Ladies' Night Out

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They rush up to the stage, gorgeously gowned, flush and flustered in this moment of triumph. They thank their director, their agent and all the brave and gifted women who preceded them. They pay tribute to the others nominated in their category; it's an honor just to be one of the final five. And yet ... Best Actress! Wow! It's good to be a woman in Hollywood!

Two nights a year - when the Golden Globes and the Oscars are handed out - the movie world belongs to women. At this year's Globes, the top awards, and a slew of free publicity, went to The Hours and Chicago, which between them boast five star roles for women. And the momentum continues with both films dominating last week's announcement of Academy Award nominations. They could hoist the banner higher for women's films, and sell more tickets, right up to Oscar night, March 23.

Nominee Nicole Kidman, whose portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours won her a Best Actress Golden Globe (by a nose), looks at the women's genre and says, "There's an audience for that. There's a lot of us out there." Scott Rudin, The Hours' producer, sees the Christmas-to-Valentine season as "a good time for movies that aren't entirely aimed at teenage boys." Playwright David Hare, whom Rudin hired to adapt Michael Cunningham's novel, notes the glut of year-end prestige movies: "All the intelligent films come out at exactly the same time, because they're thought to be Oscar material. And the more intelligent films are more likely to have good roles for women."

In a few significant ways, the past movie year has been encouraging for women - that statistical majority that in their presence on the big screen is a frail minority. Start with the money. The year's most profitable picture ($236 million on a $5 million budget) was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with which Nia Vardalos proved that a woman could walk Sylvester Stallone's Rocky road: write a script, then insist that you star in it. Sweet Home Alabama ($127 million at the U.S. box office) certified Reese Witherspoon's star magnetism. Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks Notice ($89 million) and Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan ($91 million) revived a staple, the Manhattan romantic comedy.

Were Bullock or Lopez or Witherspoon deserving of an Oscar nod? No. But it's important, and cheering, that even bad movies about women can attract a sizable audience, just as lousy movies about men routinely do. It means that people will pay to be mindlessly entertained, not just soberly edified, by a women's film.

Before you scan Variety for a headline reading chick pix click at plex, you should know that the women's-film glass is nine-tenths empty. Of the 10 top-grossing movies released in 2002, Greek Wedding was the only one whose leading character was a woman. Of the nine others, six were sequels - parts of franchises that are almost exclusively built around men. Women have to start from scratch every time.

One more nine-tenths-empty stat: only 10% of last year's films were directed by women. "A female has never won Best Director at the Oscars," notes nominee Salma Hayek, who produced and starred in the biopic Frida and chose Julie Taymor to direct it. "I think people are threatened by us." It's just another burden in making women's films.

Women's films: even the name sounds second-class and second-rate. "It narrows the experience," says Meryl Poster, co-president of production at Miramax Films, which distributes Chicago and is a partner in The Hours. "It doesn't sound like a full picture; you think it's weepy or trite." Another pejorative, chick flicks, is even more limiting. "It denigrates a male appreciation of the female experience," says Diane Lane, who won an Academy Award nomination for her turn as an adulterous wife in Unfaithful. "I think men are very curious and surprised by the female experience they see when it's not 'lite' - when it's a strong, emotional piece."

These films and Far from Heaven, for which Julianne Moore is also up for an Oscar, fit into what might be called the gynecocentric film genre. To generalize a bit: men's films are about triumphing over huge obstacles; women's films are about choosing to live (or die) with them. A hero does things; a heroine feels things. Men act; women talk. Men get fired up; women go up in flames. Men exact a righteous revenge; women explore subtleties and ambiguities - their adventure is an internal journey. Movie men live in the boyhood realm of fables, fairy tales; movie women are grownups who confront the real, messy world.

"I'm moved most by the things we encounter in our daily lives," Moore says, "how you get through the day, who you choose to love, how you determine how your life will be." Fellow nominee Renèe Zellweger, the Chicago co-star who won the other Best Actress Golden Globe (for a musical or comedy), seconds Moore's notion: "I like to see and be inspired by rich, character-driven films. And I want to see Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore do what they do." So do women's-film audiences, when they can find women's films.

It's a long way down from the '30s and '40s, when Hollywood had as many top female stars as male - when sexual and intellectual equality was the onscreen norm. Dozens of down-to-earth movie goddesses stood up to their men and used wit as well as wiles on the way to the kiss at the final fade-out. Oddly, though, as women improved their status in American society, they found their roles diminished in films.

Since the '70s, Hollywood has undergone seismic shifts, and most of those militate against women's films. Scripts haven't become more sophisticated, but special effects have, and they are best suited to burly action films and fantasies. Hollywood has long relied on literary properties for source material, but today inspiration is more likely to come from the comic-book racks (guy stuff) than from the shelves of best-selling romantic novels (gal stuff). And since 1975, when Jaws proved the wisdom of opening a movie in thousands of theaters on the same day, the pressure has increased for a film to grab big first-weekend numbers. The queue is full of teenage boys and young couples, but, says Rudin, "older women, the main audience for women's movies, don't run out on a Friday night to see a film." A women's film is thus at a severe demographic disadvantage.

To promote a women's film, Hollywood marketers often return to the old model. They roll out the release slowly, court the critics, aim for the female audience by advertising on Oprah. Yet there seem to be built-in conventions: a pensive tone, a love for the victim and often an ensemble cast of stars. "Notice that there's rarely a movie with just one female in it," says Amy Pascal, chairwoman of Columbia Pictures. "You need three of them to equal one man."

Here's an irony: in Hollywood's executive suites, women are nearing power parity. Pascal once nurtured such films as A League of Their Own and Little Women (both with female directors). Last year her big winners were the action films Spider-Man and XXX. That's not a change of heart, just a coincidence. "Recently Sherry Lansing [at Paramount] and Nina Jacobson [Disney] and Stacey Snider [Universal] have had a lot of luck with films featuring female protagonists," says Pascal. "But we all make movies we believe can be commercial." Lansing adds a caveat: "You can't help being influenced by what you observe in your own life. If you're a guy executive and you love football, maybe you make a movie about football. If you're a girl and you see men dumping their wives for younger versions of them, you make The First Wives Club" - as Lansing did in 1996. With three female stars.

The dearth of big roles means a short shelf life for actresses. Meryl Streep, who was once an elevated women's-film genre all her own, found that she got fewer fulfilling roles as she hit her 40s. Streep, 53, enjoyed a comeback this season with her starring role in The Hours and a strong supporting part in Adaptation, for which she received her record 13th Oscar nomination.

Actresses don't often get into positions of behind-the-scenes power. But when they do, says Hare, "they use it to get films made that otherwise wouldn't have a chance. At the height of her fame, Streep got Silkwood made. Nicole Kidman is doing similar things for directors she admires, like Baz Luhrmann [Moulin Rouge] and Stephen Daldry [The Hours]. Women use that period of power much more responsibly than men, because they know it will be short."

Kidman also wants to help other actresses. She had planned to star in a Jane Campion project, In the Cut, but passed the plum starring role to Meg Ryan. "I know it sounds New Age-y," Kidman says, "but it's important to help one another rather than compete." Yet competition there is, for so few films. "I was often third down the line," says nominee Catherine Zeta-Jones, a wow as the Chicago virago. "I've sometimes said, 'Give me a screen test,' but how many times can you put up your hand and say, 'What about me?'" Lane acknowledges that actors are artists for hire: "If you're a plumber, there are only a certain amount of pipes that need fixing, and you hope you get the call." Or you make the call yourself, as Hayek did with Frida. "For seven years I went around with the script, saying 'Please read this.' Yes, Hollywood has to support women. But we can't afford to wait. We should get up and do it ourselves."

Everyone agrees on one point. "There's particularly strong female acting talent working these days," says Moore. "You want to say 'If there are so many of us, let's have some more parts.'" Will this be the first golden age of film actresses that isn't accompanied by a golden age of women's films? "Last year women had a lot of interesting scripts," Zeta-Jones says. "This year it looks like a much lighter slate: 'Remake 3,' 'Comic-Book Character,' 'Sequel 4' ..."

An interesting 2002 for the women's auxiliary means a hotter Oscar race. Kidman, Moore, Streep, Zellweger, Lane, Hayek, Zeta-Jones were all are worthy of having their names announced last week and of spending the next four weeks wondering if they will be giving a nervous, ecstatic thank-you speech.

As for the kind of film they represent so admirably, it has a cloudier future - one best faced with poise, anxiety, a bit of hope and a lot of healthy skepticism. Kind of like a modern women's film.

- Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles with James Inverne/London