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[THE OSCARS] | THE ACTRESSES

Casting call for the heirs apparent

Picturing the ranks of America's on-screen royalty 10 years hence has many wondering: Who'll fill the bill?

February 18, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

AFTER last year's Oscar nominations, a missing persons report was filed for the female lead. None of the best picture finalists had one, and the best actress category was essentially a cast of two: Reese Witherspoon, who won for "Walk the Line," and Felicity Huffman who, in "Transamerica," played a man, albeit in the process of becoming a woman.

This year, the report should be amended; it's not actresses who are AWOL, it's just American actresses. Yes, Meryl Streep is up for her role in "The Devil Wears Prada" (technically a supporting role, but don't tell the academy), but then she's Meryl Streep; her nomination is, at this point, an Oscar tradition.

Still, watching her settle the mantle of First Woman of American Cinema around her shoulders at the Golden Globes -- peering through her reading glasses at her speech with a royal nonchalance not even Helen Mirren could muster, exhorting film fans to seize the means of production and force theater owners to show arty fare such as "Little Children" -- one couldn't help but wonder where that mantle will be landing 10 years hence. Acknowledging that artists, like snowflakes, are unique, where is the next Meryl Streep? Or Jessica Lange? The Gen-X Susan Sarandon or Sally Field?

Some argue that Americans are losing out to their better-trained European peers -- in the UK and Australia most actors study their craft at school and do much of their training onstage instead of in front of the camera. In the U.S., though some actors are classically trained, many get into the industry in different ways. Americans, some fear, are more about stardom, less about craft -- actors such as Chris Cooper and Kathy Bates have complained that actors and directors are getting lazy, forgoing research for a persona that works well on camera.

"Now people are often hired because they have a look," says casting director Victoria Thomas. "It's easy for an American actor to get a role without any training."

But that, she says, isn't the real problem. The real problem is the dearth of roles for women.

"There have not been a lot of roles for women for quite a few years," she says. "So you have all these actresses competing. Directors have their pick of great actresses."

The Brits, she says, are more generous to women over 40, particularly women over 40. "Judi Dench, Maggie Smith. Here they'd never work." Here, it has gotten so bad that years will go by before she even has to consult her file of women over 40, that stars who were once requested for a film find themselves having to audition for parts with a few lines. "And the directors, who are young men, don't even know who they are."

Ron Van Lieu, chair of the acting program at the Yale School of Drama, agrees. He says young women are as committed as ever to their craft, their craft just isn't as committed to them.

"I see many, many talented women who want a career in film and television and the stage," he says. "But if there's nothing for them to do, how will the world know how good they are?"

Many, he says, find interesting work in television -- HBO and Showtime offer opportunities for serious acting -- but there still remains a more rigid boundary between TV and film than exists in the UK, where the stage trumps either screen in terms of serious work. Here, he adds, the reverse has become true.

"Nowadays in New York, if you want to get a play," he says, "you have to be from TV and film, so people are realizing if they want to work onstage, they have to go to Hollywood first."

He finds the academy nominating process and the casting of large films lacking in imagination. "If Judi Dench or Kate Winslet does a film, it seems they're automatically nominated," he says. "And why does the part always have to go to Cate Blanchett? Why can't it go to Naomi Watts or someone else?"

For the record, Watts was born in England and raised in Australia and recently announced she is pregnant and would not be taking on any roles until after the birth. And that, say some, is where you will find the thirtysomething American actress -- the nursery. Gone are the days when actresses unquestioningly corseted their growing bellies or dragged a nursing newborn onto a set. Instead, stars such as Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow are putting themselves on the mommy track.

"Mothers in their 30s want to spend quality time with their kids," says producer and former Universal executive Hal Lieberman ("Bridge to Terabithia"). "Good for them, but then they don't get the roles."

Lieberman is not convinced that any problem exists save the time-honored ones -- there are never enough great parts for all the talented people who want them. When his upcoming film "Vacancy" was cast, the issue of nationality was not part of the equation and Kate Beckinsale, a Brit, got the role. "This is a very serious thriller, so we went with a very serious actress. The character is an American, but we knew Kate could do the accent, and Kate was at the top of our list."

Cyclical circumstances

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