Leading ladies take charge behind the scenes

Much has been said about this having been an exceptional year for lead female performances, but it was no accidental phenomenon. In 2010, strong women made strong distaff roles happen.

Males routinely develop and bankroll acting projects. (This year alone, Geoffrey Rush exec produced “The King’s Speech,” while producer-star Mark Wahlberg spent several years bringing “The Fighter” to the screen.) And it’s not unknown for a thesp of either gender to take a vanity credit.

But 2010 marked the end of Halle Berry’s decade-long personal struggle to make “Frankie and Alice,” the true story of a woman with multiple personality disorder. “Back when I was making ‘Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,’ the first film I produced, an actor who was in the movie came and pitched it to me in 10 minutes, and I just was ignited and thought, ‘Oh my God. I have to tell this story,’ ?” says Berry, who developed the script with several writers and plays the lead herself.

For Tilda Swinton, it was year 11 of gestation on “I Am Love,” which she describes as “very much the child of the conversation that Luca Guadagnino and I enjoy.”

Swinton and the director have been friends for more than 20 years. “In the case of that project, the narrative started with the idea of a woman, whom I would play, in whose life this ‘revolution of love’ takes place,” she says. “We spun it out like a detective story for ourselves. We put an apple on top of a column, and we had to build a staircase up to the apple.”

Nicole Kidman was a hands-on producer on the set of “Rabbit Hole,” a stage property she pursued on the strength of a newspaper review. After reading the rave, Kidman called her producing partner, Per Saari, who flew from Australia to New York to see the play. “We couldn’t believe no one had optioned it,” Saari recalls. While playwright David Lindsay-Abaire worked on the script, Kidman attached herself to star and set about assembling director and cast.

On “Conviction,” exec producer Hilary Swank says, “I made sure I exhausted every single avenue and turned every single rock, so I never had the attitude that it wasn’t going to happen. It was more like, ‘OK, that didn’t work, so what do we do now?’? ”

Such championing of difficult, independent-minded material heartens those eager to see women in the industry take greater command of their destinies.

“I come from an underground tradition of filmmaking where every movie was made at the kitchen table,” Swinton says, “so I learned early on if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

“If you think about it, it’s maybe the original Hollywood story: Mary Pickford producing her own work, Garbo and Bette Davis controlling their own stories. You’d think it was a tradition that would last. The real question for me is why it ever stopped being the case.”

The explanation may partly lie in the difficulty of splitting focus between on- and off-camera roles. Kidman prides herself on her ability to “compartmentalize,” but admits “there were times when I said, ‘I can’t handle that right now because I have a massive scene,’ while I was fighting (to get) the Al Green song that was very expensive.”

Echoes Berry: “When we’re shooting during the day, then during off-time having to put on my producer hat, put out fires and make decisions while I’m trying to prepare for a scene — that’s challenging for me.”

That Berry plays a woman with multiple personalities may or may not have helped her juggle her own in real life. “One day,” she recalls, “I was doing a really emotional scene, but I had to fight with my producing partner for a reshoot of a scene I thought was compromised because we weren’t prepared — it had rained and it wasn’t supposed to rain. Having to go fight those fights wasn’t fun.”

“I have a massive responsibility to the actors when I’m a producer,” Kidman says, “and when we couldn’t get the right house, or suddenly we’re in the flight path of planes that fly over every 40 seconds because it was a cheaper house — and that actually happened — that’s weight on my shoulders.”

For a producer of any stripe, money is always key. “Producing to me is an easy business,” Swinton says. “The only challenge ever is talking to the bank manager.”

Adds Swank: “We worked week to week, hoping that the check would come in so we could pay our crew.”

Is raising cash easier when the producer who comes a-calling is an Academy Award winner? Not as much as you might think. According to Kidman, “If you want a location, if you go shake hands with people at a place you want to use, it might help a little bit. But I still remember begging for money, and going, ‘Please, please, don’t slash the budget.’? ”

The film’s director, John Cameron Mitchell, says the budget on his first feature, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” was actually 30% higher. This time around, the actors didn’t even have trailers. “You think, ‘Big movie stars, bigger budget,’ but we made it right after the recession hit,” he says. “Strangely, I think the recession made it possible. If it had been made a year before, it might have been twice as large a budget, just because of everybody’s quotes.”

If the statuette carries any clout at all, Swank says, it’s that “I can pretty much call anyone in town and get a return phone call. That doesn’t mean I’ll get what I want, but I’ll have my case heard.” (Hearing that definition, Berry chuckles, “She has more clout than I do,” while Swinton replies, “Then I’m calling the wrong people.”)

All four stars affirm an ongoing commitment to developing material — even, in Kidman’s case, upcoming romantic comedy “Monte Carlo,” in which she won’t appear at all.

“If you have stories that are important to you and you have the desire to produce, you’re ahead of the game,” Berry firmly believes. “We women have to do more, we have to fight to make opportunities, and the sooner we do that, the better.”

Still, none of these multi-taskers plans to set aside performing. “Acting will probably always remain my No. 1 passion,” Swank says. “I get from acting what I don’t get from anything else. It’s always fascinating; it’s always something new when I can get into other people’s shoes.”

Yet with a twinkle, she concedes a different kind of satisfaction in producing, when she can get into other people’s faces.

More from Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture:
Being the change | Mandeville throws hat in ring | In their own words

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