Strong, sexy but still struggling

Hollywood may be enjoying its diamond anniversary this year, but there's still not much for women to celebrate in Lala Land, says Cayte Williams
THIS YEAR IS the 75th anniversary of four big studios in Hollywood. Warner Bros, Columbia, MGM and Disney were all founded in 1923, and if any women other than Minnie Mouse helped in founding them, their names are lost in time. Hollywood was founded on a wave of testosterone - Jack and Harry Cohn set up Columbia; Marcus Loew and Louis B Mayer created MGM, Walt and Roy Disney founded Disney while the brothers Abe, Jack, Sam and Harry formed Warners Bros.

Hollywood has always been accused of having a licence to print white male attitudes on celluloid. But, three-quarters of a century later, have women left their imprint in Lala Land? Well, two of the big summer blockbusters were directed by women which seems like a good sign. Dr Dolittle was directed by Betty Thomas, a former actress in Hill Street Blues whose previous credits include The Brady Bunch Movie and Private Parts; and Mimi Leder, Steven Spielberg's current favourite at his company DreamWorks, who directed Deep Impact. Both films grossed over $100 million. So is the cigar-chewing old boys network finally looking at women as a driving force?

Well, it's certainly stopped blowing smoke in their faces. Between 1987 and 1997 the number of women in writing, directing or producing positions more than doubled, jumping from 6.7 per cent in 1987 to 17.8 per cent in 1997. But before we get too excited, the majority of female success has been in producing rather than directing and writing movies.

"Producing is a natural job for a woman," says Sharon Swart, European Editor of US entertainment bible Variety. "It's a mothering thing taking care of a production. You're balancing the cheque book, running the household, soothing egos. You stay behind the scenes but you are the person who makes it all happen. People don't really think about the producer. The kudos is with the directors and writers."

Even so, trade magazine Hollywood Reporter has compiled a "Power 50", a list of women who are fighting their way into the ranks of power. Names like Lucy Fisher, vice chairman at Columbia TriStar, Amy Pascal, president of Turner Pictures Production, Laura Ziskin, head of Fox 2000, and Dede Gardener, vice president of Paramount Pictures, are zooming up the list.

But it's Sherry Lansing, chairman of Paramount Pictures and the most powerful woman in Hollywood, who's the one they all aspire to. A former model, Lansing made her name as producer of The China Syndrome and Kramer vs Kramer in the Eighties while she smartly backed Forrest Gump when Warner Bros threw it out as a bunnie. Lansing has looks and brains, so it's a surprise she's never been filed away with the Men In Black aliens under "mythical creatures".

However, Lansing is most definitely for real. Recently she was behind Face/Off and Event Horizon which were hardly renowned for their strong female characterisation. This just goes to show that the presence of a female producer and director does not automatically mean good roles for women. The majority of movies produced and directed by women are still of the action hero/blockbuster variety. The only difference is that the women now tend to play Robin to the macho hero's Batman, rather than cower in the corner screaming. Well that's progress for you.

To prove the point, Leder's Deep Impact featured the ineffectual Tea Leoni as the token career women, while Thomas' Dr Dolittle was a vehicle for the avuncular Eddie Murphy and a mainly male "menagerie". Even Jodie Foster's directorial debut, Little Man Tate, was about a boy prodigy rather than a girl. Meanwhile, Jane Campion, director of An Angel at My Table, Portrait of A Lady and The Piano and the only real great female artistic hope for Hollywood, has gone back to Australia to work on all- women projects.

The Leder and Thomas blockbusters have made them new female additions to the $100 million club - a select group of directors who films have grossed huge amounts of money. They join Penny Marshall, who directed Big and the galpal pic A League of Their Own, Amy Heckerling, director of Alicia Silverstone's vehicle Clueless, Norma Ephron (Sleepless In Seattle) and Katherine Bigalow who had hits with Point Break, and the Jamie Lee Curtis starrer, Blue Steel. All these films featured strong women characters and were a huge success. So where are the sequels?

Successful women screenwriters in Hollywood are as rare as a flat chest in Baywatch. "A lot of scripts in Hollywood misunderstand women," explains Chris Pickard, editor of Moving Pictures, "and there is still a lack of successful roles for women. There is still a lack of successful women screenwriters and that is why there aren't any good female roles."

What seems to add insult to injury for the Hollywood actress is that whenever producers need a classy act they turn to the Brits. Every year there is a mild panic at the Academy of Motion Pictures to find a female role which justifies the Best Actress Award.

"American actresses have a slight chip on their shoulders about British actresses," explains Chris Pickard. "There is always this question at Oscar time - who's going to rival the British women? In the old days you could always count on Merryl Streep, but now people look to Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter and even Kate Winslett."

In fact, if any Hollywood actress wants to up her kudos, her best bet is to head for London's West End. Nicole Kidman, the Australian wife of Tom Cruise, stars in The Blue Room at The Donmar Warehouse next week and she'll be taking home a weekly wage she'd normally spend on lunch. "In terms of roles for women, films are frustrating," she said recently of her venture. "In plays there are all these great, meaty roles. Why would I choose to do a mediocre film role when I could be do something like this?"

Hollywood seems to have lost its handle on how women should be seen on the screen. A glance at strong women roles in the Forties is enough to make any Nineties actress weep. In the Humphrey Bogart classic The Big Sleep, the women are so sexually potent they leave the men standing. Rites of passage movies that involved absorbing emotional issues dominated the big screen, with Bette Davis wrestling for independence in Now Voyager, Rosalind Russell excelling as a mouthy reporter in His Girl Friday and Joan Crawford fighting her way to the top as an ambitious waitress in her Oscar-winner, Mildred Pearce.

Even Alfred Hitchcock, often berated for misogyny, has been lauded by arch-feminist Camille Paglia for creating strong female characters. Compared with today's heroines, the ditzy Cameron Diaz and the ultra-skinny Gwyneth Paltrow, Hitchcock's leading ladies were formidable goddesses. Rather than looking thin and pasty, he cast striking, statuesque actresses like Ingrid Bergman and Tippii Hedren lit them so that they looked, as Paglia describes, "monumental".

Women like Crawford and Bette Davis could "open" movies, because their popularity was so great that their mere presence in a film would guarantee its success. In this year's Hollywood producer's power league of the top 50 stars in Tinseltown, only 11 of them were women. Jodie Foster was the only actress to be in the top ten, followed by Julia Roberts at 12 while Demi Moore pottered in at 24.

Both Roberts and Moore have tried to open movies and have failed in spite of their $12 million price tags. Roberts had a string of failures between Pretty Woman and My Best Friend's Wedding, while Moore has just gone from bad to worse. Her role in GI Jane left both men and women bemused. Her famous line, "Suck my dick", seeming an odd exclamation from a woman who has obviously spent a lot of time, money, reputation (dare we mention Striptease?) and of course silicone, proving she is 110 per cent female.

And then there's the money. When Sigourney Weaver held out for a decent fee for Alien Resurrection, she was offered $11 million, a small wage compared with Arnold Schwarzenegger's $20 million per picture. Even then she referred to herself as a "bargain basement action hero". Sigourney is a woman who stood her own against Ben Kingsley in Death And The Maiden. Arnie is a man was upstaged by a 12-year-old boy in Terminator 2. Did Ridley Scott get a bargain?

Perhaps one day Hollywood will wake up to the fact that women account for 60 per cent of video sales, which is worth about two and a half times more than box office receipts, and that more women than men decide what movie a couple will go to see.

Until that day we will just have to put up with the three ages of women as described by Goldie Hawn - "from babe to district attorney to Driving Miss Daisy" - even if the director is a woman.