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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
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,"
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
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
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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