Crop of upcoming femme comedies show things are changing
A correction was made to this article on July 5.
Not long ago, while making her directorial debut on the comedy short “Dealbreakers,” Gwyneth Paltrow remarked: “There’s no reason why, if there’s a ‘Wedding Crashers’ for boys, there can’t be something really funny yet intelligent for women.”
In Hollywood, the comedy genre — not to be confused with romantic comedy — tends to be dominated by male actors, as well as writers and producers. This summer alone there are the Owen Wilson starrer “You, Me and Dupree,” Adam Sandler’s “Click” and Jack Black in “Nacho Libre.”
This fact might not be so interesting if, say, the cast of “Saturday Night Live” — which has spawned a host of male movie comics — was all guys. Or if funny ladies like Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler didn’t exist.
But they do. And they do star in movies, just not typically as the leads (at least not in major studio movies), or in films told from the female point of view. Exceptions are pics like “Clueless,” “Legally Blonde” and “Mean Girls,” though even those pics are arguably teen and, in the case of “Legally Blonde,” romantic, comedies.
However, things are slowly beginning to change, as demonstrated by a crop of upcoming movies that could fit under the category of “Wedding Crashers” for women.
At Warner Bros., “SNL” stars Poehler and Rachel Dratch developed and are cast in “Spring Breakdown,” to be directed this summer by Ryan Shiraki; at Paramount, John Goldwyn is producing “Pledged,” a sorority comedy written by Jill Soloway and directed by “D.E.B.S.” helmer Angela Robinson; and at Fox Atomic, “The Office” scribe-star Mindy Kaling is writing another sorority laffer, “Unaffiliated.”
Paltrow, meanwhile, is planning to turn “Dealbreakers,” a film about the pitfalls of dating as experienced by women, into a feature.
Female filmmakers have high hopes that at least one of them will break out and open the doors to more female-driven comedies, particularly films that — like the current wave of male comedies — are quirkily off-center, without thick studio varnish.
“Somebody has to break the model,” says one comedy manager who points out that people like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell weren’t getting their movies made until the success of such films as “Old School.”
“Now that the industry has embraced low-budget male comedies, someone has to do it for women,” the manager says. “Hopefully, ‘Spring Breakdown’ will do huge business, and then I guarantee the Sarah Silvermans of the world will get their shot.”
Still, the manager says, “I’m really proud of the writers and performers I represent, but it’s been infinitely more difficult to launch the women.”
Comedy wasn’t always such a hurdle for women.
In the silent movie era, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies and Marie Dressler were huge comedy stars. Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn flourished in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s. Doris Day was a major comedy star of the 1950s and early ’60s.
A slew of ’80s comedies humorously examined women’s roles in the post-lib era: Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin”; Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in “Nine to Five”; and Diane Keaton in “Baby Boom.”
That trend continued in the ’90s with “The First Wives Club.”
Many say there’s a double standard when it comes to comic actors: While it’s OK for men to have non-traditional looks (Jack Black, Adam Sandler, Ferrell), women need to look like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock or Cameron Diaz in order to be a leading funny lady.
One newcomer who’s often mentioned is “Wedding Crashers” co-star Isla Fisher, a redhead with conventional movie-star beauty.
It’s also noteworthy that while male comics often are the singular leads, the upcoming female-driven comedies feature multiple stars. “Spring Breakdown” is led by a cast of three (Poehler, Dratch and Parker Posey), and “Pledged,” which has not yet been cast, is about two women whose friendship is tested during their college’s sorority rush.
And while U.S. comedies are always iffy overseas, male laffers, particularly broad comedies, have a better track record. “Bruce Almighty” grossed $484 million worldwide; in comparison, “Mean Girls” returned $128 million and “Legally Blonde” posted $141 million.
“The conventional wisdom is that women and broad comedies don’t mix,” says Stan Coleman, an attorney at Weissmann Wolff who represents comic talent. “They’re developed for men — basically, they’re about men leering at women in one way or another. So if that’s what people think is the only comedy that can travel, how are you going to get comedies for women?”
And there are differing levels of acceptability when it comes to what’s funny for a man vs. a woman.
“Raunchy characters like Owen Wilson in ‘Wedding Crashers’ as a female would be kind of gross and over-sexualized,” says Kaling. “Those are not attractive qualities in a woman. I like a plucky heroine. No one wants some outrageous slut.
“There’s a double standard, but I’m not outraged by it,” she admits. “I kind of buy into it. You want characters to sound the way people really talk, but you don’t want it to be a gross-out fest.”
In 2002, “The Sweetest Thing,” starring Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate and Selma Blair was an attempt at edgy, slightly off-color female comedy, but the pic was a flop.
Another factor is the testosterone-packed environment of TV writer rooms, where comics often hone their skills before moving on to film. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” producer Judd Apatow and Soloway, a former “Six Feet Under” scribe, both cut their teeth as TV writers.
“The ethos of the writers’ room is very much like a pickup basketball game: You have to pick up the ball, make a shot, and not give a shit what happens,” says Soloway.
“There are few women who can hang in that type of environment. You have to be willing to go to the net with a joke and not be scared of what people will think. There really are not a lot of women with as hard a sense of humor as I have. I don’t think it’s because men won’t let them, women just aren’t like that.”
Assessing the dearth of women in comedy films, Coleman says: “I understand why it is, but it’s self-fulfilling. Lucille Ball is turning in her grave.”