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Hollywood: Where women fight for a league of their own

In 1993, Victor Dwyer spent a week in Hollywood talking to women in the industry who were frustrated working in a man’s world


 

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As she tunes in with an expected one billion other viewers to the 65th annual Academy Awards ceremony on March 29, Anne Templeton will have an ideal opportunity to ponder Hollywood’s ambivalent attitude towards women. This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose 5,000 members decide the Oscar winners, has chosen “A Celebration of Women and the Movies” as the theme of its awards show. It has also nominated Howards End, based on E. M. Forster’s novel about turn-of-the-century England—and one of the few movies of 1992 with a substantial cast of female characters—as best picture. Templeton, senior vice-president of production at Edward R. Pressman Film in Los Angeles, had acquired the rights to Howards End while at Samuel Goldwyn Co. in 1989. But a superior there vetoed her decision—and turned the rights over to New York City-based Merchant Ivory Productions, whose $10.5-million adaptation has so far grossed $75 million. “A male executive above me said, ‘I don’t want to make this movie,’ ” recalled Templeton. “He said it was too soft, too sensitive. He said it would never sell.”

Templeton’s experience, many women in the industry insist, is typical of the way in which men dominate Hollywood. And they contend that the academy’s decision to honour women at this year’s Oscars is particularly untimely.

Among the most high-profile women’s roles in the past year, they note, were Sharon Stone’s bisexual psychopath in Basic Instinct, Rebecca De Momay’s deranged nanny in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s roommate-from-hell in Single White Female and Michelle Pfeiffer’s latex-wrapped Catwoman in Batman Returns. Said Harriet Silverman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based lobby group Women in Film: “It was not nearly the kind of year we would point to with pride and say, Women—and positive images of women—have been in the forefront.’ ”

Selecting five credible nominees for the best actress Oscar appeared to involve a joint effort on the part of film-makers to release their movies earlier than originally scheduled, and academy members to cast a wide net. Love Field, about a 1962 housewife in the American South who drives to Washington for President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, was released for two weeks in December—two months before its official opening—in an apparent, and successful, bid to win Pfeiffer a spot in a narrow field of potential nominees. Similarly, the producers of Passion Fish, about a soap opera star’s struggle with paraplegia, and with her troubled nurse, moved up that film’s New York opening to December—two months before its continent-wide release—and won Mary McDonnell a similar berth.

The academy, meanwhile, reached to Europe for two other nominees, giving the nod to England’s Emma Thompson, currently the odds-on-favorite, in Howards End, and to France’s Catherine Deneuve in Indochine, a drama set in French Indochina in 1930. Only Susan Sarandon, who delivered a fierce portrayal of a mother obsessed with her ailing son in Lorenzo’s Oil, and who is notoriously selective about the parts that she will play, is a classic Oscar candidate.

For the best supporting actress award, the academy looked abroad for four of the five nominations. The contenders include three English women—Joan Plowright (Enchanted April), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End) and Miranda Richardson (Damage)—as well as Australian Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives) and American Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny). So meagre was the Hollywood lineup that actress Shirley MacLaine suggested that the slim pickings may have influenced the academy’s choice of theme for this year’s Oscars. “They’re acting out of guilt,” she said, “because there’s not enough parts for women.”

Whatever the academy’s motivation, its decision has propelled women across the industry to reflect on the reasons why, in one of the most visible of all fields, strong, liberated women have all but disappeared. Actresses including Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn wielded as much power in Hollywood as their male counterparts in the 1930s and 1940s—and were known for playing strong and wilful characters who often had the upper hand on their male leads. Although in the 1960s and 1970s there were several substantial, often lead, roles for such women as Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway and Barbra Streisand, by the 1980s female characters were nearly eclipsed by Rambo and his testosterone-driven successors. And while Stanwyck was among the highest paid performers of her era, even such current first-rank actresses as Julia Roberts routinely earn about half as much as their male counterparts.

Skewed: Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the situation is equally skewed. Women write less than one-quarter of all the screenplays Hollywood produces—up only slightly from 10 years ago. And according to the Directors Guild of America, women directed only eight per cent of all Hollywood films in 1991. At the very top of major studios, women are almost non-existent. One exception is Sherry Lansing, chairman of Paramount Motion Pictures.

The situation is somewhat better in U.S. TV, where a handful of women have created some of the Big Three’s recent hits. And in Canada, while the film and TV industries appear to be more hospitable to women, the numbers for key creative positions are still low.

For many women, their marginal status in the industry is particularly aggravating because the barriers are not official.

“The prejudice is very insidious,” said writer Naomi Foner, who won a best screenplay Oscar nomination for Running on Empty (1988), about activists fleeing the FBI. “It’s not about anyone saying, ‘You can’t have the job because you’re a woman,’ ” added Foner, 47. “But when I look around at men at my level, and they say they want to direct a movie, they get to direct one. That’s not happening to women.”

The result, many contend, is a disproportionate number of fast-paced action features that are heavy on sex, sexism and violence. Although women account for almost half of movie ticket sales, there are still relatively few films built around female characters—their strengths, their romances and, in the case of movies like the recent hit The Bodyguard, starring Whitney Houston, even their weaknesses. “It’s a catch-22,” said Sara Risher, chairman of New Line Productions, during an interview in her sun-drenched office in downtown Beverly Hills. “Everyone caters to the lowest possible denominator and then they say, Well, it’s the lowest common denominator that comes to see movies.’ ”

Unhinged: The problem is compounded by the escalating budgets that high-tech, action-driven films demand. Last year, the average price of a Hollywood production was $36 million, up by about 10 per cent from 1991. Those high costs put studios under increasing pressure to make movies that will sell around the world. Explained Joan Hyler, a vice-president of the William Morris Agency whose clients have included Meryl Streep and Madonna: “Arnold Schwarzenegger with a gun is easier to sell to the Pakistani video market than a complex, wonderful American comedy.”

The flip side to that machismo is the steady stream of love-crazed, unhinged female characters that Hollywood seems to love. “The smarter and more beautiful the woman, the more dangerous she is,” said Foner. She traces that pattern to men’s gnawing anxiety about the growing power of women in recent decades. ‘What you’re seeing,” she said, “is very primitive fears expressed in these films.” Declared director Nancy Kelly, whose 1991 film, Thousand Pieces of Gold, tells the story of a Chinese woman brought as a prostitute to the United States during the Gold Rush: “Hating women is sometimes more commercial than loving them.”

A growing number of men, too, maintain that women suffer most from the caricatural nature of many Hollywood roles. Roger Birnbaum, president of Caravan Pictures, concedes that there is discrimination against women in the industry and that it has unfortunate consequences at the box office. “Everybody suffers from the same lack of diversity,” said Birnbaum. “It’s just worse for women because there aren’t as many roles offered to them.” A few male film-makers have helped to redress that situation. One is writer-director John Sayles, whose Passion Fish is a credible, sensitive ode to female friendship.

There are women who take issue with the whole notion that their gender is unfairly depicted. “It’s balanced by all the male psycho killers,” said Templeton. And some female film-makers resent the expectation that they will produce feminine films. One of them is Kathryn Bigelow, 39, who in recent years has emerged as an energetic player in the industry with Near Dark (1987), the story of an eccentric gang of modern-day vampires, Blue Steel (1990), in which Jamie Lee Curtis plays a tough New York City police officer, and Point Break (1991), starring Patrick Swayze as a surfboarding bank robber. “I don’t think there’s anything biological or cultural that makes a woman less inclined to hardware pictures than men,” said Bigelow. During an interview in the dining-room of her elegant bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, Bigelow said that she thinks “film-making has less to do with gender than with the artistic process—some of the most sensitive paintings, as sensitive as you could imagine, have been painted by men.”

Other film-makers disagree, and describe their role as creating an explicitly pro-woman agenda—regardless of the type of movie involved. New Line’s Risher has overseen all six episodes of the successful A Nightmare on Elm Street teen horror series. From the first instalment in 1984, she has used her role as chairman to ensure that the demonic Freddy Krueger kill male as well as female characters—and that he do so in situations other than orgasmic afterglow. “That broke the rule in horror films,” said Risher, “in which the woman is always killed right after having sex, presumably as punishment for having it, and generally while she’s not yet dressed.”

Denise Di Novi, producer of such hits as Edward Scissorhands (1990), about a conservative suburb’s response to a boy whose hands are made of scissors, and Batman Returns, said that during the making of the Batman sequel, she engineered similar changes to Pfeiffer’s character. Defending Catwoman, Di Novi, 37, who heads a production arm of Columbia Pictures, pointed to the character’s refusal, during her daytime secretarial job, to put up with the demeaning taunts of her boss: “Catwoman’s whole issue was a feminist one.”

Others see a growing trend towards entire movies that in subject matter and tone are explicitly directed at female audiences. Di Novi pointed to the immense impact of Thelma and Louise (1991), starring Sarandon and Geena Davis as close friends who drive away from their boring lives—and onto a feminist freeway—in a revved-up convertible. “It was a good fun film that was a hit,” said Di Novi of the $50-million box office success.

For her part, Sarandon speculated that the movie’s appeal had a lot to do with women’s pent-up frustrations. “The picture’s a classic road thriller,” said the actress, “but it’s also a little bit of every woman’s rage and rebellion.” Sarandon, 46, who lives in Manhattan with actor and film-maker Tim Robbins and their two children, aged 3 and seven months, is one high-profile political activist who publicly protested against the Gulf War. ‘Women are pissed off,” she said recently. ‘The language of the Republican party is very macho—it’s all about being a guy. During the Gulf War that’s all you heard, one penis reference after another.”

Known to put her family before her career and to try and time her acting jobs around her children’s schedules, Sarandon says that Lorenzo’s Oil appealed to her because the movie “is about questioning authority.”

And the actress sometimes pushes for the insertion of political content in her films: while shooting Lorenzo’s Oil, she insisted that the producers add some lines about the unavailability of experimental treatments for AIDS.

Many film-makers say that the challenge is to find vehicles that are both entertaining and informed by a solid feminism. Two-time Oscar winner and director Jodie Foster said that she feels “a responsibility to create human characters for women.” Added Foster: “Most of the scripts that you read, it’s amazing how inhuman and object-like women’s roles are.”

Liberated: Convincing studios to make intelligent, believable female characters can be difficult. Director Martha Coolidge, whose most recent movie was the critically acclaimed Rambling Rose (1991), for which actresses Laura Dem and Diane Ladd won best actress and best supporting actress nominations, respectively, said that it took a total of 17 years to find a studio willing to make that movie. Set during the Depression, it tells the story of a sexually liberated young woman who becomes the housekeeper of a conservative southern family. “The problem,” said Coolidge, who has just finished shooting Lost in Yonkers, with Mercedes Ruehl and Richard Dreyfuss, “was that Rambling Rose depicted women as sexual subjects instead of sexual objects. That was a point of view Hollywood wasn’t interested in.”

Familiar with such stories, actresses themselves are also working to change the kinds of films that Hollywood is producing. In recent years, such high-profile women as Streisand, Cher and Goldie Hawn have founded their own production companies in an attempt to generate their own material. Those who do not have the inclination to create their own companies are becoming increasingly choosy about the roles they will take. “More and more,” said Di Novi, “the powerful actresses are publicizing that they do not want to do certain things, or that they do want to do certain things.”

Geena Davis, the star of last summer’s surprise hit A League of Their Own, the story of an all-woman baseball league in the 1940s, has adopted such a stance. “There seems to be this whole rash of movies now where the whole goal is to incite the audience to scream, ‘Kill the bitch!’ ” said Davis. “I don’t want to be part of that.” She is currently shooting a romantic comedy, Angie, I Says, with director Coolidge.

Dowdy: But even as they work to create sympathetic scripts and characters, many actresses say that they have little control over Hollywood’s sexist approach to aging. Despite the example of survivors like MacLaine, even young, beautiful actresses say that they feel the clock ticking. “I’m not worried about age—but I’m very aware that this is my window of time,” said Pfeiffer. “I mean, I co-starred with Sean Connery in Russia House and nobody batted an eye. When he was 60, he was voted the sexiest man in the world.” Added Pfeiffer: “This just is not going to happen for women—not in my lifetime.”

Despite all the obstacles, some women express optimism that a recent spate of quirky, sensitive movies may encourage studios to think more critically about big-budget, male-centred films. Said writer Foner: “It is not an accident that The Crying Game [an offbeat tale of an IRA agent who falls in love with a male transvestite] and Howards End are out there getting large audiences and nominations for best picture,” she added. “People are tired of Far and Away [the forgettable 1992 epic starring Tom Cruise], and these big, huge bombs that keep getting foisted on them.”

And it may be women themselves—in theatres everywhere—who lead that transformation. Said producer Risher: ‘What’s changing is that the films that have female themes are making lots of money—sometimes more than male action buddy films. Look at the success of A League of Their Own,” she noted, about director Penny Marshall’s female buddy movie. “It was totally women who loved that and who dragged their boyfriends and husbands to see it.” By contrast, Risher pointed to the dismal performance of Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson as the crooked Teamsters boss, as evidence that women influence a film’s success. “I mean, almost no women were interested in going to see that,” she said.

As Oscar celebrates women’s accomplishments, the biggest challenge facing women in Hollywood clearly involves creating characters and movies that appeal to their own sensibilities—and to substantial audiences—while forging a system that gives them the opportunity to do so. “There are no tricks, there is no formula,” said Bigelow. “Ultimately, it is an entertainment industry, and the way forward is to create something that somebody else wants to hear.” She added, “If you are a woman in this industry at this time, that happens to mean being the equivalent of a Mack truck—but hopefully a Mack truck with integrity.” On the trail of Thelma and Louise, women filmmakers are gearing up for a bigger role in Hollywood.

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