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A Few True Things

Despite some recent releases of note, the honest portrayal of women in film still isn't Hollywood's strong suit.

November 29, 1998|ERIC HARRISON | Eric Harrison is a Times staff writer

At the end of "Living Out Loud," a quirky movie starring Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito, Hunter's character glides down a dark street in New York City, a street we've seen her walk down before. This time, though, she is alive to the sights and sounds around her. She sings along with an unseen radio. And the look on her face speaks of serenity, even grace.

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese modeled the scene on the final shots of Federico Fellini's 1957 masterpiece "Nights of Cabiria": Giulietta Masina, having suffered a series of disappointments--a lifetime of blows, really--gets up off the ground after being robbed by a man who she had thought cared about her. Refusing to be defeated, she walks away down a street alive with people, her face aglow with an unconquerable, if at first wobbly, smile.

That "Living Out Loud" should quote from "Cabiria" is fitting not only because its portrayal of an indomitable spirit echoes that movie's theme but also for another, unintended reason: LaGravenese, like Fellini in his decades-long collaboration with his wife, Masina, has chosen to explore issues dear to his heart through a character who is female.

Once such a thing was more common. When there were few female filmmakers to interpret their own reality--and there still are too few--Fellini and Ingmar Bergman plumbed the female psyche in film after film. They worked with female partners whose contributions were inseparable from our appreciation of the movies they appeared in. The same may be said of the films John Cassavetes made with his wife, Gina Rowlands. And Woody Allen has had long, fruitful creative partnerships with a number of women. Perhaps most notable is the series of movies he made with Mia Farrow, including "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Alice," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Another Woman."

Few Hollywood pairings have been so memorable, but strong female characters were central in a flood of studio melodramas from the 1930s to the '50s.

"Bette Davis was the box-office star of the period from about 1938 to 1941," said LaGravenese, referring to the era--before television usurped the role--when stories about human relationships were a Hollywood staple.

In today's movie climate, however--despite a number of recent and upcoming high-profile exceptions--independent films are the place to look for strong and honest portrayals of women. ("Living Out Loud," a New Line release, was produced by the independent Jersey Films.)

A few years ago, the ascendancy of the strong female was a trend extolled in Hollywood. The 1993 Academy Awards chose "The Year of the Woman" as their theme. By early 1996--in the wake of a slew of feminized box-office hits such as "Waiting to Exhale" and "Sense and Sensibility"--the people whose job it is to remark upon such things murmured in assent that women finally were having their day.

But as far as mainstream films are concerned, the long-awaited resurgence of movies that feature strong women didn't happen.

A small number of actresses have always been able to find great parts or to make nothing roles look great because of their talent, said Hunter, naming Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Laura Dern, among others. But for most actresses, getting cast in a part with the complexity and depth of Judith, the role she plays in "Living Out Loud," is "like finding a $100 bill in the street," she said. "It just rarely happens."

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"Living Out Loud" comes on the heels of another film in which female issues are central and dealt with realistically. In "One True Thing," a young professional woman who'd single-mindedly pursued her career comes to see the honor in her mother's homebound life. Women also are more than peripheral in a number of other movies released this year, including "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "Beloved," "Ever After," "High Art" and "Slums of Beverly Hills," as well as the upcoming "Stepmom" and "Hilary and Jackie."

"Stepmom" screenwriter Gigi Levangie noted, though, that the few recent studio movies that have dealt with grown-up women's issues--such as "One True Thing" and "Beloved"--were commercial disappointments.

"Things are starting to change," but in a limited way, said Joan Hyler, who manages a number of actresses and is chairwoman of the Morning Star Commission, a year-old group of 30 professional women that looks at how women are represented in Hollywood.

"The trend this year--and this is a trend that's only 6 months old and hasn't paid off yet--is films like 'Disturbing Behavior,' 'I Know What You Did Last Summer,' 'Urban Legends' and 'Scream II' that try to capitalize on the youth market" by relying on actresses that come from television, she said.

"But by and large, if you canvass the major studio releases for the next year, you're not going to find many substantial roles for women," she said.

Even more rare is a female central character written by a man where gender is immaterial to the story's underlying concerns.

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