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This article by Angelina Sciolla was prepared for the November 20, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

At the Movies

Once they roamed the celluloid earth: beautiful and

urbane; witty, and confident; iconic but not monolithic. Davis,


Russell, and Hepburn led the pack in their Edith Head gowns and dewy

Erno Laszlo complexions. With rapid-fire articulation, they proclaimed

their ambitions, declared their love, and played at sexual politics

with their leading men in a way that signaled vulnerability without

the victimization. They took on the challenges of everyday life with

strength, dignity and good back light.

The powerful women of cinema — where have they gone?

There are signs of a comeback. Two weeks into its national release,

"Frida," Salma Hayek’s labor of love about illustrious Mexican

painter Frida Kahlo, is a critical and commercial success and may

suggest the return of strong female-driven films reminiscent of the

1930s and ’40s and even the 1980s. All one has to do is run down the

filmographies of Meryl Streep and Signourney Weaver during that decade

to see what I mean.

Uneven at times, "Frida" succeeds as a colorful and exciting

film that allows the audience to witness a woman drive the events

of her life, rather than merely react to them. Frida is a woman who

stands on her own two — albeit crippled — feet, and faces

extraordinary challenges while nurturing her own unique talents.


her husband’s infidelities as well as the chronic pain of her


injuries, Frida keeps her pain focused and forges ahead into the


minus the hand-wringing or sense of regret. If she were alive today,

we know we would never see her on "Oprah."

The film is still incubating in art house theaters,

but its steady box-office rise indicates that women as subject matter

are not the cinematic lead balloons that some producers suggest.


a panel discussion at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, producer


Barber ("One Hour Photo") stated: "Women’s films are just

a hard sell. End of story."

But how would we really know since, for the last 15 years, the


has been driven by top male names like Cruise, Clooney, and Ford.

Female star vehicles either feature custom-made scripts for Cameron

Diaz or Julia Roberts or a ridiculous Jennifer Lopez kickboxing to

death her stalker ex-husband. Other female-centered films idle in

the chick flick bin, attempting to rouse our interest with cries of


The term "chick flick" — the ultimate cinematic pejorative

— has become synonymous with the penance a husband or boyfriend

might make to his beloved on a Saturday night for some thoughtless

act or forgotten anniversary. Men, and some women, suffer through

weepy melodramas or romantic comedies where every female stereotype

and idiosyncrasy is tightly packed into a single character. If a loopy

(but inherently brilliant) Meg Ryan doesn’t do it for you, perhaps

a ditzy Drew Barrymore will. If you want tough, you can choose between

the emotionally unavailable Sandra Bullock or the affected indignation

of Julia Roberts.

In each case, actresses are required to play stock characters who

must always compromise one attribute for another. If you’re smart,

then you’re mousy; if smart and sexy, then you must be a sexual


If career-oriented, then you’re repressed. And so on. It’s the


or" school of chick flick moviemaking.

It wasn’t always that way, says Princeton University professor Maria

DiBattista. The author of "Fast Talking Dames," an exploration

of Hollywood’s golden age heroines, DiBattista teaches literature

and film, often screening some of the classics for her students. Her

book serves as both an analysis and homage to the women who "get

their man and get their say."

According to Professor DiBattista, these dames not only talked fast,

but were ahead of their time.

"They were articulate, resolute, and lovable," observes


"They challenged antiquated gender roles and created an image

for themselves."

Why, then, in a period in our history when real life women have more

power and more choices, would this cinematic image of women fade?

"There’s been a loss of nerve among mainstream Hollywood


about women who know what they want," DiBattista says. "Most

of the women in today’s mainstream films are little more than a


of quivering insecurity and overt sexuality."

DiBattista notes also that there has been a backlash to the real life

advances of women. "There’s a psychological hesitation in


toward audiences that could be educated out of this anxiety,"

she claims.

The lack of strong female characters in recent films (excepting Erin

Brockovich, Clarisse Starling, and Queen Elizabeth I) seems an ironic

slap in the face to real women in search of role models or even just

a little cinematic commiseration. But there may also be more industry

related causes for such a deficiency.

While women continue to leap across gender barriers

in politics, business, and science, they are less likely to hit the

top rung of the career ladder in Hollywood. In most cases — from

producers’ summits to script development meetings — they are



According to the Director’s Guild of America, women direct only about

six percent of commercial films. Women screenwriters represent about

18 percent of the Hollywood writing pool. In the 78-year history of

the Academy Awards, only two women have been nominated in the director

category — Lina Wertmuller ("Seven Beauties," 1976) and

Jane Campion ("The Piano," 1993).

Yet women do run studios and produce films. Thus some industry


contend that women share responsibility for the current state of


One producer has gone on record with the observation that women in

positions of power may "find it more fun to hire a boy genius

over a girl genius."

A similar gender gap existed back when Katherine Hepburn was trading

barbs with Spencer Tracy in "Adam’s Rib" and when Rosalind

Russell trumped Cary Grant in "His Girl Friday." The


now is that many films are either developed in sync with focus group

results, or are based on time-tested formulas that ensure big box

office. If it ain’t broke, make it a movie.

The story Salma Hayek’s eight-year struggle to bring "Frida"

to the screen has become part of the film’s publicity campaign and

may, ironically, add to its appeal. Yet it seems ludicrous to some

cinephiles that such compelling subject matter would have appeared

risky to the producers she approached.

"What’s the big deal?" snapped one Bucks County woman waiting

in a long line for "Frida" tickets. "Women’s stories are

human stories. And she’s famous." Her husband agreed. "I like

good stories," he said. "If it’s interesting, I’ll pay the

nine bucks to see it."

"Audiences are not always that predictable," DiBattista


"With the fast talking dame films, you had choices between


melodrama, the MGM-type highbrow dramas, gangster films, and screwball

comedies. There’s a difference between a particular genre and actually

making chick flicks which are marketed to certain kinds of


It is possible "Frida" may break that trend.

"Frida is interesting, and yet charismatic because she’s a


DiBattista observes. "This is compelling. No amount of


can contain that. It’s not a Lifetime TV movie."

Following on the heels of "Frida" is another female-driven

film. "Real Women Have Curves" is HBO Films’ first theatrical

production and has already made its money back in limited release.

Some predict it will achieve the same sleeper success as "My Big

Fat Greek Wedding." Since the film industry is motivated by box

office numbers, the argument that women’s films are risky and


to market may no longer hold.

Even now, a peek at the numbers signals a change. While starting out

strong, the uber-marketed "Jackass the Movie" has dropped

73 percent in its revenue after just four weeks. In the same amount

of time (but in fewer theaters), "Frida" continues to rise,

with a 142 percent average increase in box office dollars per weekend,

edging past another star-driven chick flick and Oprah Book Club


"White Oleander."

Salma Hayek refers to "Frida" as "my birth," as she

recalls shopping the project around to studios. "Nobody was


No one." She called in every favor she could, asked friends for

assistance and brought in high-profile Julie Taymor (of Broadway’s

"Lion King"

fame) to direct the picture.

Tenacity prevailed as Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax came on board as

the film’s distributor. The rest could be movie history and, perhaps,

the end of the Saturday-night "chick flick."

— Angelina Sciolla

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