Catherine von Ruhland looks at the latest tradition in Hollywood heroines - all heart and no hairdo
On her own, tough yet still vulnerable with a heart ripped by life's pains, she has still got love enough for anyone she meets. Helen Hunt's Academy Award this week for her portrayal of Carol, the downtrodden waitress standing her ground against Jack Nicholson's obnoxious, obsessive- compulsive in As Good As It Gets, is symptomatic of a recent Hollywood celebration of strong, undeniably moral female characters.

Carol is a lonely, single mum living with her mother and apparently allergic- to-everything boy Spence. Working in a dead-end job that comes nowhere close to paying the medical bills to make her son well, she still gives Nicholson's unlovable Melvin the time of day no-one else will. She's also a compassionate listener, prepared to stop the car to hear out the gay Simon (Greg Kinnear)'s heartbreaking tale of his teenage banishment from home. With enough of her own troubles to break her, she still manages somehow to look outwards and care about others.

Juliet Binoche's Oscar-winning portrayal of the downhearted nurse Hana in last year's The English Patient is the same. Surrounded by death, she remains intent on life, though her own heart is in shreds. Treating the wounded and dying with tenderness, she plants seedlings for food and transforms a bombed out monastery into some semblance of a home for the motley group of soldiers and misfits who have congregated there. It is as if she cannot stop herself from giving, regardless of her own pain.

The context for the compassion of Susan Sarandon's award-winning Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking might hark back to a more traditional perception of a 'good woman'. She seems to have experienced relatively little personal heartache. But her social activism gives an undeniable backbone to her integrity.

For none of these women make the mistake of confusing virtue with a cloying 'niceness'. Indeed, it is Carol's ability to give as good as she gets from 'monster' Melvin, wading in where angels and lesser mortals floored by his knee-jerk rudeness fear to tread, that is the basis of their friendship. Hers is a quietly raw, Christian faith. It enables her to love a man apparently beyond redemption, while not being afraid to tell him when his bad behaviour, to which she invariably turns a blind eye, has gone too far.

It is refreshing to see basic goodness in a woman equated with intelligence, independence and determination, rather than the somewhat pathetic mindlessness - and arguably male perspective - of a character such as Emily Watson's Bess in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Or the down-the-generations hand-wringing of all those long-suffering faceless Roman Catholic women married to The Mob. And for all the impressively honourable spectacle of Schindler's List, it still looks as if Spielberg wasn't really sure what to do with poor Caroline Goodall's underused Emile. She remains largely in the shadows until the last reel when she helps her womaniser hubby Oskar by doling out soup to malnourished Jews.

But should filmgoers worry that what they are seeing is a none-too- subtle form of American social engineering, of movies hinting at how women ought to behave - and these characters are certainly potent role models - then only think glamour. Think drab hausfrau Joan Allen (deservedly given a namecheck in Hunt's Oscar acceptance speech) v Sigourney Weaver's fearsome adulteress in The Ice Storm. Or, as it happens, Helen Hunt's waitress- looking-good-on-a-night-out's-limited-budget to fellow Oscar winner Kim Basinger in LA Confidential. Only bad girls, it seems, get to read Vogue...