Trouble in Tinseltown

Trouble in Tinseltown

What’s Hollywood done with all the working women – and what’s a professional gal gotta do to get a happy ending?

By Eleanor Ringel-Cater

In Woman of the Year, a tale of opposites attract, a journalist (Katharine Hepburn) humiliates herself trying to make breakfast while her sportswriter boyfriend (Spencer Tracy) looks on. The year is 1942. In Hanging Up, the story of three opposing sisters, a magazine mogul (Diane Keaton) humiliates herself trying to stuff a turkey while her siblings (Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow) look on. The year is 2000.

You’ve come a long way, baby? Apparently not.

We know them – career women nightmares, with their domestic disabilities and utter disdain for family values. The ones with the carefully manicured claws and cosmetically enhanced cleavage who feign decency while plunging knives into the backs of their rivals and underlings. Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Even Diane Keaton as an infant-averse workaholic in Baby Boom.

Or consider the fate of poor Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), wife to Bruce Willis’s action hero in the Die Hard movies. She’s vice president of a multinational corporation when terrorists crash the office Christmas party in the first film. In Die Hard 2, she’s on a plane circling Dulles International Airport while her hubby battles below. By the third film, she’s disappeared completely (something about a separation due to his alcoholism). More likely, it’s about the unspoken but rarely broken Hollywood law that says a superstar like Willis (age 40 at that point in his career) must never be paired with a woman his own age. In last summer’s Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment, Willis’s character is a family man once again – now paired with his twentysomething daughter (who, to the picture’s credit, is feisty, clever and brave), his wife reduced to one passing mention.

Yes, Hollywood has female trouble. Still.

Want to win an Oscar? If you’re an actress, you’ve got a better chance on your back than behind a desk. When it comes to the Academy Awards, working girls trump working women. Consider this: In almost 80 years of handing out those coveted little golden men, the Academy has given only a handful to so-called career women: Joan Crawford’s restaurateur in Mildred Pierce (1945); Olivia de Havilland’s cosmetics queen in To Each His Own (1946); Celeste Holm as a fashion magazine editor in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); Mercedes McCambridge as a political campaign manager in All the King’s Men (1949); Glenda Jackson as a fashion designer in A Touch of Class (1973); and, of course, the mother of all businesswomen ballbusters, Faye Dunaway’s ruthless TV exec in Network (1976).

By contrast, almost twice as many Oscars have gone to hookers (more if you count promiscuous wives and bad-girl socialites). In fact, the very first Oscar went to Janet Gaynor for her streetwalker role in Seventh Heaven (1927).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the easiest route to an Academy Award is by playing an entertainer of some sort – Bette Davis in Dangerous (1935) or Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls (2006). Royalty isn’t bad either, though it’s not so much a matter of hard work as haughty bloodlines. And the Little Old Lady has worked for everyone from Helen Hayes in Airport (1970) to Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985).

Moms, wives and girlfriends of every shape, size and temperament naturally dominate the list. As two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster once said in an interview with Time, “Women’s roles are rarely written as human beings. Instead, they’re written as plot adjuncts: sister of, daughter of.” A surprising number of winners turn up in a category we call the Blue-Collar Babes: Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979), Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992), Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000) and even Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball (2001). Add to them a smattering of farmers, cops, nurses and waitresses. The message – intentional or not – is that it’s fine to be a strong, resourceful woman as long as you keep it down on the farm (or in the police precinct or the service industry).

Renowned feminist film theorist Molly Haskell, whose From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (University of Chicago Press, 1987) remains one of the best books ever written on the image of women in film, puts it this way: “If you place a woman on a farm, it’s OK for her to be strong. It’s also OK for her to be unmarried. Put her in an urban setting and it hits too close to the bone.”

It makes one long for the days of screwball comedy in the ’30s and ’40s, when the battle of the sexes was a battle of equals, and women could have jobs of all sorts and still be sexy as hell. These were rambunctious, assertive, confident women who also had a sense of humor. Women like Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck.

In their stead are the aforementioned well-heeled harpies and adorable neurotics. Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (1987) is allowed to be funny, driven and successful. But she’s not allowed to get the career and the guy. And let’s not forget the ditz, recently embodied by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde (2001) and its sequel.

Here’s hoping things are changing (though the women producers we interviewed remain skeptical – see “The Producers”). Last fall we saw Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Charlize Theron in In the Valley of Elah and Meryl Streep in Lions for Lambs, while 2008 kicks off with Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd and Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl. That’s a trio of royals, a detective, a journalist and a pie-baking murderess. Not exactly a tidal wave of working women, but it’s light years away from 1983’s The Hunger, in which, when told to see a doctor by her boyfriend, Susan Sarandon replies, “I am a doctor.” By the end of the film she’s also a vampire. Progress of a sort, I guess.

Babes in Hollywood: The Backslide

The state of women in Tinseltown has taken a turn for the worse, according to Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D. Here are the disappointing results of her report The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2006.

Women Behind the Camera









10% 13%

Executive Producers












The Producers

By Taylor Mallory

Hollywood is not exactly a no-woman’s land. But the fact is that fewer women have a corner on the film industry’s corner office today than in recent years. Women calling the shots include Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, and Stacey Snider, CEO of Dreamworks. But for every The Devil Wears Prada, there are dozens of bombs, boobs and comic-book flicks for teenage boys. PINK talks to four of the most powerful producers in showbiz about why – and how – things may be changing for the worse.

The Chick-Flick Pro: Lynda Obst, Lynda Obst Productions

Credits include: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Contact (1997), One Fine Day (1996), Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Selling women’s films in hollywood. “Sadly, the hardest time to make women’s movies is now. The young male dominates the market, and girls, embarrassed to like romantic comedies, go to see Transformers to impress their dates. So the movie studios will continue to favor male execs who know this market.”

Working women on the big screen. “I examine my female characters’ every line and am on the set for every shot. My working women have heart and soul – and a goal. Even in the light romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy, [Kate Hudson’s character] wants to write about Kazakhstan for the Times. Work is a real factor in women’s lives, but most men developing scripts have no consciousness of women as working beings, and many are threatened by us. So they cast young babes, get them pregnant and lock them up with no women friends. They don’t want the classic ‘marriage of true minds’ like in Hepburn/Tracy movies. They want you to make babies and pizza while they play fantasy football.”

The Gritty Grindhouse Guru: Stephanie Allain, Homegrown Pictures

Credits include: Black Snake Moan (2006), Something New (2006), Hustle & Flow (2005), Muppets from Space (1999)

Achieving balance. “Sometimes I catch myself going into work mode at home. Women in this business have to command authority, which doesn’t serve me well at home. For instance, on a film set, you can’t be 20 minutes late. At home, I want them at the table when I say dinner’s ready. But my request can sound like a command. I have to remember it doesn’t matter if it gets cold, just that we eat it together.”

Success secrets. “This business is still run by white men. I’ve been successful by doing my homework and believing in myself. When I was [the only woman of color as a senior exec] at Columbia Pictures, I read every single script. And I’m a passionate advocate for movies I believe in. For I Like It Like That – a film I wanted to make with a black female director – I made a great case for bankrolling it but eventually had to say, ‘Please do it for me.’ Men aren’t that humble. Everybody passed on Hustle & Flow. I sold my house and we made it for $2.5 million outside the studios. When Terrence [Howard] got his Oscar nod, believing in ourselves paid off.”

The Oscar Winner: Wendy Finerman, Wendy Finerman Productions

Credits include: The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Stepmom (1998), P.S., I Love You (2008), Forrest Gump (1994, Best Picture)

Making devil. “It was popular because it was a rite of passage movie. Everyone remembers getting her first job, and everyone has had a difficult boss. Most women work and want to see characters they can relate to. But at the end of the day, women don’t go to the movies as frequently as teenage boys. And date movies better be really good. So many men told me their wives or girlfriends dragged them to Prada, but they really enjoyed it. You’d think it would get easier after several major hits, but [for the studio] the safer bet is to make the movie that can be franchised and can inspire action figures and theme park rides.”

Why there are fewer movies made for women than 60 years ago. “Years ago, movies weren’t as expensive to make, so we made more of them. We spend more on marketing today than we did to make several movies then. If you want to change this, go see women’s films – and go see them on opening weekend, what really counts these days. Every newspaper in the country announces the top movies of the weekend on Monday, and making the top five on opening weekend means [the distribution studio will] continue to advertise it and keep showing it longer.”

The Action-Hero Aficionada: Gale Anne Hurd, Pacific Western Productions

Credits include: Aeon Flux (2005), Armageddon (1998), Aliens (1986), The Terminator trilogy, (1984, 1991, 2003), The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Making action movies. “I look for character-driven stories, regardless of the genre. I generally respond to stories that feature ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I’ve always loved the action genre, and I find the female characters in many of these stories are unique. And these roles attract top actresses – like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. Many of the women in my films are the protagonists who drive the action and the plot. I find damsels in distress uninteresting.”

On discrimination in tinseltown. “I began my career in the late ’70s, when there was little opportunity for women to advance or to hold positions of authority. On The Terminator, we had a female production team, and the completion guarantor insisted a man be brought on board as executive in charge of production. And on Aliens, a few candidates for key department heads asked me, ‘Who is really producing this film?’ Or ‘How can a little girl like you produce a big movie like Aliens?'”

This article originally appeared in the January.February 2008 issue of PINK Magazine.

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