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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 all about the material, insists Ruth Vitale, the president of First Look Pictures, who dismisses generalizations that women can't open a movie. "Julia Roberts didn't open 'Erin Brockovich'?" she asks rhetorically. "Meg Ryan didn't open 'Sleepless in Seattle'? Of course they did. You can't just blame a poor opening on women. You have to look at the whole package, at the cost versus the opening gross. 'The Virgin Suicides' was a big box-office success because it cost nothing to make. 'King Kong' was not such a big success because it cost as much as it's going to gross. You cannot assess a picture in a vacuum."

Still, says Gabler, "It helps if you have some component that intrigues a male audience. It's a matter of economics, really."

Swicord, who wrote the 1994 movie "Little Women," first discussed the idea of adapting Louisa May Alcott's novel with Amy Pascal, now the Sony movie chief, long before she became a studio executive. "But nobody was interested in movies in which women wore long dresses," says Swicord. "And it took a while. It took Amy climbing her way up at Columbia to a position in which we could set the project up. And then to get the film made, we had to enlist the help of a marketing person, Sid Ganis." Ganis, now a producer at Columbia and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the father of four daughters and understood the power of Alcott's novel for every girl who had read it. The movie, made on a tight budget, eventually grossed more than $70 million.

These days, however, there seems to be a readjustment of the rules of the game that, purposefully or not, reinforces a sense that there is no place in Hollywood's firmament for stories about women.

Take romance. It is noteworthy that now that men are embracing their feminine side, the year's only potent love story, "Brokeback Mountain," is about a relationship between two cowboys.

Even on the lighter side, something is askew. Two years ago, producer Lynda Obst had high hopes for romantic comedies. "I remember being celebratory because girls were opening movies. Kate Hudson opened my movie, 'How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,' which did so well that I'm developing a sequel. Reese Witherspoon's 'Legally Blonde' and 'Sweet Home Alabama' opened well. Diane Keaton had a big success with 'Something's Gotta Give,' even though people like to ascribe it to Jack Nicholson's presence. The movies coming out now had to have been put in development then. So I can't tell you exactly why most of these romantic comedies are now starring men, not women."

In fact, Obst points out, 10 years ago, "Men needed to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to what was always thought of as a female genre," she says. But last summer audiences swarmed to "Wedding Crashers" and "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" like ants to a picnic. Since then, romantic comedies seem to have redefined themselves as the province of guys.

"While executives say, 'We're looking for romantic comedies,' " says Obst, "they now get more excited at a male-oriented premise than a female-oriented one. The caveat is that women will go to romantic comedies starring men, but men are just not interested in movies about female problems."

There's another hitch as well. Remember Tom Hanks as Meg Ryan's romantic interest in "Sleepless in Seattle" and Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart bolstering Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story"? No more. Today no self-respecting A-list male will costar in what is essentially the woman's story.

"You cannot cast a male star as a boyfriend," says Obst, "whereas a female star will play a girlfriend. You can only get a real male star if it's his movie. But in a two-hander, where the male and female parts are equal, there's a chance of some Tracy-Hepburn chemistry because you can at least find a great up-and-coming male star."

Judging by the pileup of recent box-office disasters starring alpha males, some of these stars might benefit from sharing the screen more equally with women. Think of Russell Crowe in "Cinderella Man" (with Renee Zellweger in a supporting role as his long-suffering wife), Colin Farrell in "Alexander" and even Hanks in "The Ladykillers."

"Frankly, the whole industry is in a terrible state," says Lili Zanuck, who produced "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Cocoon."

Sure, revenues are down; costs, especially star salaries, are up; and many super-sized, male-dominated movies -- just the kind that Hollywood relishes -- are tanking. So why not change the paradigm? Why not give stories about women a chance?

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War-driven dominance

THERE was a time when Tinseltown celebrated -- and employed -- its female stars. Personalities as luminous as Mae West (who almost single-handedly saved Paramount from bankruptcy), Rita Hayworth and even Shirley Temple, who was the reigning box-office princess throughout the 1930s, helped define the industry's golden years.

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