Leading Ladies in Hollywood

Conspiracy nuts may think there's a plot to keep women in their place on the screen. But the problem's more serious than that.


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 Womanwere love stories with female protagonists. As I write this, the two most successful movies of 1991The 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.

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