Leading Ladies in Hollywood

Pretty Woman6

There aren’t enough women in Hollywood.  The men who run the studio won’t or can’t make movies for women.  These are not new complaints.  Twenty-five years ago, Stephen Farber wrote about the same issues for the July 1991 issue of Movieline magazine.  But according to Farber, it wasn’t always that way.  Despite the many flaws of the studio system, according to Farber, Hollywood did a better job of making movies for women in the Golden Age.

In Hollywood, a huge popular success has always spawned imitations. When Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lit up the box office in 1969, they generated a whole decade’s glut of male buddy movies, from The French Connection to The Deer Hunter. Then Star Wars and other big-budget spectacles started a cycle of action-adventure movies built around male superheroes. A bunch of baseball movies trailed Bull Durham, and the success of Dances With Wolves will surely launch a whole wagon train of westerns. Every hit movie produces a slew of carbon copies–with one single exception. Two of the biggest hits of 1990–Ghost and Pretty Woman were love stories with female protagonists. As I write this, the two most successful movies of 1991 The Silence of the Lambs and Sleeping With the Enemy–have also had women as their central characters. If Hollywood plays by the usual rules, shouldn’t we expect to see a barrage of women’s movies well into the ’90s?

Don’t bet on it. The usual logic vanishes when women are involved. Suddenly Hollywood abandons its typical practices because of a jumble of unspoken and irrational assumptions. When asked why Hollywood doesn’t make more movies about women, studio executives invariably reply that women’s pictures don’t make money; they explain that they are only reflecting public taste. If one points out that Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias were box-office hits, the response will be that those movies were flukes. Now that several more strong women’s films have clearly caught the public’s fancy, it is harder to argue that these hits are freak accidents. Yet the executives continue to ignore the evidence. No matter how many dismal action movies like The Hard Way falter, Hollywood keeps churning them out. Obviously the people in power simply feel more comfortable with all-male movies, and they aren’t going to let any verifiable data cloud their prejudices.

“You see the same stuff in movie after movie,” Bette Midler told me. “I don’t want to see blood and gore or be scared shitless in every movie. The only kinds of pictures the studios want to make are male action pictures and teen comedies. They’re frightened of strong relationship pieces. But who wants to see movies called Career Opportunities or Taking Care of Business? They sound like baked beans. There’s no poetry in them. I want to see movies with titles like Gone With the Wind.”

Even the cautious Hollywood press has begun to complain about the absence of female characters of depth, mystery, and vitality. As Meryl Streep explained when she spoke to a SAG Women’s conference last year, she did not object simply to the scarcity of women in important positions behind the camera. “Where I felt starved,” Streep said pointedly, “was as a member of the audience, as someone with daughters and a son. Where are their role models like the ones I had when I grew up? Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball–those big, formidable presences who were important people in their films.”

Despite the popular image of the old studio moguls as boors, they had far more respect for women than today’s better educated executives. One of the first movies that Louis B. Mayer produced was directed by a woman, Lois Weber, and he entrusted important positions to women at MGM. The crass Harry Cohn, similarly, relied on several women to help him make decisions at Columbia. Perhaps because they harbored no doubts about who had absolute power, these men weren’t threatened by strong women. And they were just as interested in stories about women on the home front as they were in tales of men at war or cowboys on the range.

Of course, their confidence in the audience helped them to create a rich cross section of movies, and the studio contract system meant that the moguls spent just as much time nurturing and promoting their female stars as they did merchandising the men. They had an investment in all their players and they didn’t discriminate on the basis of gender. Budgets were modest, and so were studios’ expectations for most of their movies. A women’s picture might cost $1 million to produce, and if it took in $5 or $6 million, it was a smashing success. If Stella Dallas or Woman of the Year or All About Eve had had to gross $75 million to break even, film history might have been different.

In those days, the diversity among the female stars was extraordinary, and writers had a chance to imagine every conceivable kind of woman’s role. There were the down-to-earth comediennes like Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, and Rosalind Russell; the patrician Katharine Hepburn and the ethereal Audrey Hepburn; the sexy tarts like Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe; the tough career women Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck; the exotic imports Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich; the versatile musical performers Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland, just to name a few.

We can’t boast of the same variety today. Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger, and Julia Roberts are all variations on the same type–sexy-but-vulnerable kittens, with an endearing pout but without a lot of brainpower. Of course there are many gifted actresses with different qualities, but they haven’t had the opportunity to create a memorable persona in film after film. It’s a chicken-and-egg question as to which comes first, the actresses or the roles. But the stable of stars today is not remotely comparable to the dazzling galaxy that graced the movies 40 or 50 years ago.

It was in the ’70s that women virtually disappeared from the screen. The great teams of the era were couples like Newman and Redford, Hoffman and McQueen, Sutherland and Gould. For several years during the 70s, it was difficult to find five women to nominate as best actress. Women who essentially had supporting roles, like Valerie Perrine in Lenny, were nominated as best actress because there was no other way to fill the category. In 1975 Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for a relatively small part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because the competition was so slim. To fill out the roster, the Academy had to travel abroad. The other nominees of 1975 included Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H and Glenda Jackson in a film version of her stage performance in Hedda. There were more European actresses nominated in the 70s than at any time in film history, and it wasn’t because Hollywood had suddenly become cosmopolitan in its outlook.

The ’70s represented a turning point on several counts. That was the era of The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, when studios realized that huge action pictures could deliver grosses never before imagined possible. That discovery coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. Probably the male executives were fearful of the growing militancy of women, but they were also genuinely confused about what kinds of female characters to create. If they presented a heroine who wasn’t a suitable role model, they might find themselves under attack by angry women’s groups. Feeling besieged, many producers decided that the path of least resistance was simply to eliminate women altogether. As Molly Haskell wrote in her book From Reverence to Rape, “The growing strength and demands of women in real life, spearheaded by women’s liberation, obviously provoked a backlash in commercial film: a redoubling of Godfather-like machismo to beef up man’s eroding virility or, alternately, an escape into the all-male world of the buddy films from Easy Rider to Scarecrow.”

In a way Hollywood never recovered from that decade of silence and evasion. The situation is slightly less dire today. It isn’t quite so hard to come up with five American nominees for best actress (though ten would be a serious challenge). But Hollywood still seems baffled by the changing roles of women in society and continues to waste some of its most gifted actresses. After the success of When Harry Met Sally…, Meg Ryan was given her own production company to develop movies. Not one of her own projects has yet made it to the screen, and Ryan’s last appearance was little better than a walk-on–the embarrassing role of Jim Morrison’s mindless, masochistic common-law wife in The Doors.

Some producers have decided that one way to improve the lot of women in film is to cast women in roles that traditionally have gone to men. Thus Sigourney Weaver has scored a considerable success playing a machine-gun-toting superhero in the Alien series, and Jodie Foster is an FBI agent matching wits with a psychopath in The Silence of the Lambs. Goldie Hawn has practically built her career in the last decade by playing a woman in a man’s world–the army (Private Benjamin), an aircraft factory (Swing Shift), Washington power politics (Protocol), and high school football (Wildcats).

These movies are often engaging as novelty items, but the solution to the problem of women in film is not to cast more women in genre pieces that have typically been all-male. Women can be involved in many of the same conflicts as men, but they also have unique concerns about family and romantic relationships that simply aren’t being addressed in contemporary movies. Shirley MacLaine raised a pertinent criticism when she said recently that the goal of actresses should not be to strive to beat the men on their own turf of action-adventure movies. “Who in her right mind is interested in going out and killing 30 million people in the first two minutes?” MacLaine asked. “The problem is less the number of roles available to women than the film industry’s discomfort with projects involving relationships, feelings, communication–the kind of things women are more likely to go into than men.”

Hollywood does occasionally try remaking an old-fashioned “woman’s picture” like Stella Dallas, but the filmmakers have trouble updating these stories. That doesn’t mean, however, that the genre has lost its relevance. Television finds variations on these classic women’s movies that do have a contemporary urgency. For example, a recent television film called Our Sons featured Julie Andrews as a highly successful businesswoman whose life comes apart when she learns that her son’s lover is dying of AIDS. She must come to terms with her own unresolved feelings about her son’s homosexuality as well as her fears for his life. Andrews, who has spent most of her career as a movie star, went to television for the first time because she couldn’t find any role of comparable depth on the big screen.

Would it help to bring in more female executives, producers, and directors?

Hollywood’s employment record is abysmal in this regard, but I wouldn’t be sanguine that more female players behind the scenes would produce a dramatic improvement in women’s roles. Women in power would probably be so nervous about their positions that they would give the big boys what they think they want–a steady diet of macho fantasies. Gale Anne Hurd has specialized in producing action-adventure pictures, Dawn Steel put herself on the line backing Casualties of War, Penny Marshall directed Big and Awakenings, and Sherry Lansing’s last production was Black Rain, which had one ridiculous woman’s role played by Kate Capshaw. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t make male-oriented movies if they want to, but aren’t they going over-board in order to be accepted as one of the guys? As Meryl Streep observed, “There are a lot of women screenwriters and a lot of women in development, but I guess because those women want to make it past the glass ceiling, maybe they think they have to say, ‘Do Die Hard 2‘.”

Some of the strongest champions of better women’s roles have been men. It was Alan Ladd, Jr., when he was running 20th Century Fox, who effectively put an end to the cycle of male buddy movies when he made Julia, 3 Women, The Turning Point, An Unmarried Woman, Alien, and Norma Rae within a three-year period in the late 70s. And Ladd is also the executive who backed one of the new movies with strong women’s roles, Thelma & Louise.

Because they can’t always count on other women to find them rewarding roles, several actresses have become producers them-selves. But they have continued to face tremendous resistance. Bette Midler says that Disney, with whom she has a long-term contract, wants her to keep churning out light comedies in the vein of Down and Out in Beverly Hills or Outrageous Fortune. When she tries to veer from that familiar image, her bosses frequently balk. “You want to be trusted after all these years,” Midler sighs. “It’s not as if I just got off the bus. But it’s still a struggle to do any movies in a different style.”

One of the movies that Disney rejected was For the Boys, a musical drama about USO performers that Midler managed to set up at Fox. The problem, says Midler’s partner in All Girl Productions, Bonnie Bruckheimer, was that musicals, especially those set in the past, are expensive. “Disney did not want to do a musical of this size,” Bruckheimer says. “They’ll spend a tremendous amount of money on a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis, but not on a musical built around a woman.”

Midler and Bruckheimer have pushed harder than most to make movies with strong female characters. Sally Field has also been quite aggressive, even taking the unusual step of producing a movie for a younger actress, Julia Roberts, who stars in Field’s production of Dying Young. However, some actresses who have had the clout to develop and produce their own movies haven’t always created meaty women’s roles. Jane Fonda developed On Golden Pond as a vehicle for her father, and in Old Gringo, another Fonda production, her role as the tremulous observer was far less magnetic than the parts played by Gregory Peck and Jimmy Smits.

One problem may be that actresses who now have power are frightened of playing the kinds of hard-edged roles that Davis, Crawford, and Stanwyck played with relish. “I don’t understand actors who don’t want to play unsympathetic characters,” says Ellen Barkin, who says she loved playing the completely heartless moll in Johnny Handsome. “Villains are often the best roles. I would play an abusive mother because I think people will learn some-thing from it if they see it. Maybe some actors don’t want to see themselves that way. Or maybe the studios are afraid they will make $2 million less on that kind of movie.”

The best women’s roles of the last decade have all had an edge. In Body Heat, Kathleen Turner played a femme fatale far smarter than the man she snares to help her kill her husband, but the character was not exactly a candidate for humanitarian awards. Jodie Foster won well deserved accolades for her performance in The Accused, as a rape victim who was far from completely innocent. Meryl Streep had a wonderful role in A Cry in the Dark, playing a mother who gets herself into grave trouble because she doesn’t have the expansive, nurturing nature that mythical mothers are supposed to have.These characters weren’t always lovable, but they had intelligence and dignity. Clearly it’s not impossible to create marvelous roles for women.

Some feminists may imagine a conspiracy that is stifling women in film, but in fact, the paltry number of vital female roles stems from a multitude of causes, including fear, confusion, hostility, neglect, and benign ineptitude. If there were one simple reason for the problem, it would be easier to correct. But over the last two decades a powerful male-driven engine has taken control of the industry, and it will not be easy to derail. Still, every successful woman’s movie chips away at the monolith. Little by little the world on screen will begin to reflect the lives of the forgotten half of the population. The audience is clearly ready, pressing at the doors of every octoplex in the land.


Stephen Farber wrote “Nothing New Under the Sun” in our June issue.


Posted on July 7, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Another very interesting piece from the Movieline archives. As always, it’s interesting to compare the take this author has, from 25 years ago, with the situation today. At first glance, it seems like things may be a bit better today. For example, of eight nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture, three had female protagonists, and had the Academy filled all ten slots for nominees, I think it’s very likely that Carol would have made a fourth. At the Golden Globes, no less than six of the ten nominees in the two Best Motion Picture categories had female protagonists. On the commercial side, the #1 box office hit of 2015, and of all time (not adjusting for inflation), The Force Awakens, has at the least a female co-protagonist (I would argue that Rey is the real protagonist). You also have the final Hunger Games film, Cinderella and Pitch Perfect 2 as major hits with female lead characters.

    And it’s interesting to note that while Farber bemoans how the Oscars back in the 1970s were giving Best Actress nominations to supporting characters, earlier this year we were noting the exact opposite happening, with Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara being shunted to the Best Supporting Actress category, in part because the Best Actress field was so crowded.


    • Great observations. I would say that progress has been made over the last two and a half decades. Maybe not as much as you or I would like, but there’s definitely been advancements. Let’s not forget that Mad Max Fury Road (an Oscar-nominated box office hit) featured a terrific female protagonist and feminist themes. Also, more women behind the camera as is evidenced by Pitch Perfect 2 among others.


  2. Russell crowe made an interesting quote about leading actress years ago. He said actress complained about there not being enough role written for older women because they try to go after roles written for younger women they do not accept age and go for roles written for older women. Interesting point . Streep is past 60 still gets top parts.Lebeau would say hollywood is agiest there are roles written for older men then women


    • Well, I think you and Crowe need to think a little farther into the issue. There’s roles and then there’s roles. It’s not that actresses don’t accept their age, it’s that they don’t like to accept being marginalized because of their age. The roles for older women are mostly as background and tertiary characters, they’re “the mother” or “the grandmother” giving motherly and grandmotherly advice, but the stories are rarely about THEM, per se. They are portrayed as someone whose stories are done and over and now they’re just there to move along someone else’s story. Men over 40 in Hollywood are not automatically “the dad” or “the husband” or “the grandma”- they still get to have adventures and be sexually viable leading men- notably, paired with a much younger woman. They’re not having Maggie Gyllenhaal problems where casting directors think that at 37 you’re “too old” for a 55 year old to want to fuck you. Also, “old age” starts a lot sooner for women than it does for men in Hollywood; I’ve seen articles about being an “older woman” in Hollywood that mention 32 year old Olivia Wilde, but I don’t see an articles asking 32 year old Chris Hemsworth about the struggles of being an “older man”.
      Now, you point out Streep’s career longevity without noting, she’s just ONE woman, or that nearly ALL the small minority of leading parts written for older women are occupied by either Streep, Diane Keaton, or Susan Sarandon, Dudi Dench or Helen Mirren if it’s a british film. If you’re an actress over 50 and you’re not them, then you’re tough shit out of luck. , And worse still if you’re a non-white actress. If you’re Octavia Spencer or Viola Davis or Alfre Woodward or Angela Basset, good luck, sucks to be you. Singling out Streep as an example of success over 50 just further illustrates the point of how hard it is, by showing the exceptions that prove the rule. You can count all the actresses over 50 who still get lead roles on one hand, as well the number of recent movies about older women in particular, and you have Nancy Myers to “thank” for most of them.


      • Well said; what you wrote should be gone back to as a reference from now on when this subject is discussed. Some progress has been made, but there is still an automatic double standard in place. Personally, I think age is made too big of a deal in general, but it’s especially worse in public industries.


      • Well said. Crowe’s comments reminded me that Crowe is best when someone else writes his dialog.


  3. While I agree with the article generally I do find it interesting that some parts are quite dated on gender roles, like the dismissal of simply dropping women into roles traditionally occupied by men, which ironically reads as quite a narrow and sterotypical view on ‘appropriate’ roles from Farber.

    One of my favourite actresses is Greta Gerwig, who I know is a divisive figure, but who has built a career on playing immature slacker women-children, the female kith and kin to the aimless young men who populated the worlds of Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith before him. A woman doesn’t need to wield a machine gun in both hands to colonise cinematic space that was, quite recently at that, extremely male dominated.


  4. I go from reading on Trivia Today how Sandra Day O’Connor had trouble finding work as a lawyer after college, so she decided to run for judge in Arizona, to reading this article. I definitely see parallels, as the old guard felt safe to stand pat and was apprehensive about how to handle a female placed in unaccustomed positions of role or political stature. I agree that progress has been made in the last 25 years on both fronts though.


  5. One thing I notice about these Movieline articles is that when Julia Roberts is brought up they very specifically attack her intellect (I remember it from the Atkinson article about twenty something actresses). I can’t say I was ever the biggest Julia Roberts but she rarely/never played stupid characters from what I’ve seen so it seems a strange tack to take – it’s one thing to attack a perceived lack of talent or skating by on your looks but outright calling an actor stupid seems strange.


  6. MAle actors have too deal with ageism too. There are not that many lead roles written for male leads. It is one of the reason Sean Connery retired as told by michael caine. Connery wanted to act in lead roles like he did in his heyday but those offers did not come. Hollywood wants to cater to the younger demographic so how many lead roles will be written for older actors. Crowe Does have a tendency of sticking his foot in his mouth some cases he makes good points but the way he expresses his opinion comes off as rude.


    • Yeah, but male actors deal with ageism when they’re perhaps 50. For an actress, age is an issue as soon as you’re out of your 20s. Sean Connery played James Bond for the last time at 53. He averaged a movie a year up until 2000. He was 70 years old before his career actually started slowing down. At the age of 69, he had 30 year old Catherine Zeta Jones playing his love interest.


  7. I am huge Julia roberts fan she is my 3rd favorite actress (behind Streep and blanchett) she has a lot of range. She has proven she is capable of more then rom com. She does not have the same box office clout she did in 90s but no doubt years to come she will be viewed as a legend.


  8. connery is one few actor who had big leads at 60s . Sean expected to be a list his entire career. Michael caINE gene Hackman and deniro leading man career slowed down.


    • DeNiro’s career has “slowed down”? Somebody better tell him that. He’s been in 28 movies in the past 10 years. At least half of those parts were leads. That’s not counting tv, short films, and projects in post production. That’s twice the amount of film roles he did from 1970 to 1980 when he was in his 30s.


    • Why are you creating another new user ID? Can we please stick with one so people know who they are talking to?


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