Three years after Acad's proclamation, '96 represents banner year for femmes

It’s the old good-news/bad-news joke, but not everyone is laughing.

Consider the Goldie Hawn paradox. She starred in two films in 1996, was terrific in both, yet her gender and advancing years were cause for much amusement. In “The First Wives Club,” Hawn’s collagen-pumped, youth-obsessed actress pithily explains that in Hollywood, women have only three ages, “Babe, district attorney and ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ ” In “Everyone Says I Love You,” as Woody Allen’s ex, his character razzes her that “Women age differently from men. In two more years, I’ll look like your son.”

So the bad news is that Hollywood continues to regard women as bimbos, crones or special cases. But the good news is that while at this time last year Academy members were starving for five worthy actress nominees, by refreshing contrast, 1996 movies provide a feast.

“Courtney Love is amazing in the Larry Flynt movie,” says producer-director James L. Brooks, who also admires Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore and Lily Tomlin in “Flirting With Disaster.”

“Debbie Reynolds gives the performance of the year, of a lifetime, in ‘Mother,’ ” rhapsodizes critic and Columbia professor Andrew Sarris. “And for best supporting actress, Barbara Hershey in ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ ”

“Frances McDormand in ‘Fargo,’ ” nominates Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates, who also likes Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche in “The English Patient.”

“You’ve got Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep in ‘Marvin’s Room,’ ” says critic Molly Haskell, “and ‘Jerry Maguire’ is good because of Renee Zellweger, who is fresh and different.” Among 1996 performances, Haskell is also high on Emily Watson and Katrin Cartlidge in “Breaking the Waves” and Brenda Blethyn in “Secrets and Lies.”

Dames are putting the grande back onscreen, whether it’s Lauren Bacall in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” or Shirley MacLaine reprising the character of Aurora in “The Evening Star.” Whether it’s Winona Ryder saying the devil made her do it in “The Crucible” or Joan Allen resisting her charges in the same film. Whether it’s Lili Taylor boasting “I Shot Andy Warhol” or Laura Dern claiming she’s “Citizen Ruth.” Or whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow as “Emma,” Madonna as “Evita” or Claire Danes as Juliet. And then there is Hawn, first among “First Wives” and above all in “Everyone Says I Love You.”

Doubly encouraging is that dames of all ages are on the screen, if not dames of all colors.

The past year has been “fantastic … a real year of the woman,” says Haskell, who contrasts it to the embarrassment of 1993 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced the Year of the Woman and the studios forgot to make movies that had women in them.

“But – and this is a very big but – while I think we can say there was an upturn in roles for women this year, we have to qualify it,” warns Jeanine Basinger, film historian and Wesleyan University professor. Her concern is that movies starring women, hugely popular films like “Waiting to Exhale” and “The First Wives Club,” are being marketed to women only.

And as one prominent entertainment industry analyst calls it, “No men on the screen means no men in the audience.”

Gender-skewing hurts in a number of ways. First off, says the analyst, who is male, “The membership of the Academy is predominantly male, and they just don’t go to see movies like ‘Little Women’ and ‘First Wives,’ which costs the film potential Oscar nominations.”

Secondly, says a successful screenwriter, who is female, “There’s a perception in the industry that if a movie is a hit with women, it’s not really a hit.”

Most critically, says Mary Lea Brandy, director of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, gender-skewing further divides an already divided culture. “Why aren’t movies with women for everyone?”

Brandy concedes that while “a film like ‘Secrets and Lies’ is fabulous for giving women roles in which they can stretch, it’s a specialized-market movie, an art film. Opportunities for women in mainstream Hollywood movies have not progressed, if we look at ‘Independence Day,’ ‘The Rock’ or ‘Mission Impossible.’ ”

“Why aren’t roles being written for women in those movies?” asks Bandy, noting that last year’s Oscar winner, Susan Sarandon, and this year’s front-runner, McDormand, needed their significant others – respectively, Tim Robbins and Coen – to write full-blown roles for them.

In 1996 blockbusters, the films that everybody sees, women hardly exist, unless you count Helen Hunt’s windblown tendrils in “Twister.”

Yet in real life, women are 50% of the moviegoing audience, according to Alec Gallup, whose polling organization has been tracking film attendance for 60 years. Gallup says, “For all the years we’ve been doing polling, and despite the hypotheses and superstitions you hear, the gender breakdown has been roughly 50/50.”

In screen life, the gender breakdown is 64/36, according to 1995 statistics provided by Gilbert Avila of the Screen Actors Guild, with men outnumbering women nearly two to one.

“It seems insane,” says the prominent female screenwriter. “Women do go to movies, but we’re not really represented in them. We are not a subculture, but get treated like one.”

The numbers don’t worry Whoopi Goldberg, who doubts that her daughter and granddaughter get a skewed impression from films that men outnumber women. “I’m such a strong presence that their idea of what the real world is, is very, very different from the movie world,” she says. “They think they should be as strong as me.”

Nor do numbers much bother Kathy Bates, who points out that when it comes to actors crowding out actresses, “It’s been that way since Shakespeare’s time.”

What does steam Bates, though, is marketing movies by age and gender. “I argue with people who decide, ‘Oh this is a woman’s picture’ and then are surprised when ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ becomes a huge hit,” she says.

“At their very best, movies are empathic. You can go see a movie about people of another race, another gender, another planet and see that we’re all the same,” Bates says. “So if we’re still mired in these compartments and markets, that depletes the value of what film is all about.”

Most films involving females as the driving narrative force “get marketed to women as though we were a minority, even though we are the numerical majority,” says Sally Steenland, consultant to the Washington-based National Commission on Working Women.

“It’s not unlike how politicians and pollsters in 1988 and 1992 considered women as a special interest group,” she says. “Finally in 1996 women were courted as a force because somebody figured out that we vote in larger numbers then men.”

Hollywood is lagging behind Washington then, says the screenwriter, citing that one of her recent scripts was passed on by studio after studio. “A male executive would inevitably, if sheepishly, tell me, ‘You have to understand we like it but we can’t make this. It’s about a woman over 50.’ ”

This, despite the ascendance of women in studio boardrooms?

This, in a year when Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton made two films each, when Lauren Bacall and Debbie Reynolds enjoy the best roles of their mature careers, when Shirley MacLaine and Brenda Blethyn are Oscar contenders?

However encouraged she is by the 1996 trend of movies with meaty women’s roles and films prominently featuring actresses over 50, Molly Haskell has the last laugh.

“We have to remember that Hollywood’s idea of an older woman is Goldie Hawn looking 35.”

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