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Actresses Discover Turnabout Is Fair Play : Women Grab Limelight in Succession of Roles Intended for Men

January 01, 1988|NANCY MILLS

Actress Sigourney Weaver's role in "Alien" was initially described as "male space technician." During the making of the sequel, "Aliens," for which she got an Oscar nomination, Weaver said, "Even though the original role had been written for a man, we felt we shouldn't have to change the essence of the character."

Thus was born Weaver's image as a strong, no-nonsense, independent modern woman: "Rambo-lina," as she herself joked.

Although traditional men's roles have been played by women for years--as far back as the 1940 "His Girl Friday" remake of "The Front Page"--the number of women assuming TV and film roles originally intended for men has grown in recent years.

A woman has won a supporting actress Oscar for playing a man, "The Odd Couple" has been played on Broadway by two women and, in 1987, a woman took on the ultimate male role--God.

"I'd hate to think that every strong woman's part would have to have been written originally for a man," Amy Madigan said after persuading director Walter Hill to give her the part of a mercenary soldier in "Streets of Fire" three years ago.

Linda Hunt won an Oscar as best supporting actress for her performance as Eurasian photographer Billy Kwan in "The Year of Living Dangerously." Earlier this year, Hunt told The Times, "I've always thought androgynously about the arts. The idea of playing men on stage and in film has always appealed to me--if it hadn't, I could never have played Billy Kwan."

The casting of Rosalind Russell opposite Cary Grant in "His Girl Friday" (1940) turned this remake of "The Front Page" (1931) into a romantic comedy. Hollywood returned to the male buddy formula in a second remake in 1974 with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The third remake, coming up next spring as "Switching Channels," sets the action in a TV newsroom instead of a newspaper but prefers the romantic comedy possibilities provided by Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner.

Another buddy project, Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," started out on Broadway with two men and stayed all-male in a film (Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon) and two TV series (Tony Randall and Jack Klugman; Ron Glass and Desmond Wilson). Two years ago, Simon revived the play on Broadway with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno in the leading roles.

"Whose Life Is It Anyway?"--about a sculptor who becomes paralyzed--starred Tom Conti on Broadway in the role of a paraplegic. Later, Mary Tyler Moore played the part.

"The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957) starring Grant Williams became "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" (1981) starring Lily Tomlin.

Whoopi Goldberg's role in "Burglar" was originally written for Bruce Willis. The character's sex change didn't bother Goldberg, who said at the time, "As an actor, you can play a speck of dust. Gender is not important."

Recalling the "Burglar" cast changes, director Hugh Wilson says, "Warner Bros. initially had hoped that Whoopi would play a cameo role. When Bruce dropped out, she said, 'Hell, I'll do it.' Warner Bros. was very hot to have her. I think they would have changed 'Hamlet' to a woman to get her."

How did Wilson feminize the role? "It wasn't really hard," he explains. "I had enough good sense to leave most of the lines as they were. I used to think I couldn't write women's parts, but then I realized that every time I've switched a part from a man to a woman, the women read the lines just like the men did."

Wilson's latest actor-actress switch occurred on a recent episode of "Frank's Place," the series he created for CBS. "I had this real flamboyant Southern lawyer character," he says. "I knew the guy I wanted, but when he wasn't available, I suddenly thought 'woman.' With a woman, it became 3,000 times more interesting. (Conchata Ferrell played the part.) On many occasions I find myself saying, 'Why don't I make that a woman's part?' I'm always trying to trick expectancy."

Director Alan Rudolph had originally intended for God to be a man in "Made in Heaven." However, after consulting with Timothy Hutton, "Heaven's" leading man, Rudolph decided to give the role to Hutton's gravelly voiced wife, Debra Winger.

In "Legal Eagles," Winger took the role originally written for Bill Murray. Director Ivan Reitman explains how the switch came about: " 'Legal Eagles' started out as a movie for Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray. But then Dustin took on 'Ishtar.' Meanwhile, Bill went off to Europe to live for a while and was less interested when Dustin dropped out."

Then Robert Redford called Reitman. "Bob was interested in having me direct a comedy," Reitman continues. He mentioned the stalled "Legal Eagles" project, but Redford said he had done enough buddy pictures. He was looking for a romantic comedy.

Reitman thought, "Why not rewrite Bill's role for a woman?" He immediately began spinning out the boy-girl story for Redford. "Bob liked what I was telling him," Reitman says, "and said he'd like to read something. . . . We had spent a year trying to tailor the script to Bill and Dustin, so we had lots of good scenes; we just retraced them in the new format and laid over a romantic subplot that turned out to be the more interesting part of the movie."

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