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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 was not until the late '60s that studios discovered that male buddy movies such as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" made cash registers sing. At the time, Jay Presson Allen, the screenwriter of "Cabaret," chalked this up to a new "masculine sensibility" pervading our culture as a result of the Vietnam War. Given the obvious parallel with the war in Iraq, is this also today's zeitgeist?

"Movies are, consciously or unconsciously, a reflection of the culture around us. And that culture has been diminishing the role of women," says director Martha Coolidge, former president of the Directors Guild of America, whose movie "Material Girls" will be released this year. "We are being overwhelmed by a very conservative, women-should-go-back-to-the-kitchen sensibility. Also, there are fewer jobs. When that happens, the fringe -- that is, women and minorities -- is the first to go."

This is true even though women such as Pascal; Stacey Snider, the CEO of Universal; and Gail Berman, the president of Paramount, are now running major studios. Twenty years ago women in the business imagined that such a reshuffling of the Hollywood power structure would help reestablish the presence of women on screen. What could we have possibly been smoking?

None of the above executives agreed to speak to The Times for this piece. But one player who's been in the business for decades puts it this way: "These women have had to become men. They have had to put on the suits and play the game that way in order to get and keep their jobs."

"I don't think there's a big difference between the male and female executives," screenwriter Swicord agrees. "The studios are now owned by corporations. They're all driven by the bottom line."

But even Hollywood's most reliable audience, its teenage boys, are no longer a sure thing. "They are harder to get into theaters these days," says producer Laurence Mark. "They have so many more distractions. And suddenly we are starting to perceive female moviegoers as a tad more reliable."

Mark may know whereof he speaks. He is shooting the movie version of the 1981 Tony-winning Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" with a dream cast -- Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy. And his comedy "Last Holiday," starring Queen Latifah, which opened Jan. 13 to a robust $15-million first-weekend box office, has made more than $36 million in domestic release.

Generally, however, Hollywood's obsession with opening numbers lobbies against "women's pictures." The current wisdom is that women, who have families and jobs, simply do not go to movies early enough to suit the suits. "I was once told by a big marketing research firm that the older-woman audience is the hardest to convert from interested party to ticket buyer," says Obst. "With 'In Her Shoes,' women trickled into the box office. And that's hard on the studios. By week 22, the studio doesn't get the money; theater owners do."

Apparently, the only genre that brings women -- at least young ones -- out early is the horror picture. "Teenage girls are going in packs," says Obst. "They see some form of empowerment in the genre, where female characters fight off the slashers." And thus the overwhelming success of the "Scary Movie" and "Saw" pictures and the current "When a Stranger Calls," with its teen baby sitter heroine. "Stranger" cost $15 million and opened to $22 million on Super Bowl weekend.

It's noteworthy too that "Underworld: Evolution," the horror romp starring Kate Beckinsale as a sexy vampire, took in $55 million in its first two weeks. "A whole genre of strong warrior women are out there," says Coolidge. "TV's Emma Peel was the first version of this idea. The comic book character was Wonder Woman, of course. And think of Uma Thurman in 'Kill Bill' or Angelina Jolie in the 'Lara Croft' franchise. These women are super-sexy, super-physical specimens of womanhood and athleticism; men might be scared of them, but they like to fantasize about them."

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Hemmed in on the page

"ALMOST all the executives I speak with say they want strong female characters these days," says Coolidge. But their definition of "strong" is open to interpretation.

Comedy writers Amy Rardin and Jessica O'Toole, who co-wrote "Material Girls," say that, in their experience, studio execs sometimes limit what female characters can do in comedy situations. "You're told that they can't be that funny," says Rardin. "Or, 'Actresses aren't going to do that because they are going to look stupid.' The way studio executives allow women to be funny is to make them clumsy. 'Oh, let's have her fall over.' They think she can fall over and still be sexy."

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