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A Year to Bemoan the Plight of Women in Hollywood? : Debate: As the academy celebrates women in film, many in the industry criticize the sexual discrimination and harassment on and off the screen.


On the same day the Academy Awards will celebrate "Women and the Movies," Hollywood talent agent Wallace Kaye is scheduled to go on trial. He is accused of the sexual battery of eight actresses.

Although the events are at first glance unrelated, when weighed together they do dramatize a show-business deceit. Despite proclamations to the contrary, Hollywood continues to be divided by sexual discrimination and harassment both subtle and profound.

The charges against Kaye, which he refutes, highlight one end of the spectrum.

The agent encouraged actresses, none of them well-known, into improvisational acting scenes in his Burbank office, investigators say. As the actresses performed seduction scenes at Kaye's urging, the agent allegedly "would wind up clumsily attacking them," according to Mark Collier, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case.

Kaye was arrested in October, soon after a policewoman posed as an aspiring actress and was herself a victim of Kaye's advances, Collier said.

If true, it is the kind of sexual assault hard to either miss or argue. More difficult to detect in Hollywood--but perhaps equally injurious because of its frequency--is subjugation. While less blatant, there is much evidence that show-business women are underpaid, underemployed and, most visibly, cast as subjects of sex or violence or both.

Women of color and older women face even more discrimination, industry observers say and statistics show.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences settled on the "Women and the Movies" theme at the same time many were criticizing the on-screen depictions of women, especially in "Basic Instinct," the story of an icepick-wielding novelist.

"If there was a woman in the movies last year, she was either killing or being killed," says Harriet Silverman, executive director of the trade organization Women in Film. "What does that say about women?"

Naomi Foner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Running on Empty," said the academy's theme selection was probably motivated by guilt, not a sincere attempt to honor the so-called "Year of the Woman."

"It's clearly ludicrous, unless you want to talk about the year of the psychotic woman," she says. "I've been appalled by the misogyny in the movies, from 'Basic Instinct' to 'The Temp,' " a recent release about a driven secretary whose idea of office help includes murdering her boss's rivals.

People have complained, too, about a variety of films in which women have placed upon them a monetary value for sex. In the increasingly popular every-woman-has-a-price genre, Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" went for $3,000, Uma Thurman rated $40,000 in "Mad Dog and Glory," Sarah Jessica Parker fetched $65,000 in "Honeymoon in Vegas" and Demi Moore topped the list at $1 million in the upcoming "Indecent Proposal."

A planned May seminar about women's roles is titled "Naked or Dead," a comment "Lethal Weapon" producer Joel Silver made not long ago about how he wants women depicted in his pictures.

"It was a comment that resonated so strongly in the industry that there had to be a certain amount of truth to it or it would have gone away," says Patrick Scott, an organizer of the seminar, which is sponsored by several Hollywood groups.

If women aren't being cast as naked or dead, they're not really being cast at all. Meryl Streep remarked a few years ago: "If the trend continues . . . by the year 2010 we may be eliminated from movies altogether."

According to the Screen Actors Guild, men earn twice as much as women and grab 71% of all roles. While casting directors can look fondly upon such aging men as Clint Eastwood or Jack Palance, they do not always do so in reverse: Women over 40 are placed in less than 9% of all film and television roles.

Women may make up the majority of the population, but they make up just 10% of the Directors Guild of America. When counting lower-level DGA positions such as assistant directors and production associates, the figure grows to only 18%.

Actress Alexandra Paul says that most scripts she reads have one woman's part for every five men's roles. She recently completed the film "Nothing to Lose," in which she had the only woman's part of substance.

"Unfortunately, there aren't that many good roles for women," the 29-year-old performer says, "and most are for characters who will provide a bit of glamour and sex. We are so culturally immersed by this depiction that we don't see the inequality anymore."

Currently starring in the TV series "Baywatch," Paul says, "If I was totally, politically correct, I'd never be able to work." Asked if "Baywatch," featuring lifeguards in bathing suits, is exploitative, she says: "It is a little, but I can find reasons to justify it. No one's killing one another. It does have skin and that's why some people turn it on. But there's men's skin too."

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