Celebrity panelists analyze female roles

With the echo of election returns for California’s two new women senators still reverberating–not to mention the announcement of Sherry Lansing’s appointment as Paramount’s new head–a group of women writers and actors held a powwow yesterday to continue the search for film and television projects that feature strong women characters.

“For the last 15 years, I played a character on television whose nickname was ‘poor Val,’ ” said actress Joan Van Ark, referring to her role on “Knots Landing.”

“She was the best mom, the best wife, the best mother, but the role was the more stereotypical image of women. And I think that time has passed.”

Van Ark was one of more than a dozen panelists, including Connie Stevens, Dyan Cannon, Donna Mills and writers Georgia Jeffries and Jeanne Rosenberg, who convened yesterday afternoon to meet with a group of 120 writers and actresses to brainstorm ideas for new projects.

The gathering was the second in a series being jointly sponsored by the women’s committees of the Writers Guild of America West and the Screen Actors Guild.

While Van Ark and others agreed that 1992 continues to be the year of the woman, they also pointed to a continuing trend among studios and major motion picture producers to shy away from films that delve into and/or are propelled by strong, complex female characters.

“Unfortunately, this current double standard is not necessarily box office-driven,” noted Barry Gordon, president of the Screen Actors Guild. “If two or three male action/adventure films are not successful, those films continue to be made. But if two or three strong female-oriented films are a success, they are viewed as an aberration. You have to begin looking at the mindset ofthe people making the decisions.”

Del Reisman, WGAW president, concurred, saying that there is a “tremendous thrust” to create films that reach a worldwide audience.

“In doing so, what you hear from executives is that they want more movement and not so much talk,” Reisman said. “The stories that most of us like are just not being developed.”

Donna Mills, who has produced telefilms through her production company, said she believes TV, rather than film, leads the way in exploring complex roles for women.

“I’m hoping that will change,” she said.

Dyan Cannon suggested that in order for it to change, women will have to “stop waiting for permission.”

“We’ve got to stop blaming men for what we are doing and for what we’re not doing,” she said. “There are no rules.”

Cannon said that when she decided to produce a vidpic, part of the risk was the decision to sell her house to complete the financing.

Christina Belford, director of SAG’s women’s committee, also said women shouldn’t wait for someone to give them an opportunity.

“Right now the system is set up for women not to succeed,” she said. “But we can circumvent the system. And it’s really important that we continue to do so because we don’t want the ‘Year of the Woman’ to end with this year.”

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