By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
It’s too bad that the dumbing down of American movies coincided with the ascendancy of the female movie executive. In some respects, it’s never been better for women in film. Amy Pascal is chairman of Columbia Pictures, Stacey Snider is chairman of Universal Pictures, Sherry Lansing continues her reign at Paramount Pictures. Nina Jacobson is president of Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, Elizabeth Gabler is president of Fox 2000, one of the studio’s two production divisions, while Laurie MacDonald runs the DreamWorks movie division with husband Walter Parkes and director Steven Spielberg. Yet while there are many more female studio executives than ever before, and numerous thriving female producers, it is a sorority of power that has soundly failed to promote a wider cultural sisterhood. Case in point: There are fewer women directing feature films now than there were just three years ago. In 1986, women directors did 7.6 percent of the work in film and television. By 1992, the percentage had climbed to 13.3 percent — dropping down to 10.2 percent in 1998, the last year figures are available from the Directors Guild.
The movies didn’t get worse because of American women executives, though there are plenty of women who share in the blame. All that bad movies prove is that when given the opportunity, women can make just as many lousy choices — and movies — as men can. What is harder to prove is that some of them continue to hedge their bets, swallow their fury, bite their tongues. Women executives in the film industry are loath to talk about sexism in their own industry, to recount the insults and compromises women in power always face. Out of common sense, perhaps even out of survival, they continue to play good daughter to a still overwhelmingly male industry for which “chick flick” is a declaration not of praise but of scorn. What must it be like to be one of the most powerful players in the business — like Paramount’s Lansing, a sharp operator who favors power suits and gives the world exploitative trash like The General’s Daughter? Or Sony’s equally sharp Pascal, who’s been targeted in the industry press for “women’s pictures” such as Little Women but most recently gave us Charlie’s Angels? What must it be like to be these women and not be able to make movies about women who look and live the way they do?
It would be nice to think that films would get better if more women were involved in the writing and directing, though as the careers of Nora Ephron, Mimi Leder and Penny Marshall make painfully clear, there’s no guarantee of that. More women might also mean that the movies were less violent — though, at least for some of us in the audience, less violence is a matter of aesthetics more than ethics. Social critics and politicians often struggle to draw lessons from violence in Hollywood, but it’s arguable that the most important lesson is the very one that most of the industry’s critics ignore — that all the violence is, frankly, getting boring. “Our preoccupation with violence is replacing our preoccupation with sex,” says producer and screenwriter Polly Platt, whose scripts include A Map of the World and Louis Malle’s infamous 1978 feature, Pretty Baby,about a pre-pubescent whore. And, bottom line, fewer films about sex mean fewer films about a wider variety of women characters.
“Why can’t the female character in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, or a film like that, be fully developed?” Arianna Bocco asks me at one point during our conversation. “They might as well just call them ‘wife’ or ‘girlfriend’ or ‘daughter’ and not give them a name, because they’re all the same. That’s why they put these very young actresses in these roles — they’re not stars, they’re not necessarily unknown, but they’re never going to break the mold, they’re never going to break out into something interesting or challenging.” It’s a strange lament to hear from a woman who actually works in the film industry. What does it mean for American movies when one of its finest writers insists that the industry is no longer equipped to take on complex issues and contradictory characters? “There are so many things that have to fall into place at the same time now when you make a film,” says Scott Frank. “If you set out to make a film that appeals to women, it will fail.”
His words have sting, but they are also true: Films that appeal to women are as likely to fail as films about women who don’t wear push-up bras, miniskirts and skyscraper heels. Norma Rae wouldn’t stand a chance. Stilettos just don’t work on the factory floor.
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