Movie Stars: Women–Can They Conquer Hollywood?

Mark the date:

In 2005, women are playing more substantial and interesting roles than their male counterparts. That some of these roles are contained in the more typically “male” genres, such as thrillers, actioners, and horror flicks, makes it a double cause for celebration.

With the exception of half a dozen blockbusters and tent pole movies, such as “Batman Begins,” “War of the Worlds” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” 2005 may go down in film history as the year in which women have finally arrived. It was by no means an easy, smooth, or quick process–it took about half a century. However, a close look at femme roles these days reveals that for the first time in Hollywood’s history, women have the upper hand.

What better indication of the improved status and increased visibility of women than the path taken by Scarlett Johansson. Could you think of two directors that are more of polar opposites than Woody Allen and Michael Bay Yet, Johansson, who impressed two years ago in “Lost in Translation,” can be seen in Bay’s sci-fi-actioner “The Island” and in Woody Allen’s upcoming “Match Point,” which premiered in Cannes.

The turning point might have been in 2002, when “Chicago” broke records not only for being the first musical to have won the Best Picture Oscar since 1968’s “Oliver!” but also for being an entirely female-driven film, focusing on a triangle of women, played by Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Queen Latifah. This year, Rob Marshall is back as the helm of another femme-driven narrative, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” starring Asian Zhang Ziyi.

Competing for the 2002 Best picture (and other laurels), and winning Best Actress for Nicole Kidman, “The Hours” also made history by offering not one but three leading roles for women–never mind the politics of lead versus supporting–played by Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. Moore carried with charisma and talent another high-profile film, Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven,” in which, for a change, it was the men who played the second bananas. Moore then effortlessly segued into a more conventional Hollywood thriller, “Forgotten,” which was designed for her.

Younger or older, stunningly beautiful or more ordinary looking, women now dominate American films in unprecedented ways, proving they can command critical attention and carry a film on their own shoulders. Indeed, for the first time in 60 years, women are on top–above the title–with Hollywood planning major, big-budget studio movies that revolve around women.

They often have to do it on their own, with not much help from the other sex. Take the career of Sandra Bullock (“Miss Congeniality” film series), who might have been the blaze trailer for the new trend of making star vehicles that totally depend on their female star–with or without a strong male counterpart. The second film of the series, which is more of a buddy-buddy story, pairs her with African American actress Regina King (of “Ray” fame).

This year would boast overt two-dozen female vehicles in both mainstream Hollywood and the indie sector, sort of Off-Hollywood. The list would be much longer, if you add to it non-American (English-speaking) and foreign-language film. Aussie actress Cate Blanchett, who took Hollywood by storm seven years ago with “Elizabeth,” was seen in 2003 in two leading roles, in the biopicture of Irish journalist, “Veronica Guerin,” and in the Western melodrama, “The Missing.” Blanchett won the Supporting Oscar for impersonating Katharine Hepburn in “Aviator,” which opened just days before her other film, Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic.”

In her post-Oscar era, Angelina Jolie has starred in the sequel to “Lara Croft” and the romantic-political melodrama, “Beyond Borders.” That both films flopped, artistically and commercially, is not irrelevant; Hollywood is nothing if not a bottom-line industry. Nonetheless, the “Lara Croft” franchise was created specifically for Jolie, whose name was more crucial to the making of “Beyond Borders” than that of actor Clive Owen, who played a secondary part. After offering the voice of the seductive femme fatale in last year’s DreamWorks’ animation, Jolie held her own in the action-killer comedy, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which her physical prowess was just as impressive as that of her co-star, Brad Pitt; this was accomplished without sacrificing at all her strong sex appeal.

Arguably, Hollywood’s hottest actress at the moment is Nicole Kidman, who deserves credit for taking risks in various film genres: comedies, such as “The Stepford Wives” and “Bewitched,” and thrillers like “The Interpreter,” in which she has a more solid role than Sean Penn. Kidman has also appeared in European and American art films, such as Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville” and Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth.” Currently shooting the indie “Fur” in New York, Kidman’s next feature would be directed by cult Hong Kong auteur, Wong Kar-wai.

Blanchett, Jolie, and Renee Zellweger demonstrate another healthy trend for women, the smooth navigation between lead and supporting roles, without being penalized for playing the latter. Jolie won the supporting Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted,” but she is now a leading lady. Zellweger also won supporting Oscar, for “Cold Mountain” (in which the lead was played by Kidman), but she is also the center and star of the “Bridget Jones Diary” movies, as well as co-star of Russell Crowe in “Cinderella Man.”

Race and ethnicity seem to be less relevant in structuring female star vehicles than ever before. Ever since “Salina,” the film that put her on the map, for which she was paid the then all-time record for a Latina actress of one million dollars, Jennifer Lopez has been calling the shots in her films, placing herself above the title with little support from her male partners. Whatever you may think of Lopez as an actress, there’s no denying she’s a mid-range star with green-lighting powers: “Maid in Manhattan,” in which she was billed above Ralph Fienes, “Shall We Dance,” which also offered a role to Susan Sarandon, and “Monster-in-Law,” a film that revolved around two women: Lopez and Jane Fonda.

Halle Berry made history three years ago, when she became the first black actress to win the lead Oscar, and she continues to make waves, demonstrating she is not only bankable but can open a film without any backing from men. “Gothica,” the creepy horror picture, a genre usually reserved to men, did good business at the box-office. As cheesy and clumsy as “Cat Woman ” was, it couldn’t have been made without Berry.

At present, there is another encouraging trend in the female vehicles. Spanning the entire life cycle, from adolescence to old age, the diversity of roles allotted to women has never been wider. The range goes from adolescent and twentysomething stars Mandy Moore, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan and Evan Rachel Wood, all the way to respectable ladies of the age and experience of Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, and Gena Rowlands.

Playing or Coming Soon to a Theater Near You:

  • Joan Allen, “The Upside of Anger,” “Yes”
  • Jessica Biel, “Stealth”
  • Jennifer Connelly, “Dark Water”
  • Claire Danes, “Shopgirl”
  • Embeth Davidtz, “Junebug”
  • Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, “In Her Shoes”
  • Jodie Foster, “Flightplan”
  • Kate Hudson, “The Skeleton Key”
  • Scarlett Johnasson, “The Island,” “Match Point”
  • Miranda July, “Me and You and Everyone We Know”
  • Nicole Kidman, “The
  • Interpreter,” “Bewitched,” “Fur”
  • Keira Knightley, “Pride and Prejudice,” “Domino”
  • Lisa Kudrow, “Happy Endings”
  • Diane Lane, “Must Love Dogs”
  • Jennifer Lopez, “Monster-in-Law”
  • Gwyneth Paltrow, “Proof”
  • Rachel McAdams, “Red Eye”
  • Naomi Watts, “King Kong,” “Stay”
  • Reese Whitherspoon, “Walk the Line” (biopic of Johnny Cash), “Just Like Heaven”
  • Evan Rachel Wood, “Pretty Persuasion”
  • Rene Zellweger, “Cinderella Man”
  • Zhang Ziyi, “Memoirs of a Geisha”

Film history repeats itself, though not necessarily in progressive or predictable manner. In the 1930s and 1940s, the golden ear of the studio system, there were more female than male stars and more movies with strong female protagonists. In those years, audiences could see two or three movies starring Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Greer Garson, to mention the most prominent stars. With the exception of Hepburn, who beginning with “Woman of the Year” teamed with Spencer Tracy in nine pictures (many of which directed by George Cukor), most of the other women were the sole stars of their films, even when they appeared with male stars.

The current status of female stars stands in sharp contrast to their position in Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, from 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” to 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” Sadly, this golden age is one of the sexiest periods in American cinema.

The stereotypical portrayal of women rewarded them for accepting traditional roles–for not challenging the status quo. But it also showed that Hollywood was out of touch with reality, ignoring the little progress women were making in real life. A “culture lag,” a gap prevails in Hollywood pictures between women’s occupational roles and their ideological treatment. The most negative portrayal, trivializing women’s domestic roles and condemning career women, occurred just when women were beginning to make their mark off screen. Hollywood’s ideological backlash was manifest in three significant ways.

First, there was a paucity of lead screen roles for women. For a while it seemed as if women had disappeared from the American screen. The worst year in Oscar’s Best Actress history, marked by weak competition, was 1975, when members of the Acting Branch had difficulties naming five lead female roles. Under normal circumstances, Louise Fletcher’s winning role in Cuckoo’s s Nest would have qualified as a supporting Oscar.

The other nominees were: Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H., Ann Margret in Tommy, Glenda Jackson in Hedda (Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, and Carol Kane in Hester Street. Ellen Burstyn, the previous year’s winner, asked colleagues in the Acting Branch not to nominate actresses in the lead category as protest against Hollywood’s marginalization of women.

Men dominated Hollywood both quantitatively and qualitatively. The era’s typical big budget movies were action adventures, focusing on male heroism, male friendship, and male courage.

The era’s major movies featured two males in the leads, with few or no women in their tales. The list of movies is too long, but it’s sufficient to name some of the Best Picture nominees:

  • In the Heat of the Night, starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier;
  • Midnight Cowboy, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman;
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford;
  • M*A*S*H boasted a male cast headed by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould;
  • Patton, George C. Scott and Karl Malden;
  • The French Connection, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider;
  • Deliverance, Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds,
  • The Godfather, Parts I and II, an all-male cast, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino;
  • The Sting, Paul Newman and Robert Redford;
  • The Towering Inferno, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen;
  • Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino, John Cazale, Chris Sarandon;
  • Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw;
  • All the President’s Men, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Finally, most box office stars of that era were men–the only woman among the ten Box Office Champions was Barbra Streisand. The industry’s biggest names were all men with tough “macho” image: Steve McQueen (The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt) Clint Eastwood (the Dirty Harry movies), Lee Marvin (The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen), Charles Bronson (the Death Wish series).