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Hankies out for the female film

The bosom buddy is upon us. A new generation of female- friendship films from Hollywood shows that "sisters are doing it for themselves" at last. The films make good box office returns for modest budgets.

American women have been weeping and hugging as they emerge from showings of How to Make An American Quilt, which has been playing in the United States since the beginning of the year and has just opened in Britain. It follows Now and Then, another "sisterhood" film with a virtually all- female cast including Christina Ricci and Demi Moore.

Quilt is a piece of ensemble work, with strong roles for Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jean Simmons, Kate Nelligan, Samantha Mathis, Lois Smith, Alfre Woodard and America's unofficial poet laureate, Maya Angelou.

Before Quilt there was Waiting to Exhale, a "feelgood" female buddy film about three black sisters, with a sound-track by Whitney Houston, who also stars in it. Largely female audiences have been shouting encouragement to the strong women in the all-black cast, while hooting and hissing at the hopeless men they encounter.

Also on the way from the US is The Truth About Cats and Dogs with Uma Thurman and Janine Garosalo as pretty and dumpy buddies, which has done brisk business, and The Craft, about four young female outsiders who forge a weird sisterhood through witchcraft.

Robin Swicord, who wrote a feminist screenplay that Louisa May Alcott would have been proud of for Winona Ryder's previous hit, Little Women, thinks the novel's March sisters blazed a trail. "The economic argument we made for Little Women was very strong: that there is a very large, multi-generational female audience out there, and that moderately priced women's films like this can be a success. Around town, everyone suddenly seemed to be making the same argument - and for the first time there were enough women in positions of power to listen."

Her theory explains why so many films about, by and for women - highlighting strong female friendships and celebrating sisterhood - are coming out of Hollywood. "Women's films" are also cheaper to make, partly because they dispense with special effects.

But one senior Hollywood woman, who asked not to be named, cited a less positive reason. "You can usually have 10 female stars, like some of these films do, for the price of one big box-office male. It's very depressing, but that's the way it is."

Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, co-producers of Quilt and now working on Barbara and Suzy Get A Life for MGM, agreed with Swicord.

"Women in Hollywood have reached the necessary critical mass in all areas at last," Pillsbury said. "When we were going around town with our first movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, in the early 1980s, the women we knew were not even vice-presidents."