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the '90s, part two:
chick flicks

11.17.99

Having probed cinematic masculinity last week, I'll move on to the opposite gender. What have the movies of the '90s said about women? The news isn't all bad. But God knows it isn't all good.

Again taking the viewpoint of a genderless alien observing our culture through '90s movies, I would have to conclude that women are almost as fucked up as men, if the movies are any indication. Women need a man to feel complete. They will undermine each other in order to get a man. They are useless in emergencies: Hand them a gun, they have no idea what to do with it (unless, of course, they're femme assassins, in which case a gun is simply one more thing to accessorize with). They always have wonderful orgasms, except when the plot calls for them to be frigid bitches who blame their lack of sexual response on their clumsy male partners (think YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS here). Even the strongest, most stubborn women -- Thelma and Louise, Ada in THE PIANO -- have a drive towards self-destruction: Death on your own terms is better than life on your knees. Generally they are irrational creatures who get riled at the stupidest little things and are particularly fond of hugfests with lifelong female friends; these hugfests generally climax in an impromptu dance number set to some upbeat Motown oldie on the kitchen radio. Women come in two categories: pretty young things or frumpy moms.

Ladies, does any of this sound like you? Probably not, though I'm sure some of the above applies to at least some real-life women.

The vast majority of what are commonly known as "chick flicks" or "women's weepies" essentially treat the female audience like children. The heroines can't be bimbos, but they also can't be too smart -- if they are, they risk outclassing the audience; they have to act just dumb enough for the audience to enjoy their calamities vicariously. These movies generally point towards self-actualization or self-knowledge; they are comfort food for women who seem to need the message again and again: Be yourself, love yourself, go with yourself. This isn't cinema, it's Oprah. I imagine some women get sick of watching other women go through problems, and that may be why some of them find male-centered movies so refreshing once in a while: Sure, it has nothing to do with them personally, but at least it isn't one more lame story about a lonely twentysomething woman (who, with her looks, would never be lonely in real life) dealing with relationship issues or hanging out with her best female friend (often black, sometimes gay male) or basically acting like a 14-year-old when she isn't showing her career savvy in obligatory office scenes.

Some of the more popular ladies' films, like THELMA & LOUISE (which I admire) and THE FIRST WIVES CLUB, come pretty close to being crypto-lesbian cinema. If you reverse and slightly alter Brad Pitt's statement in FIGHT CLUB, it comes out like "We're a generation of women dominated by men. I wonder if another man is really what we need." That seems to be the message of a lot of these movies: Fuck men, or better yet, don't fuck them; let's just hang out with our girlfriends, go dancing, watch sappy videos, go shopping. I mean, shit, while you're at it you might as well sleep with each other too. Same thing with guys: Fuck women, or better yet, don't fuck them; let's just hang out with our buddies, go golfing, watch sports, go out drinking. I mean, shit, while you're at it you might as well sleep with each other too. FIGHT CLUB is a chick flick with the roles reversed. Susan Faludi approvingly called it "THELMA & LOUISE for men." But in real chick flicks, generally the woman starts out man-hungry and ends up realizing she doesn't need a man to complete herself. All she needs is herself, and she knows she has a support system of girlfriends to back her up -- mostly girlfriends who have a lot in common with her. It's enlightenment as narcissism. Welcome to the '90s.

The stars who are allowed to emerge, the attitudes they express, the movies they make, and the mass response to those movies, all give some indication of where we're at. In the case of female movie stars, it tells us what the female ideal is for both male and female audiences. In a perfect world, Janeane Garofalo would have six back-to-back $100 million grossers on her name alone, without having to slam herself or worry about her weight. (The good news for Janeane: she does a lot of indie movies. The bad news: she also does a lot of shit.) And it's clear that female stars aren't rewarded for taking chances with their image -- not at the box office, anyway -- and they aren't given nearly as much latitude on that as male stars are. Yet if they do too much of the same thing, that's bad, too.

Who has been the leading woman in '90s American cinema? Most people would say Julia Roberts, and look how she became a star: in a Cinderella-whore story. Roberts is a good actress -- I've admired her work in dramas that nobody saw, like MARY REILLY and MICHAEL COLLINS. But the mass audience only really warms to her when she's a comedienne playing flighty and insecure, as in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, RUNAWAY BRIDE, and NOTTING HILL -- all $100 million-plus grossers. This is more flattery of the audience: A woman this beautiful can still be a wreck inside -- but she eventually finds her way to happiness.

There haven't been many other women to challenge Julia's crown. Let's look at a few contenders:

· GEENA DAVIS could have owned the '90s -- she got a strong enough start in THELMA & LOUISE (not to mention her 1988 Oscar) -- but she's had nothing but flops since, which baffles me, because as David Cronenberg once said, "Geena is funny and sexy, and to me that is just the most diabolical combination. You can't beat it." Yet her efforts to assert herself in aggressive roles -- CUTTHROAT ISLAND and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, both with her erstwhile husband Renny Harlin -- weren't rewarded with asses in seats. In her upcoming film, STUART LITTLE -- her first movie in three years -- the presumably chastened Davis plays surrogate mommy to a computer-generated mouse in a kiddie film.

· JODIE FOSTER had been acting since the '70s, and her comeback was in 1987's THE ACCUSED, for which she won her first Oscar. She took her second for 1991's SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, a great way to begin the decade. Since then, though, her energies have been directed more towards producing and directing; she hasn't done much in her few subsequent performances to match her Oscar-winning work. NELL might be her favorite recent performance, but it sure as hell isn't mine; and whenever she lends her face to some romantic role like SOMMERSBY, MAVERICK, and probably the upcoming ANNA AND THE KING, she just seems to be wasting her time and cashing a check. And what of her work in CONTACT? Well, it was tight and focused, but we already knew she can do that.

· SHARON STONE asserted herself good and hard near the beginning of the decade in BASIC INSTINCT -- an indelible performance she's paid for ever since. None of her films since have done nearly as well, which is too bad because she proved her acting chops in serious roles in CASINO and the otherwise lame LAST DANCE. I feel she has been punished -- by the male and female audience -- for getting our attention by playing a dangerously sexual woman with no hang-ups whatsoever. Camille Paglia idolizes Stone for this performance alone, but it seems that most people still haven't forgiven her for it. Lately, in GLORIA and THE MIGHTY, she's started to try to win favor by playing embattled mom figures (or, in THE MUSE, trying her hand at comedy), but the mass audience isn't buying.

· NICOLE KIDMAN has been hit or miss: She's one of those stars who are stars because we're told they're stars, contrary to box-office evidence. She began the decade as Tom Cruise's love interest in DAYS OF THUNDER, and has pretty much spent the rest of the '90s playing love interests, twice again with Cruise (in two underperformers, FAR AND AWAY and EYES WIDE SHUT). Her one thoroughgoing solo vehicle, TO DIE FOR, yielded a fairly two-dimensional performance -- she's far from the best thing in it -- and she hasn't had a role like that since. Aside from THE BLUE ROOM onstage, which promised in-person nudity, Kidman's name has never guaranteed a hit. THE PEACEMAKER didn't do it either. The fact that she happened to be in the top-grossing BATMAN FOREVER doesn't mean she can open a movie: Look at the anemic grosses for PRACTICAL MAGIC. Speaking of which...

· SANDRA BULLOCK went from hot new star to has-been in about three years -- an amazing turnaround even in this jaded era. After a few small roles, she landed a scene-stealing comic-relief supporting role alongside Sylvester Stallone in 1993's DEMOLITION MAN; the movie's grosses were modest, but it established Bullock in the minds of those who saw her: "She's funny and sexy, diabolical combination, can we see more of her?" 1994 brought SPEED, which Sandy stole right out from under Keanu Reeves. She was funny and regular-gal enough to appeal to women; she was all that plus sex appeal for guys. For a while, she had the Midas touch: WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING and THE NET were her one-two punch in '95. After that, though, the downward spiral: TWO IF BY SEA (which I liked) and IN LOVE AND WAR (which I didn't) and the bottom of the barrel, SPEED 2. (There was also the hit A TIME TO KILL, but she was in it for what, 15 minutes?) HOPE FLOATS last year was a modest comeback, but PRACTICAL MAGIC and FORCES OF NATURE smacked her back down to size, and now she's spoofing herself on TV's ACTION.

One of the more interesting female stars to emerge in the '90s has been Cameron Diaz. She started off as the eye candy in THE MASK, but her resume includes a lot of offbeat stuff: in addition to THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, which sort of became mainstream by accident, there's THE LAST SUPPER, HEAD ABOVE WATER, A LIFE LESS ORDINARY, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, VERY BAD THINGS, the current BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and possibly the upcoming ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, in which she seems to be the challenging note of estrogen in an otherwise testosterone-drunk movie. More and more, Diaz seems to go where the weirdness is. She has yet to open a movie by herself -- those who loved her in MARY didn't come out in force for VERY BAD THINGS -- but she's building up a varied and wide-ranging career. She may surprise us. She may also never be as big a star as Julia -- I have to wonder if CHARLIE'S ANGELS is going to do it for her -- but odds are she'd rather have a career less ordinary.

So let's get back to the role of women in '90s cinema. It's not true that guys won't watch tough women who kick ass -- look at the ratings for BUFFY and XENA. More precisely, guys won't get in the car to go see tough women who kick ass. BUFFY the movie, back in '92, hardly made a dent. BUFFY the TV series is unstoppable. After seeing Michelle Yeoh in Jackie Chan's SUPERCOP -- years after Asian audiences already knew her name -- I was sure we were meeting a cool new international star. Yet aside from TOMORROW NEVER DIES, where she played second fiddle to Pierce Brosnan, Yeoh hasn't gotten the star vehicle she deserves in this country. (Whereas Chow Yun-Fat has gotten two -- both of which bombed here.) If a woman is going to be in an action movie or thriller, she'd better be in jeopardy -- or, ha ha, double jeopardy -- for most of the movie before she finally grows a spine and fights back, if then. If she's kick-ass from the first frame, nobody's interested. (Well, I'd be interested, but my seven dollars only goes so far.)

If a woman is going to be in a romance, she'd better be a beauty. Americans have no patience for homely, flabby women with frizzy hair and an age above 30 (whereas a guy can be as old, fat and ugly as he wants). Those women apparently don't deserve love; so we watch a beautiful woman in frumpy clothes and no make-up, pretending to be lonely and undesirable, until Mr. Right comes along and she gets a smashing new makeover (often with the help of her supportive girlfriends or gay male buddy).

If a woman wants to do interesting work in movies, she'd better stick to indies. Parker Posey and Lili Taylor are just two great indie actresses who've gotten cinematic hysterectomies in lame big-budget movies, cast in shallow roles they could play blindfolded. This rule kinda holds true for men, too -- compare Steve Buscemi's big-budget action work with his indie work. Yet even Buscemi can manage to be the best thing in ARMAGEDDON or CON AIR, whereas it's difficult to say that Parker Posey is the best thing in YOU'VE GOT MAIL or Lili Taylor is the best thing in RANSOM or THE HAUNTING. That's because mainstream Hollywood movies are still, by and large, a man's world. Interesting indie actresses dipping a toe into studio films will find themselves playing girlfriends or second banana to CG effects. As cool as SLEEPY HOLLOW looks, I have my misgivings about the role Christina Ricci seems to play in it: damsel in distress who screams a lot and falls in love with Johnny Depp. Now, SLEEPY HOLLOW may be a special case, because I can see why Ricci would want to work with Tim Burton on a big gothic canvas. Better that than CASPER or THAT DARN CAT. Still, it's hard to accept her in this kind of role once you've seen THE OPPOSITE OF SEX.

Speaking of which, Lisa Kudrow was robbed of an Oscar for her great work in that film. She remains the most promising breakout star of the FRIENDS six-pack. Yet what has she been given to do since? She brightened her scenes in ANALYZE THIS, but she was still playing the girlfriend role; and in the upcoming HANGING UP she's one of three competitive sisters -- a subgenre of the chick-flick genre, the sisterhood genre. I can tell you right now what the message of that movie is going to be: Sisters stick together and love each other no matter what. Yawn. Why put Lisa Kudrow in this? She's beyond this, even if Meg Ryan and Diane Keaton aren't. Hell, even ROMY AND MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION was preferable: At least it didn't pretend to be anything more than a bubbly confection.

Overall, despite some highlights, female roles haven't changed much in ten years. The '90s began with a slew of male-centered films -- MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, LORD OF THE FLIES -- and the schedule for the rest of this year is similarly clogged with testosterone. Yet there may be hope: James Mangold, writer-director of HEAVY and COP LAND, has a new movie coming out for Christmas -- GIRL, INTERRUPTED, based on Susanna Kaysen's memoir of her time at a women's mental ward. Mangold has said he didn't want to make a "Lifetime, the Network for Women" type of movie -- he wanted to make "a women's movie with balls." Ironic statement, that. And it's also ironic that the most estrogen-laden big-studio movie in years is about a bunch of crazy women.

Yet who knows? It may provide a lot of meaty roles for a lot of good actresses (Angelina Jolie's performance has already sparked Oscar buzz), and it may be a refreshing group portrait -- a good story well-told that happens to be about women, instead of a "chick flick" designed to appeal to softhearted sob sisters, or a tract that meets with the approval of MS. magazine. It could go either way -- it could turn out to be a laborious wallow, the cinematic equivalent of 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up" -- but it's one of the few upcoming movies I'm seriously amped for, and if the gamble pays off, maybe this decade that began with a whimper for women can end with a megaton bang.


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