Feisty moms and warrior women take on Oscar

IT'S no coincidence that Oscar is a guy.

Traditionally, the Academy Awards have been all about muscle, as Scottish warriors, soldiers, and mafia bosses have hacked and slashed their way up to the podium to grab the top honor.

But this Sunday's ceremony has a decidedly more feminine tone. For the first time in 15 years, a woman is the central character in three of the five movies nominated for best picture. And some culture watchers and members of the film industry are hopeful that such gains will become more common, as more women are involved in telling stories on film.

"It's testosterone versus estrogen" at the 73rd Oscars, says Tom O'Neil, author of "Movie Awards." "Three feisty female movies are taking on Goliath at the Oscar Coliseum."

The Goliath in question would be the frontrunner, "Gladiator." Fortunately, the ladies in at least one of the pictures, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," are pretty handy with a sword.

Or with a suit, as in the case of "Erin Brockovich," whose fiery public crusader put both star Julia Roberts and scribe Susannah Grant on the red carpet for Sunday's affair.

"Tons of women are saying, 'Good for you!' " says Ms. Grant, one of two women nominated for a screenplay this year. She laughs. "Then they say, 'What are you going to wear?' "

Why now?

An even bigger question than whether Grant should go with Dolce & Gabbana or Prada may be: Why now? And observers are hard-pressed to say. Possible reasons range from an increase in the number of women in Hollywood's decision-making roles to a hunger by audiences for new stories.

"There are certainly more women now than before in positions to make choices about films," and which films get made, says Hollace Davids, a Universal Studios executive and president of Women in Film in Los Angeles. And there's a distinct possibility that these women "will gravitate toward stories that speak to them."

Cheryl Rhoden has her own theory about the force behind the rise in respected movies starring women. "Evolution!" quips the spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America, West.

And in an industry where there are at least as many imitators as innovators, there may be more scrappy single moms and lyrical action heroes coming soon to a theater near you. "It's hopefully a harbinger of good things to come," says Ms. Rhoden.

In the past year, more take-charge roles for women - particularly the strong, single type - have cropped up. They're found in everything from action flicks to French fables, a la "Chocolat," the third nominated film. And audiences are lining up to see them. Last year's "Charlie's Angels" took in more than $100 million, as did Sandra Bullock's tomboy FBI agent in "Miss Congeniality." In April, Angelina Jolie becomes the next archaeologist-action hero in "Tomb Raider."

But others caution against placing too much importance on an awards show. "It's no brain trust," says Stephanie Zacharek, movie critic for Salon.com in San Francisco. "[The Oscars] do, to an extent, reflect things that are visible or prevalent in the culture. [But] it's dangerous to look at them as a final indicator of what's important or interesting."

To be sure, this is not the first time a majority of best-picture nominees have centered around women. Since 1944, when five nominees became the norm, it's happened, on average, once a decade - twice in the 1940s and 1950s, never in the 1990s. And very few women who operate behind the camera go home from the Oscars showered in gold. Only one woman, Jane Campion, has even been nominated for best director in the past 20 years. Five women won screenwriting Oscars during that same period.

Little change behind the camera

Ms. Davids points out that women's employment on the creative side of Hollywood isn't exactly going up. There are fewer female directors now than in 1995. And while the number of female cinematographers working in Hollywood has increased, it went from one to three.

But some culture watchers see something more than just the law of averages kicking in on this go-round. Finally, they posit, the changes in gender roles that have transformed so many aspects of society are showing up on the silver screen.

Other aspects of society push the envelope, but "pop culture waits around and licks it when it's safe to do so," says Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University in New York. And while the women's movement has been around for decades, "it takes a while before [Hollywood] can churn these stories out like Chevys on an assembly line."

Also, he points out, after a century of movies and a half century of television, Hollywood may simply need new stories. One way to freshen the buddy flick, the Western, or the kung-fu movie is to tell them from a woman's point of view.

Looking to older women, too

As more stories are told about women, Hollywood will also have to draw from a wider age range than the traditional 20-year-old ingenue, he believes, citing Juliette Binoche's role in "Chocolat." "The wisdom that that role needed to be humming with ... wouldn't have worked with an actress 10 years younger," Professor Thompson says.

Mr. O'Neil also was heartened by the number of veteran actresses - Ellen Burstyn, Julie Waters, and Judi Dench - nominated this year. He considers women over 40 to be the most discriminated-against group at the Academy Awards, next to minorities.

And he, for one, also sees some improvement in the quality of the characters nominated. "Thank God, there are no bimbo roles this time. These are all smart, savvy women." They are also almost entirely women battling life on their own - four out of the five actors nominated for best actress play single mothers.

The traditional tilt toward male-oriented fare isn't surprising, Davids says. It's simple numbers. "The Academy has more men in it, so you have more men voting." Indeed, O'Neil says 60 percent of Oscar voters are male, and men comprise 80 percent to 87 percent of critics' groups.

Even this year, the women-centered films may have to settle for the honor of being nominated. "Gladiator" is still considered likely to go home the big winner. For a precedent, one might look to 1986, when "A Room With a View," "Hannah and Her Sisters," and "Children of a Lesser God" all vied for the top spot. That year's best picture? Oliver Stone's Vietnam War epic, "Platoon."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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