Where Have All The Movie Actresses Gone?

Lynne Murray says:

I have been thinking about women in movies recently. Well, really thinking about how few there are, and how similar they all are. I have a friend whose view of current movie actresses is similar to Ulysses S. Grant’s view of music. Grant was so musically challenged that he could recognize only two songs, one was Yankee Doodle, and the other was not. My friend is like that about the past decade of so of motion picture leading ladies, they fall into two categories — one is Meg Ryan, and the other is not.

Then I ran across a 2002 documentary entitled Searching for Debra Winger directed by Rosanna Arquette.

Arquette interviewed “older” actresses, who are essentially an endangered species in Hollywood.

Seeing so many blonde actresses in groups discussing the motion picture industry made the visual point of their disconcerting visual similarity. Meg Ryan was interviewed (so as to provide a contrast with not-Meg-Ryan other blondes). But it was startling how many of these excellent, award-winning actresses share certain generic qualities–quite thin, of course, and overwhelming blonde, with the notable exceptions of Whoopi Goldberg, Alfre Woodard, Selma Hayek and Julianna Margulies. (There probably were other brunettes, but I returned the DVD before I thought to make a head count.)

One of the women in Searching points out that movie actresses by definition don’t look like 95 percent of normal people. Yes, I realize that actors often are professional chameleons whose outward appearance can change with the role. But why would so many “present themselves as blonde” in between roles? These actresses are demonstrating the most “saleable” look, and it’s scarily standardized.

What they are going for, indeed what they must go for, is not exactly “SALEable.” I backed up the Searching DVD to write down one significant interchange between Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy about the main quality an actress needs to get cast in a movie:

Plimpton: “Humor, intelligence, talent, imagination, bravery, skill–when you eliminate all of those things, what have you got?”

Sheedy: “Fuckability”

As the actresses in Searching point out in amusing, though crazy-making examples, getting a part or not getting a part will often depend on whether the male decision maker deems them as “fuckable.”

Daryl Hannah came close to the issue when she talked about how, when she played the mother of a teenager, she was required to wear an ugly brown wig and flour-sack-style, shapeless dress. Her question was, why can’t mothers of teenagers look like the beautiful, blondes at the table? Well, yeah, some do. But the deeper question is why is only blonde and thin is deemed desirable at any age? Whoopi Goldberg addressed this question with total candor. “Aunts are cool. Aunts fuck,” she said. “Grandmas fuck.” To quote Jan and Dean, “Go Granny, go!” It was well worth watching the DVD just to hear Whoopi Goldberg’s comments.

From decades of working in the film industry, the women in Arquette’s documentary all agreed who makes the decisions about what movies get made and why. Telling a gripping story about interesting people is often rather far down the list. On the subject of who gets cast and what roles women play in films their insights echo Goldie Hawn’s quote in The First Wives’ Club: “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” Things have gotten much worse in the 12 years since The First Wives Club became a cult classic among middle-aged women).

If that sounds bad –wait, it gets worse. While I was still absorbing the many insights from that film, I happened to read a May 4th New York Times article by Manohla Dargison, “Is There a Real Woman in This Multiplex?

IRON MAN, Batman, Big Angry Green Man – to judge from the new popcorn season it seems as if Hollywood has realized that the best way to deal with its female troubles is to not have any, women, that is.

In Searching, Roger Ebert was interviewed and he discussed how women seem to have vanished from movies. So this phenomenon was well under way by 2002.

Salma Hayek made a very sensible suggestion that women need to get behind the camera and create good dramas with solid female characters. However, it is a massive understatement to say that getting such films made is easier said than done.

The problem is that films by and about women have committed the cardinal sin in Hollywood — unprofitability. After the box office failure of titles with female leads such as Nicole Kidman’s The Invasion, Jodie Foster’s The Brave One:

…the online chatter was that the [Warner Brothers] president for production, Jeff Robinov, had vowed it would no longer make movies with female leads. A studio representative denied he made the comments. And, frankly, it is hard to believe that anyone in a position of Hollywood power would be so stupid as to actually say what many in that town think: Women can’t direct. Women can’t open movies. Women are a niche.

Nobody likes to admit the worst, even when it’s right up there on the screen, particularly women in the industry who clutch at every pitiful short straw, insisting that there are, for instance, more female executives in Hollywood than ever before. As if itís done the rest of us any good. All you have to do is look at the movies themselves – at the decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame – to see just how irrelevant we have become.

(New York Times, Manohla Dargison, “Is There a Real Woman in This Multiplex?” – May 4th, 2008)

I like to end on a hopeful note whenever I can — otherwise it’s just venting, and sometimes one can do more. The only possible thing I can think of to encourage women who pursue the labor of love that is writing, directing and acting in films is Steve Martin’s advice to all struggling artists: “Be too good to ignore.”

11 thoughts on “Where Have All The Movie Actresses Gone?

  1. Nice piece! I’ll have to check out that DVD.

    One thing though: “Go Granny Go” is from Jan and Dean (“The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”), not the Beach Boys.

  2. It occurred to me a while ago that people didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic about individual movie actresses as they used to be, and it seems reasonable that as the demands for a particular physical type become more stringent, it’s less possible to select for charisma or acting ability.

    “First they took the fat people out of the movies and I didn’t care because I don’t like looking at fat people. Then they took the women out and I didn’t care because I’d rather see explosions.” What’s next?
    Possibly all CGI movies.

  3. FYI, it’s “Salma Hayek”.

    While I’m commenting at all, I’ll note that it is possible to find recent movies with strong female leads, even action movies (Aeon Flux, for example). But yeah, they just don’t seem to do as well at the box office.

  4. Meowser and Aahz, mistakes fixed. The management takes all responsibility for errors; Lynne is not required to fact-check for us.

    I have to muse on the rest of the post; the “fuckability” thing is certainly true, but I don’t feel like there are fewer women in the movies I’ve seen recently. Maybe it’s how I pick and choose in the first place, though.

    Lynne, thanks (as always) for making me think.

  5. Fascinating article. I wonder if part of the absence of women, too, is because so many action-adventure movies now depend on overseas markets for profitability? If you look at boxofficemojo you see there is a *lot* of profit made outside the US. That could have some possible effects (just speculation here.) For one, it may be that women characters don’t “translate” well to a mostly-male audience that just wants to watch stuff blow up. It may also be that dialogue as a whole suffers (less complicated dialogue means less problems with dubbing – or perhaps no dubbing /subtitling needed at all.)

    I have noticed this with sex/romantic scenes in movies over the past 15 years or so, too – in action-adventure films, they’re very short and almost entirely self-contained: i.e. easy to cut out if needed.

    Re: the elimination of fat people from movies. In the half-CGI, half live actors version of Beowulf, Ray Winston (who is kind of soft around the middle) was digitally “buffed” so he could play the “hero” role. The bad guy (Hrothgar) was probably made bigger than Anthony Hopkins really is; Hrothgar got a belly and the audience all goes “EWWW” when he stands up, mostly nude. Really charming (NOT.)

  6. I was thinking along similar lines to Stefanie. Movie studios are for-profit corporations; despite the insane crap conservatives spout about how liberal H’wood is, they’re in business to make a buck.

    What I’m saying is, the problem isn’t with the movies, it’s with the culture that goes to the movies and doesn’t seem to go to movies with female leads. I admit: I do enjoy my action/adventure films where things go fast and blow up. But I prefer there to be a story in there somewhere, preferably about people. But in this, I appear to be something of a minority.

    “If you build it, will they come?” There seems to be a need for a new tier of movie companies — ones that make profitable, relatively low-budget films with human, humane stories about people. A new distribution outlet already exists in Netflix, which will carry just about anything (but porn?) and actively supports smaller productions.

    As I said on my blog a while back, I think there’s a case that 100 movies made for half a million each will actually provide far more entertaiment than one movie made for $50M.

  7. Thanks for pointing out the Jan and Dean (not Beach Boys) lyric, Meowser, and Debbie, thanks for fixing it. I agree, Aahz, Stefanie and Sturgeonslawyer that films with female protagonists are going to bring in less money than the big, action movies, even if they happen to hit the right nerve as “Little Miss Sunshine” did, or find a cross-market the way “Enchanted” did. Probably this is due to the demographic of who goes to movies. Movies about women, all other things being equal, are a smaller niche than movies about giant machines that kill people, so it does make sense to work smaller and smarter.

    Most of the movies I enjoy are foreign or independently produced (or both). There’s also a place for integrity. I remember in the director’s comments section of the DVD edition of “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” the late Anthony Minghella said that a Hollywood production company got wind that he was writing a unique ghost story and wanted to buy the script for someone else to direct, but he was adamant about directing himself in line with his vision–for which we can all be grateful!

  8. As dark as the night may seem, there are some real stars out there. Sarah Polley’s acting came to my attention a few years ago with My Life WIthout Me and stunned me more recently with The Secret Life of Words, a must-see. Her debut as a director, Away From Her, is solidly excellent and earned her two Oscar nominations and a raft of other nominations and awards: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0491747/awards

    Now here’s someone whose physical beauty is (for my eyes, anyway) undeniable but superseded by her intellect and sensitive affect, traits that are neither evident nor sought after in Hollywood. I suppose one reason she’s soaring so far above the sludge is that she’s adamantly independent, film-wise. Going mainstream would surely mean losing that delicate beauty of expression that can be achieved only through risk, something Hollywood cannot afford.

    We can lament that someone of Polley’s talents would have trouble succeeding in the mainstream, but I’d rather just cheer her on in achieving excellence in acting & filmmaking in the tributaries she maps out herself.

  9. Two words: Angelica Huston. I don’t think it’s possible to imagine a more stunningly gorgeous woman. I can’t.

    I think the issue of profitability is a bit of a red herring. I’ve seen some pretty convincing analysis that the movie industry is deeply irrational from a financial point of view, in that everybody wants a big blockbuster, which is kind of like playing the zillion dollar slots. Financially, you’re probably better off playing lower stakes games where you wager small amounts and have a reasonable chance of winning small amounts — so if you’re careful (and lucky) you can come out ahead. But everybody wants the big payoff and thinks they can get it by using all sorts of dumb metrics to find a “winning” formula and game the system. Magical thinking, herd mentality, whatever you want to call it.


  10. well if the industry was that irrational they would have been out of business long ago. you only need a few hundred million dollar summer stinkers to sink any business. the truth is probably just what dargis doesn’t want to believe, that women centric films do not perform as well in the box office. women centric films don’t mesh well with the concept of a blockbuster fx film. and thats fine. who says everything has to fit a certain mold. as said, there are other types of films like the one made by sarah polley that probably made decent profit from dvd release. that it didn’t make hundred million at the box office doesnt really say anything other than reveal the market for what it is.

    david poland actually looks at the figures before coming to conclusions. he tears into dargis’s shoddy article here

    and well people that complain about the type of film in theaters tend to bug me. when “thoughtful” type films are out there, these same types are the ones that wait for the dvd!!

    “If you build it, will they come?” There seems to be a need for a new tier of movie companies — ones that make profitable, relatively low-budget films with human, humane stories about people”

    indi films have been around for a long time now. the number of films made each year far exceed the few blockbusters made. there are made for cable films, especially for those women centric cable channels. this tier has existed for a long time and its performance has remained mediocre. and thats the awful truth.

  11. Maybe I’m trying to stretch the analogy between what I know a little about (writing and marketing books with and without help from a publisher) and making and marketing films….much harder without some backing. But if you build a book or a film–in the cornfield behind your house with the materials available–they may not come because they probably don’t know it’s there.

    Getting funding for a film is no small matter. Just from the little I’ve read and heard on DVD commentaries the average indie film maker pours years of obsession into creating a film, getting funding from wherever she or he can scrape up the money. The link in the previous comment suggests that Hollywood is looking for money-producing films. But I don’t know the stats on how many indie films never get finished because the filmmaker runs out of money, or never get any distribution and sink without a trace. I know more than I’d like about these things in book publishing–which can be equally as obsessive and heartbreaking.

    Some of us may not have stories to tell that will appeal to a mass audience, and the group we do attract may not be large enough to support the investment involved in delivering the story to a mass audience. I have no answers to this dilemma, just questions.

    That said, if there was a 12-step program for Obsessive Artists Anonymous, I would not get with the program. To paraphrase the old joke about the guy who was asked why he didn’t quit his job following behind the elephants and shoveling up the shit — “What? ….And leave show business?”

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