Ladies Take Lead as Hollywood Musters More Strong Roles

For a variety of reasons, ranging from sheer happenstance to the film industry's perennial search for novelty, the past year has been a happy one for moviegoers who enjoy stories with strong female characters.

The hugely popular "Waiting to Exhale" is writing a chapter on success that has taken just about everyone by surprise. Featuring solid performances by African-American icons Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston, it tells the intertwined tales of four black women who can't seem to find the ideal boyfriends they dream of.

Many critics found it likable but thin, and ultimately too sentimental. What's putting the movie over the top at the box-office is less its overall quality than the simple fact that it treats the needs, wants, and aspirations of black women, one of the most cinematically underserved American minority groups.

It's ironic that a movie so beloved by women - white as well as black, according to recent reports - was directed, coproduced, and co-written by men. But audiences care more about on-screen results than behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and there's no question that director Forest Whitaker and collaborators of both genders have struck a chord that other filmmakers may now feel foolish for overlooking.

Last summer brought so many female-centered films that I suggested 1995 be labeled the year of the woman - or the girl, to be precise, since movies like "The Baby-Sitters Club" and "Pocahontas" targeted youngsters more than adults.

This reflected a canny attempt by studios to draw family members who might not respond to boys'-adventure fare like the violent "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and the vulgar "Bushwhacked."

Grown-up actresses kept coming on strong, though, with leading roles in dramas as varied as "Dangerous Minds," with Michelle Pfeiffer playing an inner-city schoolteacher, and "The Addiction," about an urban vampire.

No trend kicks in 100 percent of the time, of course, and not all the news on the female-film front was good.

The much-discussed "Nixon" was only marginally more sensitive to women than Oliver Stone's earlier "JFK," presenting two interesting female characters - the president's wife and mother, played by Joan Allen and Mary Steenburgen, respectively - but exploring neither in much depth.

Martin Scorsese's hyperactive "Casino" found Sharon Stone in her best form to date, but gave her character little to do beyond getting intoxicated and staggering around. The wretched "Showgirls" earned more headlines than it warranted with its exploitative plunge into the Las Vegas nightclub scene.

Some women were seasoned and mature, like Meryl Streep's restless wife in "The Bridges of Madison County" and Kathy Bates's beleaguered mother in "Dolores Claiborne." Others were young and troubled, like the drug-abusing rock singer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Georgia" and the insecure homemaker played by Julianne Moore in "Safe."

Still others ranged from the brightly ambitious to the hilariously air-headed. Nicole Kidman revivified the latter category as a murderous TV weather reporter in "To Die For," where she had solid support from Illeana Douglas as a suspicious sister-in-law. Annette Bening gave self-assurance a good name as the first girlfriend in "The American President" and also found time to be a regal Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III."

And, of course, there were Jane Austen heroines, with their English charm and literary pedigrees, played by actresses ranging from Emma Thompson of "Sense and Sensibility" to Alicia Silverstone of "Clueless."

The current swing toward strong on-screen women began more than a year ago, when "Little Women" turned a time-tested novel into a timely entertainment that earned rave reviews and longer box-office lines.

The secret lay partly in the film's lively performances and glowing cinematography, and partly in Robin Swicord's intelligent screenplay, which made Marmee a thoroughly modern mother with forward-looking ideas to balance her old-fashioned maternal qualities. Also appealing were the bright performances by more fine actresses - Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis, Trini Alverado, and others - than a single picture normally holds.

A few months later, while young audiences flocked to "Casper" and "Clueless," crowds avoided "A Little Princess" despite its imaginative approach to a traditional story - and despite the best efforts of Warner Bros., which gave it a second release with fresh advertising. Even the sophisticated "Pocahontas" did less brilliantly at the box office than other recent animations from the Walt Disney studio. "The Secret of Roan Inish" did not boost the fortunes of independent filmmaker John Sayles, and offbeat productions like "Nadja" and "Double Happiness" failed to cross the line between "art house" and "mainstream" appeal.

Looking into the movie world's perenially clouded crystal ball, it isn't clear whether the woman-oriented trend will have "legs," the Hollywood term for staying power.

"Mr. Holland's Opus," a potential hit with Richard Dreyfuss as a dedicated music teacher, makes all its other characters play second fiddle to the eponymous hero. Women play key roles in Henry Jaglom's quirky "Last Summer in the Hamptons" and Phillip Haas's costume picture "Angels & Insects," but both pictures will appeal to art-film buffs more than the multiplex crowd.

More promising are the Dutch drama "Antonia's Line," a feminist fable about a family of strong-willed women, and "The White Balloon," a delightful Iranian tale about a girl who has an unexpected New Year's Eve adventure. If they demonstrate broad appeal, they could help even more females fill the screen.

*Some of these films contain sex, violence, or other material that may be considered offensive. Moviegoers should check reviews for further information on their content.

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