By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
“I would reduce it to the urge,” says screenwriter Scott Frank with a laugh. The writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty, Frank is currently in production on the new Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report. He also admits to having recently finished a script featuring a female prostitute. “It’s the same fundamental urge,” Frank says of the movies’ love affair with prostitutes and prostitution, “and I think it’s the same reason you see cops [in movies]. It’s the fantasy element. It’s people being empowered in the way that you’re not. And with a prostitute, it’s being able to do the things you supposedly can’t do with your wife — the forbidden. There’s something very interesting about a woman you can have sex with. It’s why certain actresses are far more interesting because you feel like, ‘You know what, if I met her, I bet I could fuck her.’”
“I can’t think of a film in which a woman explored her sexuality and was redeemable or okay,” says Arianna Bocco, a vice president of acquisitions and production at New Line/Fine Line. (For the record, I can’t think of one either, at least not an American one.) “It’s never about a woman taking control of her own sexuality, and, quite frankly, it mirrors society. Any woman who is considered strong in spirit and in sexuality is questionable.” Bocco says that she sees “a lot” of scripts with women characters, in part because she works at Fine Line, which is considered more specialized. “I also find that people are a little more open to, say, changing a male character into a female character or enhancing female roles.” But that isn’t the case with mainstream movies. “They’re not gearing those films toward women. They’re gearing them toward 15-year-old boys, and 15-year-old boys are not interested in stories about women. That,” she insists, “is a much larger issue.”
It is and it isn’t. If, as we are repeatedly told, movies are now mainly made for boys (as I write, the highest-grossing movie for the second weekend in a row is Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids), numerous movies are still geared toward adult men. Last year, the highest-grossing features in release were Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, The Perfect Storm, Meet the Parents, X-Men, Scary Movie, What Lies Beneath, Dinosaur and Erin Brockovich. What made last year unusual wasn’t the number of films in the Top 10 about men, but the presence of a woman in that select company. Beginning with the decline of the studio system and continuing through the ’60s and ’70s, women began to disappear from the screen — a trend that reached its apotheosis during the ’80s, the decade dominated by the Indiana Jonesfranchise and Star Wars juggernaut.
With blockbusters like Star Wars and Grease, the ’70s sent out warning signals for women, but nonetheless offered up year after year of interesting, prickly, real-feeling, real-looking women in films as dissimilar as Alien, Coal Miner’s Daughter, What’s Up, Doc?, The Way We Were (which I sat through twice without leaving the theater), Cabaret, The Rose, Annie Hall, Last Tango in Paris, Carrie, Paper Moon, Network, Julia, Chinatown, An Unmarried Woman, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Claudine and Norma Rae. These were salad days for strongly written lead women characters. Some were whores, some were mothers, others were rich, some poor, others killers — but each, good or bad, offered up a hint of utopia by her very existence. None of these women characters were fully independent, but they were dependent on men only in part, not in whole. By the ’80s, though, strong women seemed to mean either big biceps or bigger hardware (Terminatorand Aliens), while the rest of the girls stayed busy romancing (When Harry Met Sally) or dying (Terms of Endearment).
And then Pretty Woman hit the streets. Written by J.F. Lawton and directed by Garry Marshall, Pretty Woman was released in 1990 to generally favorable reviews, a little contempt and some post-feminist confession. Writing in The New York Times, novelist Daphne Merkin argued, “Feminism has never paid enough attention to the intractable nature of fantasy life, its pervasive hold on our more adult selves. Along with that oversight, in focusing on the hostile or infantile tone of so many of the patriarchal images of women, it fails to take note of the fact that fantasies — however primitive and unenlightened — aren’t exclusively the domain of men.” Merkin’s big idea here was that the fantasy of the rescuing knight could not be denied, and that “In the post-modernist, post-feminist, closing decade of the 20th century, we still need our myths, our amatory fictions; they help us endure. We are ready again for the mad, implausible embrace.”
There’s no denying that most everyone — women and men alike — wants love, sex, fantasy and maybe even a shining knight or two (or three), but like too many people who write about movies, Merkin refused to acknowledge that movies aren’t the same as fantasies. Movies don’t live only in your head, they live in the world, for better and worse. Sucking rich dick in a sports car might be a loop playing in Merkin’s head, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the film’s surreal vision of happy hooking didn’t have wider meaning and impact — if in no other place than the industry itself.
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