The New Catfights

For all those who experienced something like the effects of oxygen deprivation at the appearance of four terrific, original, strong, dignified female leads all in the same year (Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, Sarandon and Davis in Thelma & Louise and Dern in Rambling Rose) and arrived at the tipsy conclusion that things were changing for women in Hollywood, we have this to say: Be careful what you wish for. Yes, Hollywood is definitely casting more women in the leads of big-budget films, because it's suddenly looking profitable to do so. But when the mental giants in development hell put their minds to work, you gotta look out.

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At least one line of the "new" thinking is becoming evident: Thelma & Louise may be well and good, but girl buddy-buddy shtick will never be more than the occasional indulgence of independent or semi-independent filmmaking folks. Big studios know better than to pay a lot of money to make many movies about women doing what women do too damn much of in real life--bonding and talking about how they feel. Now, when guys do this, it's front page news--because in real life men are all pigs who bond only over written contracts they will later break. So, a story about Danny and Mel or Bruce and Damon or Jimmy and Michael being sensitive to each other's feelings (while they kill several other people) makes for enthralling cinema. But How the hell are you going to make girls interesting on-screen, anyway? Easy. Have 'em fight each other.

This is not a new idea. The catfight has its own impressive wing in the museum of movie camp. Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in Destry Rides Again, Raquel Welch and Martine Beswick in One Million Years B.C., and those fabulous gypsy scratchers in From Russia with Love are just a few of the many delicious examples. Women-at-war has always had screen appeal (must be fun for men to direct, too), and studios have every reason to believe it still does. Ask guys on any street outside certain upper middle-class, touchy-feely urban enclaves, and they'll tell you that if they can't see chicks screwing on screen they'd just as soon see them tearing each other's hair out and going tit to tit.

But you have to stage your catfights with an eye to political correctness these days, so don't expect any more gypsy frays. To show that they're sensitive to the realities of the Late 20th Century Woman, filmmakers no longer have ladies fighting over gentlemen.

No, that sort of catfight wouldn't be correct at all. Filmmakers understand very well that women these days care about their careers, the world situation, good parenting, the rainforest. So, when you stage one of the fingernail fests you can't resist having (as long as you have to star these females to begin with), you make sure they're grappling over something important. We should have seen this development coming a while ago when Sigourney Weaver took on the She-Alien over Newt, not Michael Biehn. But check out some of the more recent and upcoming scraps.

In the blockbuster The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Annabella Sciorra socked it to Rebecca De-Mornay not because the evil blonde threatened to take away her man, but because she threatened the family. Melanie Griffith clawed at Joely Richardson, then blew her away in Shining Through, not over Michael Douglas, but over the Holocaust. And for the newest point on the graph, there's the upcoming Single White Female, in which Bridget Fonda battles with Jennifer Jason Leigh in an elevator and only one gets off at the lobby. It's not just a silly boy they're fighting over, either. It's a lease, a wardrobe, an answering machine and a female identity. This potent thriller deals in not only the current incarnation of the old Hollywood catfight tradition, but a more recent motif as well, that of the psycho single girl (don't hire 'em, don't rent to 'em and, for sure, don't sleep with 'em!). But hey, this film's got two great parts for women!

These are days in which important advances are being made by women in all walks of life. It is encouraging that Hollywood both reflects these advances and seeks to further them. It's easy to see why Industry executives are patting themselves on the backs as they put gals to work--why, next to Madonna masturbating on stage in front of mass audiences, the new catfights are the most impressive leap ahead for women in show business we've seen in the last couple of years.

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Elaine Bailey



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