Posted 12/20/2002 12:08 AM
Year of the woman in film

Nicole Kidman was convinced she wasn't right for the part of Virginia Woolf in the film adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize wining novel, The Hours.

"I almost talked myself out of it," she says.

Until she learned Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore would be her co-stars. "From the moment they said these are the other women, I didn't even think twice," says Kidman. "This opportunity rarely comes along. It's unheard of, to be honest."

Movies with three major roles for women are rare indeed. Even more rare: The Hours, which opens Dec. 27, also features such acclaimed actresses as Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Miranda Richardson and Claire Danes in supporting roles.

Kidman, Streep and Moore are the most visible symbols of a year that has provided moviegoers with more meaty major women's roles than any year in recent memory.

"It's been a banner year," says Streep, who has two Oscar-caliber movies out this month. She plays an editor throwing a party for an old friend dying of AIDS in The Hours and has a darkly comic role as real-life writer Susan Orlean in Adaptation. "Absolutely. It's just wonderful. And they're interesting, unconventional sorts of things that don't fit the formula."

Some femme-oriented films feature actresses who reached milestones. Some are possible Oscar candidates, others popular favorites:

  • Nia Vardalos, the unknown and unglamorous daughter of immigrants whose movie about her nutty family, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, became the box office phenomenon of the year.
  • Jennifer Aniston, the glossily cheerful TV star who proved she could tackle a serious and more substantive role in The Good Girl.
  • Diane Lane, the child actress who came of age in a sexy role as the philandering suburban wife in Unfaithful.
  • Halle Berry, the first Bond girl to earn her own spinoff movie after Die Another Day.
  • Reese Witherspoon, the perky Legally Blonde star whose asking price shot up to $20 million after visiting Sweet Home Alabama.
  • Jennifer Lopez, who proved she can go up against the old guard (Star Trek) and come out the winner in Maid in Manhattan.

One result of a year of strong women's roles is a tight race for Oscar.

The names most frequently bandied about as contenders for best-actress nominations are Kidman, Streep (both for The Hours), Moore (Far From Heaven), Renee Zellweger (Chicago), Lane and Aniston. But you can't discount longer shots such as Sigourney Weaver in The Guys, Salma Hayek in Frida and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary.

Sherry Lansing, who as chairman of Paramount Pictures' motion picture group was a driving force behind The Hours, says it all represents change in the industry: "We're seeing slowly, but surely, gender-blind decision-making. As women gain the power to green-light movies, we're going to show women in more complex and diverse ways. It's not perfect yet, but it's very exciting."

Hours director Stephen Daldry says the lot of women in Hollywood "is slowly coming around."

Others are less convinced the trend will be a lasting one.

Says Moore: "Everyone knows that in Hollywood there are no trends."

And her co-star Streep, after more than 25 movies over 25 years, attributes the good year to serendipity. "There have been years where that's been true at other points in my endless career," she says. "And other times where there's been a drought. I'm not sure what it's due to."

Return to 'Golden Age'?

Ironically, in an era in which feminine societal roles were more limited and proscribed, women's pictures flourished.

Says Lansing: "What has always confused me is that during the most chauvinistic time in Hollywood, when men really dominated the studios, is when you had Bette Davis and these amazingly female-driven movies. Female stars were equal, certainly, if not bigger than male stars."

Director Todd Haynes, whose Far From Heaven is an homage to movies by '50s filmmaker Douglas Sirk, is equally mystified. "In the '50s, there were always a handful of female box office stars and always fascinating stories," he says. "In some weird ways, we have become a much more male-dominated industry geared to a more male-dominated audience."

The blockbuster mentality has perpetuated the belief that only a handful of largely male stars —Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt — can draw moviegoers. Yet many make the case that this year proves that women other than Julia Roberts can open a movie and stories catering to female audiences can turn a profit at the box office.

That chance has come partly because more women are in power in Hollywood. Lansing is one of three female studio heads (along with Stacey Snider of Universal Pictures and Amy Pascal of Columbia Pictures). And though women still have a long way to go, more are joining the writing and producing ranks. (According to the most recent data, 27% of the Writers Guild is female, a slight increase over the past decade, but female directors dropped from 11% in 2000 to 6% in 2001.)

Many actresses are forming their own production companies to nurture projects they believe in.

Consider Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic. It took Salma Hayek, who has her own production company, many years to get the movie made. It was nearly cast with a non-Latina actress, but Hayek dug in her heels and ultimately produced and starred in it, earning kudos for her performance.

"It took extraordinary tenacity," says Frida director Julie Taymor. "She struggled hard to make the movie and waited until all the right pieces were together."

More women in the audience

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for more movies for and about women comes from female-driven box office grosses.

"If you just want to shake the guy executives, look at the Big Fat Greek Wedding phenomenon," says director Haynes of the $5 million picture that has been playing more than eight months and grossed over $210 million. "It's due to female filmgoers. It's a female-centered kind of story that is about the family and all these characters in a household. Women are telling their friends to see it, and they'll drag their husbands. That's what characterizes its unique slow burn and staying power. So, guys, it's not just testosterone movies we should be considering when we're putting films together."

Sigourney Weaver, who stars as a journalist who writes eulogies for fallen firefighters in The Guys, thinks executives were already starting to realize the power of estrogen.

"Women and men in the business are realizing much more what a resource we are and how popular stories about women are," she says. "And I think it might continue for a while. Dare I knock on wood?"

Weaver is perplexed by the industry's conventional wisdom. "They have this theory that men choose the movie," says Weaver. "It's a bizarre misreading of how the world works. The women I know say, 'I don't want to see that buddy movie. If you want to go out with me, you have to see this movie.' In Hollywood, they all say men want to see Mel Gibson and women want to see Mel Gibson. Nothing against Mel ... but I think people want to see good stories and good stories always have great women's roles."

Searching for relevant movies

Julianne Moore also thinks Hollywood misses a major opportunity if there's a return to short-shrifting movies for women.

"My theory is, there's always a female audience," says Moore. "But we will only go if they make movies for us, because we're just too busy. It makes me crazy when people ask why women don't go to the movies. No. 1, there are no movies for us and No. 2, we have jobs and families. I never get out of the house with two little kids. If I go, I want to know it really is something for me. I want it to be relevant to me."

Patricia Clarkson, who plays Moore's close-minded best friend in Far From Heaven, sees more people in the industry sticking up for such movies.

"I do think there are more great people in our business that want to make great projects and they'll make these female-driven parts and take the risk," she says. "I think it is getting better."

In more ways than the number of movies being made. Many also praise the richness of this year's roles.

Says Paramount's Lansing: "There's been a diversity of women's roles, more women in complicated roles dealing with complicated issues, and fewer women as victims."

And the definition of a strong role has changed, too, says Emily Mortimer, a supporting-actress contender for her role as a self-loathing ing鮵e in Lovely & Amazing. "For a while, there was this clich餠notion that good women's parts meant strong women, women that carried on or were tough and bitchy," she says. "What's great is you can have a wonderful part that's all about insecurities and vulnerabilities."

And many of these roles are tailored to women with more life experience, a very welcome phenomenon in a notoriously youth-obsessed industry.

"By the time you're a certain age, people send you all kinds of interesting scripts," says Weaver. "They're beginning to think you're more interesting than you were in your 20s."

Adds Clarkson: "All the roles out there are not just for 25-year-olds. Of course we'd all like to think it's a significant change. You want to think 'I'm going to work forever.' But I do feel there is somewhat of a place for women 35 and older in Hollywood."

Meanwhile, actresses who have found a niche in the male-dominated system say they feel a sense of kinship and an awareness of their part in a changing Hollywood.

Kidman points out that she, Moore and Streep are all working mothers. Not only has that informed their work, but it makes them aware of their power as role models.

"We have eight kids between us," Kidman says. "Certainly, writers and directors are cultivating far more roles for us and it's so good for the next generation of girls to see onscreen different types of women doing all different things, experiencing all different types of emotions. It's not just good for girls, but for boys to see someone like Jennifer Aniston come into her own this year and get a great film role."

Even if movies about women continue to get made, females in Hollywood are by no means close to equal with the male co-stars. Salary disparities between men and women persist, and testosterone-fueled pictures still reign supreme during much of the year, mostly because they're seen as more likely to make their money back. It's no idle concern: Average budgets run $50 million, with some reaching upwards of $100 million.

Women's pictures rarely, if ever, get the big budgets. Many of the most admired roles for actresses this year were in films made on modest sums, including The Hours ($20 million) and Far From Heaven ($14 million). Many more were made outside the studio system for much less, including Secretary, The Guys, Real Women Have Curves, Lovely & Amazing, Kissing Jessica Stein and The Good Girl.

Even an actress like Moore — with star power, Oscar nominations and respect — can't get that extra couple million. Haynes struggled mightily with Focus Features (owned by Universal) to convince the Far From Heaven backers that the movie would be profitable on a $15 million budget.

"The financial entities felt comfortable with $12 million," says Haynes. "It was sort of arbitrary, based on who's hot and who's not. It wasn't Julianne's fault. It was just the terms of the industry and (the notion that) there's only one bankable star who can carry a film."

Streep thinks that notion might be changing, too, thanks in no small part to the small screen.

"There have been some successes in television with shows that are idiosyncratic, unusual and character-driven," such as HBO's The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, she says. "I don't watch a lot of television, but something is encouraging people to green-light projects that they wouldn't ordinarily."

Most actresses, though encouraged, eye the improved picture with guarded optimism.

"You know what I'm hoping," says Chicago's Catherine Zeta-Jones. "I'm hoping that it isn't like waiting for a bus. You wait for years and years and years and they all come together and then they go away."

Contributing: Susan Wloszczyna