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Daring To Be Good

Photo by Anne Fishbein

A month from now, Susannah Grant will have two of her screenplays in movie theaters. One, Erin Brockovich, is already a hit, and with Julia Roberts playing the eponymous mom with a mission, box-office success is sure to continue. The other, 28 Days, opens in April starring Sandra Bullock as the party girl next door in rehab. While these movies are hitting the screens nearly at the same time, Grant wasn’t working on them concurrently: 28 Days took only two years to make, but Erin took three, in part because Julia Roberts couldn’t decide whether to accept the role. “It took her a while to commit,” says Grant, “because she did Stepmom, Runaway Bride and Notting Hill back to back.”

Which is the very reason Erin Brockovich was such a good, even necessary, choice for Roberts. The roles she played in that list of films — the new, younger wife, the hard-to-catch beauty, the unattainable goddess — are the ones for which she has, fortunately or not, become famous. Watching Erin Brockovich, you suddenly remember her idiosyncratic grace and wit in Mystic Pizza and Everyone Says I Love You, and come back around to admire Roberts’ timing and emotional nuance, her broad, nearly caricatured beauty and strength of character. You finally see her act.

Both Erin Brockovich and 28 Days feature the kind of women who have virtually withered away in Hollywood — women who aren’t preoccupied with dates and babies, aren’t classic shrews and don’t, as Grant puts it, “exist merely in service of a man.” Women who are actually about something. Neither story was entirely Grant’s idea — Jersey Pictures hired her to write Erin after executive producer Carla Santos Shamberg learned of the true story from her chiropractor; 28 Days Grant developed with Columbia Pictures chair Amy Pascal. But both fit neatly into the self-imposed directive she’s carried with her since she attended the American Film Institute’s screenwriting program in 1992: “to rescue women’s roles,” as she puts it, “from the ghetto of women’s pictures.”

“There’s a ‘chickflick ghetto’ that I don’t think women’s roles have to inhabit,” she states. “I just don’t.”

Sitting on a couch in the plush beige office of PMK Public Relations, Grant seems to be much that her two heroines are not: adaptable, understanding, even-tempered. In a nondescript blue suit and black oxfords, her shampoo-ad-shiny brown hair falling without fuss around her Ivory-girl beauty, she gives the impression that she has never in her life yelled in anger, succumbed to a crying jag or stalked a boyfriend. Not even the real Erin Brockovich put much of a dent in her deportment. “Erin and I did a women-in-film panel the other night,” Grant recalls, “and I’d spent so much time thinking, ‘What am I gonna wear to this thing?’ And when I arrived, there was Erin — in 4-inch pumps and a hot-pink suede-and-snakeskin miniskirt. I thought, ‘Have I learned nothing from this woman?’ Clearly, you wear whatever the fuck you want.” Even her four-letter words are delivered with poise and in context.

She is no firebrand, certainly. She understands that rebellion has limits in a medium as strapped for cash as the Hollywood movie, and writes with those limits in mind. “I respect the marketplace,” Grant says. “I respect that when you ask a studio to give you $20 to $30 million to make a movie, or whatever it’s going to be — sometimes far more than that — you’ve got to respect that they want it back. And there aren’t a whole lot of people, relatively speaking, who want to go see a love story between a 55-year-old man and a 50-year-old woman.”

A love affair between a 55-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman, on the other hand, is de rigueur, and in my one-hour interview with Grant, there were times when I’d have wished from her a little more critical analysis, a little less acceptance; less cooperation and more of a fight. When I ask her to define what she means by the “ghetto of women’s pictures,” she refuses to name names on the grounds that “I don’t want to trash anyone’s movie. It’s hard to make a movie. And it’s really hard to make a good movie.” When I wonder why women are so underrepresented in screenwriting, she acknowledges that “Since movies are so expensive, studios are really nervous and need all the insurance they can get. Maybe they just feel more ‘insured’ with a man.”

On the other hand, Grant herself has never felt gender “was anything but an asset,” adding quickly that, were she interested in writing action movies, “I might feel the heat of it a little more. It just so happens that I have a fairly accessible, fairly mainstream voice, so I work well within the studio system. And it just so happens I care about writing movies in which women are fairly and interestingly represented.”

And it just so happens that we need movies in which women are fairly and interestingly represented. Real bad. With the most powerful pop feminist of my own generation, Madonna, sashaying across the screen in desperation for a baby (The Next Best Thing), and the most accomplished actress in this country, Annette Bening, flailing like a harpy through the most lauded movie of the year (American Beauty), I am grateful that Grant has her talents trained on our side. In her level-headed way, she talks of change and rebellion and even revolution with such composed precision you can’t imagine any studio executive feeling uninsured in her presence. “I don’t sit down to write and think, ‘Oh, Pokémon did really well, I’m going to write a Pokémon movie,’” she says. “But I am going to take the things I’m passionate about and fashion them into something that my financial partners feel they can sell.”

While so many others talk (or shoot) theory, Grant is churning away in a darkened room, without distraction — “If I have light, it’s hopeless,” she says — on marketable scripts that perhaps exert more influence on the way the world regards women than the most skillfully argued thesis. And every once in a while you can detect what you hope is a hint of fury in her voice. “Way too many women in movies lately don’t seem to be concerned with anything beyond their own happiness,” she complains. “They don’t have a mission in life. They’re just trying to find a guy and work it all out.” As a consequence, she says, “Actresses right now don’t have a chance to earn the reputations actresses in the top of the field had 15 years ago.”

In her relentlessly reasonable way, Grant, who is married and has a 7-month-old baby — born just after Erin Brockovich was finished and as 28 Days was about to wrap — doesn’t dismiss the “chickflick” genre without consideration. “I know those feelings,” she says. “I know what that’s about. When I was single, I was trying to find a guy. And before I had a baby, I really wanted to have that baby. Those feelings are valid, and they’re real.

“Look,” she insists, “nobody’s more romantic than I am. I am the biggest softy in the world. The Way We Were is just about my favorite movie, and that’s a hugely romantic movie. But it’s not a ‘chickflick.’ A woman can want a man and want a baby and also pursue a lot of different things. Women’s concerns don’t have to be winnowed down to family, to home.”

Grant will have her next instrument of change all to herself. She is working on a project with Sony to both write and direct her next picture, which she refuses to discuss until she has put it on the page. “If you talk about it,” she says, “you don’t need to write it. The whole point of writing is that you’ve got a story to tell.” She will say, however, that “It has a really good part for a late-40s woman.” A really good part — but not a romantic lead. “I’m not crazy,” Grant says. “It’s a third part, this older-woman part. It’s a big part, and a good part, but it’s not the lead. There are only so many battles that you want to pick in this life.”