May 4, 2008

Is There a Real Woman in This Multiplex?


IRON MAN, Batman, Big Angry Green Man — to judge from the new popcorn season it seems as if Hollywood has realized that the best way to deal with its female troubles is to not have any, women, that is.

Not that it hasn’t tried to make nice with the leading ladies, in films like “The Invasion” (with Nicole Kidman) and “The Brave One” (Jodie Foster). Yet, after those Warner Brothers titles fizzled, the online chatter was that the studio’s president for production, Jeff Robinov, had vowed it would no longer make movies with female leads. A studio representative denied he made the comments. And, frankly, it is hard to believe that anyone in a position of Hollywood power would be so stupid as to actually say what many in that town think: Women can’t direct. Women can’t open movies. Women are a niche.

Nobody likes to admit the worst, even when it’s right up there on the screen, particularly women in the industry who clutch at every pitiful short straw, insisting that there are, for instance, more female executives in Hollywood than ever before. As if it’s done the rest of us any good. All you have to do is look at the movies themselves — at the decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame — to see just how irrelevant we have become. That’s as true for the dumbest and smartest of comedies as for the most critically revered dramas, from “No Country for Old Men” (but especially for women) to “There Will Be Blood” (but no women). Welcome to the new, post-female American cinema.

Nowhere is our irrelevance more starkly apparent than during the summer, the ultimate boys’ club. Over the next few months the screens will reverberate with the romping-stomping of comic book titans like Iron Man and the Hulk. The sexagenarian Harrison Ford will be cracking his Indy whip (some old men get a pass, after all, especially when Steven Spielberg is on board) alongside the fast-talking sprout from “Transformers.” Hellboy will relock and load, tongue and cigar planted in cheek. Action heroes like Will Smith, Brendan Fraser, Nicolas Cage, Mark Wahlberg and Vin Diesel will run amok, as will funny guys like Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Jack Black and Seth Rogen.

The girls of summer are few in number, and real women are close to extinct. The teenage Emma Roberts plays a Malibu brat shipped off to boarding school in “Wild Child,” and little Abigail Breslin has gone blond for “Kit Kittredge,” the first big-screen spinoff from American Girl dolls. Meryl Streep stars in the adaptation of the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!,” and the cast from “Sex and the City” hits the big screen, though as that HBO show’s fans know, its four bosomy buddies are really gay men in drag. Angelina Jolie flaunts big guns in “Wanted” amid a so-called fraternity of assassins. Cameron Diaz stars opposite Ashton Kutcher in the comedy “What Happens in Vegas,” in a role that shrieks Brittany Murphy five years ago.

And in August, Anna Faris stars in a comedy called “The House Bunny,” in which she plays a Playboy Bunny who is ejected from the Mansion because she’s too old. In a trailer for the movie Ms. Faris’s pretty-in-pink character responds to her firing with surprise. “I’m 27!” she yelps. “But that’s like 59 in Bunny years,” a male friend explains. In Hollywood years too, he might as well have added.

I admit that I laughed at the 59 line, mostly because Ms. Faris — who could be the next Judy Holliday but without the right material will, alas, probably end up the next Brittany Murphy — tends to do the dumb-blonde thing with sizable quotation marks. But I also winced. You can’t judge a film by its trailer, so I won’t boil this bunny sight unseen. I’ll just point out that it looks like a clone of “Legally Blonde” (meaning, yet another iteration of “Pretty Woman”), one of those aspirational comedies in which women empower themselves by having their hair and nails done. In this case Ms. Faris’s character takes charge of a sorority of unkempt brainiacs with boy troubles. Cue the group makeover and pop-tune montage.

“The House Bunny” is being released by Sony Pictures, which this summer is also distributing the newest Adam Sandler comedy (“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” co-written by Judd Apatow), the latest Will Smith vehicle (“Hancock”) and two Apatow-factory productions (“Step Brothers” and “Pineapple Express”). The studio also has the newly opened “Made of Honor,” which is being sold with the pretty face of Patrick Dempsey and the tag line “It takes a real man to become a maid of honor.” In brief, “Made of Honor” is just a redo of the studio’s 1997 hit “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” with Mr. Dempsey playing the role originated by Julia Roberts, the character who realizes that she (now a he) is in love with her (his) engaged friend.

Such transgender gamesmanship isn’t new in Hollywood, but has reached its apotheosis in Mr. Apatow’s comedies. With his rambunctious court of jesters, this new king of comedy has brilliantly gotten around the tricky, sticky female issue by turning his slackers and dudes into, well, leading ladies. These aren’t the she-males you find in the back pages of The Village Voice, mind you. The Apatow men hit the screen anatomically intact: they’re emasculated but not castrated, as the repeated images of the flopping genitals in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” remind you. These guys talk plenty dirty, but they’re also kinder, gentler, softer and way weepier than most of their screen brethren. They ache just like women and break like little girls, but they always, always score.

In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” the lucky guy is Peter (the screenwriter Jason Segel), whose stunning conquest, Rachel (Mila Kunis), is so out of his league as to be in another universe. No matter. Peter snags this prize specifically because — from his full-frontal nudity to his penchant for hugs and voluble crying jags, for which he’s literally mistaken for a woman — he’s basically another chick, or what Arnold Schwarzenegger once called a girlie man. (The softly plumped Mr. Segel even looks as if he could fit into an A cup.) In one scene Peter goes swimming with Rachel only to end up clinging to the side of a cliff. Rachel, who has already taken the plunge, laughingly yells up at him, “I can see your vagina!”

Better a virtual vagina, I suppose, than none at all. Last year only 3 of the 20 highest-grossing releases in America were female-driven, and involve a princess (“Enchanted”) or pregnancy (“Knocked Up” and “Juno”). Actresses had starring roles in about a quarter of the next 80 highest-grossing titles, mostly in dopey romantic comedies and dopier thrillers. A number of these were among the worst-reviewed movies of the year, including “Premonition” (Sandra Bullock) and “The Reaping” (Hilary Swank), the last of which was released by — ta-da! — Warner Brothers. The days of “Million Dollar Baby,” for which Ms. Swank won an Oscar, and “Speed,” which rocketed Ms. Bullock to stardom in the summer of 1994, feel long gone.

There may be more women working in the industry now — Amy Pascal is a co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment — but you wouldn’t know it from what’s on the screen. The reasons are complex and certainly beyond the scope of a seasonal rant like this one. Some point to the lack of female directors, whose numbers in both the mainstream and independent realms hover at around 6 percent. Others blame the female audience, though the success of “Baby Mama” indicates — just as the summer hit “The Devil Wears Prada” suggested two years ago — that if given something decent that speaks to their lives and lets them leave the theater without feeling slimed, women will turn out. The Apatow she-male isn’t bad, but give me the real deal any day.

Among the pleasures of the movies are the new worlds they open up, but there are pleasures in the familiar too, like seeing other women bigger, badder and more beautiful than life. And whether it’s Sigourney Weaver in “Alien,” Rosario Dawson in “Death Proof” or Meryl Streep in whatever, I am there. The black filmmaker Tyler Perry has built his success partly on the truth that when audiences look up at the screen what they want to see are faces much like their own. In 2008, when a white woman and a black man are running for president and attracting unprecedented numbers of voters partly because they are giving a face to the wildly under-represented, you might think that Hollywood would get a clue.


Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company