Women, on the verge

In 1975, Ellen Burstyn--who'd won the Academy Award for best actress the previous year--caused a stir when she publicly decried the lack of good female roles in movies, and encouraged her sisters in cinema to boycott the Oscars by refusing to nominate, vote for, or participate in the actress and supporting-actress categories.

Her plea was rejected.
And 17 years later, in 1992, the number of good, high-profile roles for women was still so scarce that of the five films garnering best-actress nominees that year, the domestic box-office grosses of four of those movies combined added up to less than $10 million.

But something surprising has occurred since then. When Susan Sarandon walked home with an Oscar--finally--for Dead Man Walking, and when Kate Winslet took the statue for Sense and Sensibility last March, they did so not as the lesser of five evils, but as first among equals. For the first time since 1950, the most competitive of all the Oscar categories were the two acting berths reserved exclusively for the "y" chromosome-deficient members of the Academy. Finally, belatedly, remarkably, the era of women may have arrived, as a new subculture of cinema begins to emerge: the female-empowerment film.

The significance of what's happening in Hollywood runs deeper than a mere Oscar ceremony. It isn't just that a few women happened to deliver better performances last year than their male counterparts, or even that the quality and number of roles for women has improved drastically. Rather, women are coming into their own as complex, fully formed individuals on film, and the subtle social slant of these movies is edging toward outright feminism. Good female characters no longer need be defined merely in terms of the men in their lives, but can stand alone. And perhaps more importantly, studios--and audience members (including men)--seem to be embracing feminist ideology in their heroines without being scared off by it.

For the moment, this revolution remains in its infancy--and there are numerous betrayers to the cause, like Showgirls. But the trend is encouraging. Whereas movie males have always been independent without a single line of dialogue inserted to explain why this is so, well-adjusted women usually spend vast amounts of screen time justifying their independence. While this year's Oscar nominees included seemingly "routine" female roles--two prostitutes, three sisters, four wives--they also included some rarities: a devout nun portrayed without caricature, and a clutch of women who stand on their own and stand up to the men in their lives.

Of the four actresses nominated this year who play spouses, only Kathleen Quinlan, as Marilyn Lovell in Apollo 13, could be called the typical doting housewife. The rest were a mix of women seeking ways to express their burgeoning independence: an unstable drug addict trying to assert herself (Sharon Stone in Casino); a strong, steely eyed first lady refusing to be controlled by her paranoid husband (Joan Allen in Nixon); and a middle-age immigrant who carries on a torrid affair in order to escape a stale marriage (Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County). These were all women who found ways to wriggle out from under the thumb of dominant males, and they succeeded not just by deception or pouting, but by meeting their oppressors face to face, as equals--and sometimes as their superiors.

The rise of cinematic feminism has increased exponentially in recent years, even if in indirect ways. The evidence is out there, flickering on the movie screens. Women characters seem more comfortable at demonstrating an individual sense of purpose and well-roundedness; they act rather than react, and convey a full range of emotions instead of the rote, subservient female responses allowed to a film's "love interest" (forlornness, maternal nurturing, and the like).

The current film Diabolique, for example, despite being a messy, uneven thriller, portrays two abused women who undertake the ultimate exercise in female empowerment: They kill their male tormentor. The 1995 Christmas hit Waiting to Exhale surprised many by generating $60 million in revenues without a single above-the-title man to buoy it, while Heat struggled to reach $40 million with three top-name actors in the leads. Jane Austen's 19th-century brand of feminism got trotted out and tacked with modern themes three times in 1995--in Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and in Clueless, which was written and directed by one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, Amy Heckerling, and based broadly on Austen's novel Emma. And two recent art-house releases, Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad, and especially Antonia's Line, are among the most unabashedly feminist films to be seen in a long while.

In the era of B.T.L. ("Before Thelma & Louise"), the only major studio release that seemed as subversively feminist in its portrayal of women triumphing over men was The Witches of Eastwick--and that film suffered from the disadvantage of labeling its heroines "witches."

The nervous patriarchy that has silently, implicitly run Hollywood for years has simply refused to acknowledge a film's commercial viability when the women are not only independent, but normal. In just the last decade, "feminism" has been equated routinely with lesbianism (Personal Best, Claire of the Moon), villainous man-bashing (Fatal Attraction, She-Devil), or both (Basic Instinct). Lesbianism seems, in fact, like Hollywood's short cut for making a female character interesting. More perversely, feminism has sometimes been represented as a weakness in women that can be "cured" by a strong man. Die Hard, an otherwise dandy action picture, is marred when the hero's wife is criticized for using her maiden name until her beefy, testosterone-laden he-man of a husband finally rescues her--at which point she takes back her married name; it's as if she finally realized the error of her feminist ways and capitulated to his superior hunter-gatherer instincts.

Thelma & Louise rewrote that insidious stereotype. It showed that feminism could shift successfully from obscure art-house films to mainstream acceptance. Here were two heterosexual working women with lives outside of their men who demonstrated persuasively and categorically the great rallying cry of empowerment: that "no" really does mean "no." The cry of sexism levied against the movie struck me as almost funny. It speaks volumes that many considered Thelma & Louise to be man-hating, whereas films like The Last Boy Scout--which portrays women as adulteresses, bratty teens, or exotic dancers, and kills them off with a reckless, casual glee when it runs out of things for them to do--was not called "woman-hating."

There are a variety of explanations for the rise of female-empowerment films. Developments in the political landscape, prestigious actresses demanding better roles, and increases in the number of women behind the camera and typewriter are all relevant. But the No. 1 reason is plain: They are profitable. If money talks in most places, in Hollywood it shrieks like a wounded banshee.

Thelma & Louise was a sleeper hit in theaters and a smash on video. And the feminist thread is most easily woven into genre pictures and reliable remakes that the studios plan to make anyway. Filmmakers realize that adding a feminist message won't dilute the main story, and executives realize they can appease a wider audience by inserting one. If young girls can be expected to pay six bucks to see Little Women, why not lure in the adult-female crowd by casting Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon in the key roles, and tossing in a few socially progressive themes? And since Disney's animation juggernaut has a gigantic built-in audience, what's the harm in selecting as a protagonist an ethnic woman like Pocahontas--to get the parents and kids to come back a second and third time?

One reason women's pictures often prove profitable is because they are cheaper to make than most high-concept films. The average production cost of a studio movie in 1995 was $38 million; add another $20 million for marketing and copies of the prints, and you've just raised the average price of a film--one with an equal chance to boom or bust--to a sum greater than the cost of filmdom's most notorious failure, Heaven's Gate. Female-oriented movies simply cost less. No pricey explosions. No special effects. Less inflated actor salaries. Braveheart's $65 million gross hasn't offset its staggering $75 million cost yet, while the $38 million earned by Sense and Sensibility has more than doubled the initial $16 million production-cost investment, and has proven nicely profitable even with additional costs factored in.

For years, independent films have thrived by painting detailed portraits of women (and men) in believable, mature situations, but it's great that Hollywood has finally joined the game, even if late in the second half. Even one of the short films that screened last month at the USA Film Festival, Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier, dealt exclusively with a movie actress who finally took control of her life and put the men right where they belong--on the rung she's stepping over on her way to the top. Ileana Douglas, one of the most promising adult actresses the film industry has offered up this decade, wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, and you can't help but assume it is based on her personal experiences. Even so, that she was able to make it, and make it well, is but one example of a promising trend.

Yet without vigilance by and support from audiences, this trend is as shakily positioned as break-dancing musicals and Eddie Murphy comedies. A golden opportunity such as this, in which viewers can exploit studio greed for the better good of cinema and society, comes infrequently enough; it should not be allowed to dwindle away for lack of public interest.

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