Strong Roles for Women Both Onscreen and Off

Jodie Foster makes `Nell' and Geena Davis is `Speechless' By David Sterritt, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Since the early years of Hollywood filmmaking, big-name performers have tried to boost their careers by putting up their own talent, clout, and money to support productions that offer them juicy parts. The practice continues to this day, and some of the most eager players are actresses who become producers as a way of combating the shortage of substantial female roles in American cinema.

Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that two new pictures with strong female characters were largely assembled by strong female stars working behind the cameras as well. The movies are ``Nell'' and ``Speechless,'' and the actresses are Jodie Foster and Geena Davis, both of whom served as co-producers in addition to playing the leading roles. They deserve credit for widening the current range of movie heroines, even though the films themselves don't live up to the hopes that inspired them.

``Nell'' is an ambitious look at a subject difficult to dramatize: the thoughts, perceptions, and experiences of a person raised in near-total separation from other human beings, then removed from isolation by well-meaning but ultimately self-serving representatives of society. Previous films on such material include Francois Truffaut's popular ``The Wild Child'' and Werner Herzog's visionary ``The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser,'' as well as a recent episode of the ``Nova'' television show documenting a modern-day case history.

``Nell'' follows a common trajectory for tales like this. First the half-savage young woman is discovered after the death of the disabled mother who raised her. Then she's observed by a physician and a psychologist, who find her case compelling for both professional and personal reasons. They come to appreciate her as a person rather than a specimen, but they can't protect her from snoops less altruistic and enlightened than themselves.

The climax occurs when Nell is plunged into the ordinary world with few skills and insights to protect her.

This is a fascinating topic, and the film certainly offers Foster a role worthy of her talents. The problem with the picture is that it cares less about exploring Nell's consciousness than about molding her experiences into the contours of conventional Hollywood storytelling - smoothing rough edges, sanitizing harsh details, stressing sentimentality over substance. In production notes for the movie, Foster says the story is ``about defying description, about not being put in a box, and not being labeled and marketed.'' Yet that's precisely what ``Nell'' does to its remarkable heroine, who is described and boxed and labeled and marketed from first scene to last.

This is standard Hollywood procedure, of course, and that's why Hollywood should leave such challenging material to filmmakers more willing to take artistic and commercial risks. Michael Apted directed ``Nell'' from a screenplay by William Nicholson and Mark Handley; the fine supporting cast includes Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson as the scientists who become Nell's friends.

`Speechless'' visits a domain much closer to home for most moviegoers - the political arena, where two rival speechwriters fall dizzily in love as the campaign season reaches its peak. It's an amusing situation, although it would seem more original if countless news reports hadn't publicized the real-life relationship of consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin during the last presidential race. Admirers of screen satire will also recall that Robert Altman got mileage from similar material in his ``Tanner `88'' miniseries six years ago.

Engagingly played by Davis and Michael Keaton, the main characters of ``Speechless'' are a liberal (her) and conservative (him) odd couple, each willing to bend any rule or stretch any scruple to gain an extra sound bite on the evening news. Also on hand are the woman's ex-boyfriend and the man's ex-wife, a network journalist and campaign worker (respectively) who don't want to be ``ex'' anymore. Robert King's screenplay has some genuinely funny lines, and solid supporting players like Bonnie Bedelia and Ernie Hudson reinforce the picture's comic credibility. There's not much imagination to Ron Underwood's listless directing style, though, which drains energy from the yarn when it's needed most.

Also disappointing is the story's tediously well-balanced ideological slant, making all the politicians equally dishonest creeps so that neither liberal nor conservative moviegoers will be dissuaded from enriching the film's investors at the box office. Evenhandedness, too, is standard Hollywood procedure - unfortunately for those who'd rather be occasionally riled than perpetually lulled at their local multiplex.

* ``Nell'' has a PG-13 rating; it contains nudity and vulgar language. ``Speechless'' also has a PG-13 rating; it contains vulgar language and sexuality.

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