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With Changing Times, Changing Roles

Joan Allen is a choice for V.P. in 'The Contender,' a rarity for Hollywood political films.

October 14, 2000|ELLEN BASKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the new film "The Contender," Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is selected by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to become vice president after the man holding that office dies. That's when her troubles start.

Her confirmation is seriously threatened by sexual allegations that Hanson refuses to address, claiming that her personal life is no one's business but her own.

"It was fun to play somebody who was so sure of herself and even willing to lose it all," Allen says of the role. "I think for her it really wasn't a choice. She was just so clear about where she needed to draw the line. Wouldn't it be great if we could all be that honest and stand up for what we believe in?"

In the real world, a politician with that kind of moral courage is hard to come by. And in the movies, a woman in high office--or even being considered for high office--is just as rare, especially one as, well, fully developed as Allen's Hanson.

"There is a sexuality to the character that Rod [Lurie, the writer-director] and I both really wanted to put into the character, that she was confident enough about her professional ability that she could be sexy at the same time," Allen explains.

The sexuality that Allen celebrates nearly proves her character's undoing, but the fact that Laine Hanson is in the game is more than can be said for most other women in films about politics, at least as far as elected office is concerned.

The notion of women striding confidently through the corridors of power may seem a rather contemporary one. But Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to hold a seat in either legislative chamber of government, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916. Margaret Chase Smith's lengthy tenure in the Senate extended from 1949 through 1972. Clearly, then, there have been a few role models from which to choose.

But while filmmakers can envision a day when an African American man is president, if only in a science-fiction vehicle like "Deep Impact" (Morgan Freeman played the heroic commander in chief), the Oval Office remains off-limits to women.

It's not unusual for female film characters to root for their political leading men from the sidelines or to play an influential role--think Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "State of the Union" (1948), Meryl Streep in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979) or Annette Bening's lobbyist in 1995's "An American President"--but the number of films in which a woman has actually held political office is roughly the same as the ranks of females currently in the U.S. Senate (there are nine).

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Loretta Young, who died in August, won an Academy Award for her role as Katy Holstrom in 1947's "The Farmer's Daughter." Holstrom leaves her rural home for Capitol City, where she becomes a servant in the home of Congressman Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten). Katy is frank and outspoken, freely voicing her progressive views on the issues of the day. When a congressional candidate dies, Katy is asked to run for office--but not in Cotten's conservative party.

Like Laine Hanson, Katy's candidacy is put in jeopardy because of a sex scandal. But in the end she wins not just the election but also the man; the film ends with Cotten carrying his new bride across the threshold of their new house at the nation's Capitol.

Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair" (1948) cast Jean Arthur as staid Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, a member of a fact-finding mission to postwar Berlin. It comes as little surprise when the all-work-and-no-play congresswoman is done in by love and black market champagne, falling for opportunistic Capt. John Pringle (John Lund) and locking horns with Pringle's German lover, Erika (Marlene Dietrich).

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The action thriller "Air Force One" (1997) may be formulaic in many ways, but it breaks the mold in featuring Glenn Close as tough-as-nails Vice President Kathryn Bennett, who hardly breaks a sweat in her white silk blouse while dealing with terrorists who are holding chief executive Harrison Ford hostage on the presidential aircraft. That silk blouse, in fact, factors into one of the film's very few references to her sex, when lead terrorist Gary Oldman--who also co-stars as a bad guy in "The Contender"--tries to bait her with provocative questions about what she's wearing.

In last year's "Random Hearts," Kristin Scott Thomas plays Congresswoman Kay Chandler, a strait-laced Republican (we know this because she wears pearls, comes from a patrician background and says she's a Republican, not because we ever see her at work). Her reelection campaign is derailed by her relationship with Harrison Ford, a policeman trying to find out about his dead wife's affair with Scott Thomas' dead husband (both died in a plane crash), which results in the two having their own ill-starred affair.

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