LOS ANGELES - For a while there, it was starting to feel as if leading women had become an endangered species in Hollywood movies.
Julia Roberts has, for several years, been pretty much the only female star on the A-list. In the quest for box office bucks, movieland's popular wisdom has long decreed that teenage boys, who prefer explosions and gross-out jokes, are the audience that counts.
But something strange is happening in American movie houses. Suddenly (or so it seems) women are popping up all over. Recent and upcoming films feature women in the lead, many of them destined for Oscar campaigns.
Currently in theaters is "Frida," about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, with Salma Hayek in the title role. "Sweet Home Alabama" has coasted on Reese Witherspoon's charm to a box office haul of about $120 million. Coming soon and already attracting Oscar buzz is "The Hours," with the powerhouse trifecta of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore in the leads; Streep is also about to appear in a showy role as writer Susan Orlean in "Adaptation." The musical "Chicago," with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the leads, is generating early Oscar talk.
Streep is not the only middle-aged actress -- a rarely seen item on the casting agenda -- spending significant time on the big screen this fall. Susan Sarandon had prominent roles in three movies: "The Banger Sisters," with equally middle-aged Goldie Hawn, "Igby Goes Down" and "Moonlight Mile."
Meanwhile, the indie movie "Real Women Have Curves," with an ensemble cast of Latina actresses, has been such a critical hit that HBO released it theatrically instead of only on cable television.
This time last year offered slim pickings to those seeking women in prominent Hollywood roles. There were, for example, Hilary Swank in "The Affair of the Necklace," which disappeared without a trace, and Nicole Kidman, who starred in the psychological thriller "The Others."
Kidman's other 2001 film, "Moulin Rouge," got her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. But to find other nominees, the committee looked far and wide, honoring the small indie film "Monster's Ball," which eventually brought Halle Berry the Oscar; giving a rare nod to comedy (Zellweger in "Bridget Jones's Diary"); choosing Sissy Spacek for the nano-budget "In the Bedroom"; and tapping Judi Dench for the little-seen "Iris."
The shift this season has piqued the interest of industry insiders and observers. "I don't know if it's by design," says Paul Dergarabedian, who heads Exhibitor Relations, which follows the box office. "There's a confluence of factors that create this situation: what was being written, what was being green-lighted" in the past couple of years.
Producers and directors say, for one thing, the success of Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich" two years ago -- a film that took in $125 million at the box office and brought the actress an Oscar -- trickled into the perceptions of Hollywood decision-makers.
"I think 'Erin Brockovich' has had a big effect, certainly from the perspective of the people I see, agents and studio executives," says Peter Kosminsky, director of "White Oleander." In "Brockovich," Roberts played the title character, a brassy single mother and legal assistant who takes on a chemical company over environmental pollution.
Kosminsky continues: "That movie was perceived as a success, and Julia gave a tremendous central performance.... Whether that's convinced people that actresses can "open' a movie, I don't know. But it ought to have."
Another factor is the rise of a new generation of actresses with the acting chops to carry commercial fare like romantic comedies, thrillers and even that long-lost genre, the musical.
In the recent past, says Nina Jacobson, president of Disney's motion picture division, "you'd ask, 'What women can open a movie and carry it, regardless of genre?' There's one name, Julia Roberts.... Now there are a number of women starting to expand that list: Reese Witherspoon, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman."
And in recent months some women-oriented films have shown box office clout. Witherspoon in "Sweet Home Alabama" and Nia Vardalos in that chug-chug-chugging sleeper hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" have had huge commercial success. In studying market research, studio executives were amazed to find that female moviegoers made up two-thirds of the box office total in early October: $55 million on an $80 million weekend.