`Cry' caps new wave of `women's films'. Meaningful female roles, minus the Hollywood fluff

Remember the '70s, when ``buddy movies'' were all the rage? It seemed that every other film starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman, with hardly a woman in sight. And how about much of the '80s, when stars like Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy seemed to include women in their pictures mostly so the bad guy would have someone to punch around? Happily, the trend appears to be changing. Some of this year's most substantial films, including the new ``A Cry in the Dark,'' feature women in leading roles. And more important, they're about real feminine concerns, such as child-raising and family-building and safety from sexual aggression - matters that should concern all of us equally, but are often known as ``women's issues'' nowadays.

``Gorillas in the Mist'' helped launch the trend earlier this season, with Sigourney Weaver playing a wildlife expert as smart and rugged as any man could be. It gathered more steam in Woody Allen's disappointing but ambitious drama ``Another Woman,'' starring the hugely talented Gena Rowlands.

The trend then accelerated in three pictures that arrived almost at once. ``The Accused'' stars two first-rate actresses: Jody Foster as the working-class victim of a gang rape, and Kelly McGillis as a lawyer who helps her prosecute all the men responsible, including bystanders who cheered on the assault. ``The Good Mother'' stars Diane Keaton as a woman who fights for custody of her daughter after her new boyfriend is charged with sexually abusing the child.

Streep tries another accent

Now another thoughtful ``woman's movie'' is here: ``A Cry in the Dark,'' based on the true story of an Australian mother who was accused of murdering her baby after the infant's accidental death. This time the star is Meryl Streep, trying on yet another accent - an Australian drawl this time - and a new, awful-looking hairstyle.

That frumpy hairdo isn't just a colorful detail of the movie, though. It's proof of the film's seriousness in tackling a difficult story about the death of a child and a media frenzy that almost ruins a mother's life. Neither the filmmakers nor Ms. Streep tries to make the heroine sweet or sympathetic in the usual Hollywood way; nor do they go for an ``interesting performance'' that dispenses with sex appeal but pours on extra-thick layers of highly visible acting skill to compensate. Rather, they allow the character to be as profoundly unglamorous and sharp-tongued as she apparently was in real life. This gives the story an abrasive edge that makes it less engaging than it might have been, but far more thought-provoking.

Anti-female bias exposed

In all, ``A Cry in the Dark'' is one of the year's most engaging films, well acted (by everyone except Sam Neill, as Streep's deeply religious husband) and made with a clear sense of social awareness as well as movie-style drama. It also consolidates a trend-within-a-trend that courses through all the latest woman-oriented movies: By centering its plot on a pitched battle between the heroine and the judicial system, it uses one of modern society's most entrenched and respected institutions as a metaphor for inflexible, reactionary, and implicitly antifemale tendencies built into the very fabric of Western culture.

I'm pleased with the seriousness that marks even the weaker examples of the new ``woman's movies,'' but I can't help noticing an ironic fact about them. ``The Accused'' was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, ``The Good Mother'' by Leonard Nimoy, and ``A Cry in the Dark'' by Fred Schepisi. When will women not only star in these feminist fables, but take control behind the cameras as well? That could be the most exciting development of all. Unfortunately, in a film industry dominated habitually by men, it could also be the last one to arrive.

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