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Shooting for a Role in a Male Film Genre

Women directors, frustrated at relegation to 'chick flicks,' hope Mimi Leder's 'Peacemaker' will bring them access to more big-budget, high-profile action movies.


A nuclear warhead detonates in rural Russia, and actress Nicole Kidman--as Dr. Julia Kelly, a White House expert on weapons smuggling--suspects terrorists are to blame. In an early scene in "The Peacemaker," the fast-paced action picture that opens Friday, Kidman asks the Pentagon to assign her a military intelligence officer to help solve the crime.

"And . . . make sure," she says pointedly, "he's willing to take orders from a woman."

In the largely male world of national security, it's tricky to be a woman in charge. The same is true in the almost exclusively male realm of action filmmaking, which is part of the reason why "The Peacemaker"--the first feature from the fledgling DreamWorks SKG studio--is being so closely watched in Hollywood.

Its director, Mimi Leder, is a San Fernando Valley mom.

"Especially in Eastern Europe, some of the crew looked at me like, 'She's the director?'. . . But now, everybody calls me 'Action Woman!' " Leder said with a laugh, offering herself as proof that "you don't have to have big muscles to make a muscular film."

Each year, a litter of high-velocity, testosterone-choked movies hits theaters like a fleet of Mack trucks. Featuring loads of firepower and high-tech hardware, these pictures have huge budgets--this year's "Con Air," for example, cost $80 million. They are aimed at male audiences and are directed, almost always, by men.

So, many women filmmakers rejoiced when Leder, a veteran director of television shows such as "ER" and "China Beach," was tapped by Steven Spielberg to make "The Peacemaker"--a $50-million project starring Kidman, George Clooney and several kilotons of nuclear explosives. It is the biggest-budget picture ever directed by a woman.

That Leder has been entrusted with such a blockbuster--and, for her second film, with "Deep Impact," a $75-million sci-fi thriller about a comet hurtling toward Earth--is important on several fronts. Among women directors, even those who have no interest in action films, there is hope that Leder--who came in under budget on "Peacemaker"--will make studio executives more comfortable about bankrolling their films.

And for moviegoers there could be a payoff as well. To the extent that following tried-and-true formulas leads to a frequently depressing sameness, women action directors might bring something different to the screen.

"When Mimi found out she was going to do it, I went, 'Bravo! Go, girl!' " said Lesli Linka Glatter, who just directed her second feature film, "Tempting Fate," starring Kenneth Branagh and Madeline Stowe. "This is yet another sign that yes, it can be done. This is not just the domain of men."

The box office performance of "The Peacemaker"--particularly how it opens this weekend--will put that idea to the test. Will this "smart" action movie, as Leder calls it, lure enough viewers to declare the experiment a success? For reasons of self-interest and of sisterhood, women in the movie business are holding their breaths.

"There's an element of the 'right stuff' to [women] being able to play with the big toys," said producer Lynda Obst, whose credits include this year's space feature "Contact." "The notion of a woman at the helm of a picture like 'The Peacemaker' adds a certain swagger to women in general."

Penelope Spheeris, the director of several comedies from "Wayne's World" to "The Beverly Hillbillies," was more blunt.

"Let's hope it does well," she said, "because if it doesn't, we're screwed."

Such cynicism is understandable, given the relative scarcity of women at the helm. Other than Leder, only one woman has directed action pictures: Kathryn Bigelow, whose most recent film was "Strange Days," the 1995 thriller starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett. The $45-million picture was a box-office failure.

Looking across all film genres, including the character-driven dramas with female stars that some in Hollywood call "chick flicks," women make up a fraction of the directing world. Fewer than 2,300 of the 11,000 Directors Guild of America members are women. Of total days worked by film directors in 1996, according to a DGA tally, women accounted for 9%.

More frustrating, women directors say, is that their films tend to be limited in scope and budget, less aggressively marketed and, as a result, less financially successful.

"They should make more movies about women. There aren't enough. But they tend to be relegated to small movies," said director Martha Coolidge, who has proved adept at comedy ("Out to Sea") and drama ("Rambling Rose"), has conquered the world of special effects ("Real Genius"), but has never been able to break into the action genre.

"About 90% of what comes my way are 10 different kinds of breast cancer stories, 10 kinds of divorce stories, 10 kinds of woman-taking-care-of-her-dying-father films," Coolidge said. "I do those. I care about them deeply. But one does want to do more."

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