From stubborn queens to ruthless devils, sly spinsters to tough street girls, 2006 featured the deepest, most diverse collection of great female roles in recent memory.
But while the thesps in contention for an Oscar nod this year range from unknowns (Shareeka Epps in “Half Nelson,” Rinko Kikuchi in “Babel”) to living legends (Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal,” Helen Mirren in “The Queen”), the writers responsible for bringing their characters to life on the screen are nearly all men.
Does that mean female scribes still must battle gender bias, or is it simply because the men have done an especially good job of writing women? The answer: a little bit of both.
“I’ve never perceived my gender to be an issue,” says “World Trade Center” writer Andrea Berloff, who’s earned kudos for both the gripping sequences between the two trapped police officers at Ground Zero as well as the wrenching struggle endured by the men’s wives, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello. “But I just did a panel at the DGA and learned that only 17% of produced scripts are written by women. I have had an especially lucky career. At the same time, I’ve just been aggressive about finding work.”
“Half Nelson” co-writer Anna Boden says she and writing partner Ryan Fleck have never divided up their creative roles according to gender. “People, whether they be male or female, are equally a mystery to me,” says Boden. “I guess there are women who write from a very woman-centered place, but I don’t consider myself to be one of them.”
“The Devil Wears Prada” is the most female-friendly hit of 2006. The adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s bestselling novel features a bravura performance by Streep as the ruthless fashion editor Miranda Priestly. In addition to being written by a woman, Aline Brosh McKenna, the film was brought to the screen by a team of mostly female producers and supervised by a female exec.
“It was thrilling to be able to write about a woman who was at the top of her field but also had to deal with the double standard in terms of how differently women are scrutinized,” says McKenna.
Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler, who oversaw the project, says despite the low percentage of roles written by women, “It’s definitely an equal playing field in terms of hiring female writers. We’re working with women on so many projects in every genre imaginable, from thrillers to fantasy films.”
Meanwhile, male scribes have been doing an especially good job of getting inside the hearts and minds of the opposite sex.
“I find it every bit as enjoyable writing for women as I do for men,” says Patrick Marber, whose adaptation of Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal” has helped to put Dench and Cate Blanchett in contention for actress kudos.
“I’m not sure I think any differently when I’m writing for a woman,” he adds. “I’m not sure I put a different hat on.”
“Babel,” written by Guillermo Arriaga, features strong perfs by Blanchett, Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza. Scribe has a different take: “The world of women is more complex than the world of men. And the emotions of women have many more layers. Trying to approach those layers as a man is not always easy.”
Will this promising trend of great female parts continue? Some industry veterans aren’t so optimistic.
“It happens one year, and everyone makes these pronouncements, and then the next year it goes back to being what it was,” says “Dreamgirls” writer-director Bill Condon. “You have this incredible group of actresses giving these great juicy performances, and you don’t get to see them that often. It’s very frustrating, how male-oriented everything is.”