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The lady vanishes -- yet again

Buzz-worthy female roles are suddenly in short supply. Chalk it up to a cultural shift, or maybe an unfair fight.

February 19, 2006|Marjorie Rosen | Special to The Times

IT'S easy to forget that Hollywood was once a woman's town -- a town owned by the Avas, Ritas and Lanas.

But the truth is that these days it is the Toms and Clints, the Heaths and Joaquins, even the Philip Seymours who rule the industry roost.

And as we move from red carpet to red carpet during this awards season, it is clear that the way this year's most admired films tell it, men alone are doing the world's -- and the film industry's -- heavy lifting. They are discovering America ("The New World") and each other ("Brokeback Mountain"). They are searching out terrorists in "Munich," wheeling and dealing in the Middle East ("Syriana"), and bringing down McCarthy at home ("Good Night, and Good Luck"). They are writing dark, important books ("Capote") and even harpooning the big beast ("King Kong").

But what of the women? Where have they gone?

For the most part, the current fare seems to be channeling the 1950s, with female characters offered up only as accessories -- ornamental but unnecessary. And so, in the movies with muscle, we see them as nurturing friends ("Capote"), neglected wives ("Brokeback Mountain," "Syriana"), pregnant helpmeets ("Munich"), and objects of lust ("Match Point," "King Kong"). Has even one heroine turned up this season who is as compelling as, say, a penguin?

Some, including Gersh Agency literary agent Frank Wuliger, contend that the scarcity of women's stories is merely a business decision. "It's really simple in Hollywood," he says. " 'Show me the box office.' Where's today's 'Sleepless in Seattle'? Where are the chick flicks that are making money? Fox made a wonderful chick flick, 'In Her Shoes.' And people didn't go to see it."

The studios are nothing if not practical, suggests Michael Seitzman, the screenwriter of "North Country." "Hollywood would give a role to my dog if it would bring in an audience. The real question is not 'Why isn't Hollywood creating roles for women?' It's 'Why aren't audiences going to see them?' Men aren't interested in seeing movies about women anymore, but from the response to movies like 'In Her Shoes,' it appears that women aren't, either."

But there may be a perception problem here. Could it be that because Hollywood produces so few movies featuring women's stories, each one is held up to cold, hard and -- dare I say it? -- unfair scrutiny?

For instance, while some in the industry believe that "In Her Shoes" has stumbled at the box office, Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000, says, "I think that because Cameron Diaz was such a big star, there was a great expectation that it would open bigger than it did." Even so, she points out, the picture cost only a little over $35 million and has made more than $82 million worldwide. "And at the end of the day we are going to do quite well."

In contrast, "A History of Violence" with Viggo Mortensen, in theaters two weeks earlier, cost $30 million but has earned only $57 million. Yet no one's suggesting that audiences will no longer support testosterone-soaked stories.

Another case in point is "Flightplan," an action picture with an emotional underpinning. It stars Jodie Foster as a jet propulsion engineer whose young daughter disappears during a trans-Atlantic flight. While the flight crew, in an aeronautical riff on "Gaslight," insists that there is no record of the child's presence on board, Foster's distraught character, who also happens to be transporting the body of her husband back to the States, literally tears up the plane to locate the girl. The movie has grossed more than $200 million worldwide. But who in Hollywood is claiming it as a smash hit of a woman's picture?

Indeed, though most women can relate to the nightmare of a mother whose child has vanished, Wuliger dismisses Foster's character as "a man's role being played by a woman. It's the kind of film that Harrison Ford might have made 10 years ago. It's certainly not perceived as a chick flick."

How nice, then, that women can successfully walk in men's shoes -- on screen at least. They should do it more often. But the rub is that here's a top-grossing woman's movie that's somehow not associated with women.

The other side of the coin is that when women-driven pictures such as "Memoirs of a Geisha" or "North Country" disappoint financially, industry types rush to the judgment that female protagonists do not sell tickets.

"This mind-set has been around for as long as I've been writing films," says Robin Swicord, the "Geisha" screenwriter. "When I first started, the general wisdom was that no women could open a movie. That has changed now through the power of people like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. And even with that, you have to argue to a studio that a picture will attract a general audience."

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