â€ â€œ An Unmarried Woman,â€Â â€œAlienâ€ and â€œNorma Raeâ€ within a three-year period in the late â€™70s.
And Ladd is also the executive who backed the strong â€œ Thelma & Louise.â€
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 â€œDown and Out in Beverly Hillsâ€ or â€œOutrageous Fortune.â€ When she tries to veer from that familiar image, her bosses frequently balk.
â€œYou want to be trusted after all these years,â€ Midler says. â€œ Ifs not as if I just got off the bus. But itâ€™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 femaleÂ 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 Fieldâ€™s production of â€œDying Young.â€
However, some actresses who have had the clout to develop and produce their own movies havenâ€™t always created meaty womenâ€™ roles.