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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobAre you a trai...

    Year 3 Teacher Cornwall

    £23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

    HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbridge Wells - £32,000

    £30000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbrid...

    Year 3 Teacher Plymouth

    £23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering