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Even more rare: The Hours, which opens Dec. 27, also features such acclaimed ctresses as Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Miranda Richardson and Claire Danes in supporting roles. Kidman, Streep and Moore are the most visible symbols of a year that has provided moviegoers with more meaty major women’s roles than any year in recent memory. “It’s been a banner year,” says Streep, who has t-vn. ro Oscar-caliber movies out this month. She plays an editor throwing a party for an old friend dying of AIDS in The Hours and has a darkly comic role as real-life writer Susan Orlean in Adaptation. Absolutely. It’s just wonderful. And they’re interesting, unconventional sorts of things that don’t fit the formula. Some femme-oriented films feature actresses who reached milestones. Some are possible Oscar candidates, others popular favorites: * Nia Vardalos, the unknown and unglamorous daughter of immigrants whose movie about her nutty family, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, became the box office phenomenon of the year. k Jennifer Aniston, the glossily cheerful TV star who proved she could tackle a serious and more substantive role in The Good Girl. Diane Lane, the child actress who came of age in a sexy role as the philandering suburban wife in Unfaithful. * Halle Berry, the first Bond girl to earn her own spinoff movie after Die Another Day. Reese Witherspoon, the perky Legally Blonde star whose asking price shot up to S 20 million after visiting Sweet Home Alabama. * Jennifer Lopez, who proved she can go up against the old guard (Star Trek) and come out the winner in Maid in Manhattan. One result of a year of strong women’s roles is a tight race for Oscar.

The names most frequently bandied about as contenders for best-actress nominations are Kidman, Streep (both for The Hours), Moore (Far From Heaven), Renee Zellweger (Chicago), Lane and Aniston. But you can’t discount longer shots such as Sigourney Weaver in The Guys, Salma Hayek in Frida and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary. Sherry Lansing, who as chairman of Paramount Pictures’ motion picture group was a driving force behind The Hours, says it all represents change in the industry: “We’re seeing slowly, but surely, gender-blind decision-making.

As women gain the power to green-light movies, we’re going to show women in more complex and diverse ways. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s very exciting. ” Hours director Stephen Daldry says the lot of women in Hollywood “is slowly coming around. ” Others are less convinced the trend will be a lasting one. Says Moore: “Everyone knows that in Hollywood there are no trends. ” And er co-star Streep, after more than 25 movies over 25 years, attributes the good year to serendipity. “There have been years where that’s been true at other points in my endless career,” she says. And other times where there’s been a drought. lim not sure what it’s due to. ” Return to ‘Golden Age’? Ironically, in an era in which feminine societal roles were more limited and proscribed, women’s pictures flourished. Says Lansing: “What has always confused me is that during the most chauvinistic time in Hollywood, when men really dominated the studios, is when you had Bette Davis and these amazingly female-driven movies. Female stars were equal, certainly, if not bigger than male stars. ” Director Todd Haynes, whose Far From Heaven is an homage to movies by ’50s filmmaker Douglas Sirk, is equally mystified. In the ’50s, there were always a handful of female box office stars and always fascinating stories,” he says. “In some weird ways, we have become a much more male-dominated industry geared to a more male-dominated audience. ” The blockbuster mentality has perpetuated the belief that only a handful of largely male stars ”Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt can draw moviegoers. Yet many make the case that this year proves that women other than Julia Roberts can open a movie and stories catering to female audiences can turn a profit at the box office.

That chance has come partly because more women are in power in Hollywood. Lansing is one of three female studio heads (along with Stacey Snider of Universal Pictures and Amy Pascal of Columbia Pictures). And though women still have a long way to go, more are joining the writing and producing ranks. (According to the most recent data, 27% of the Writers Guild is female, a slight increase over the past decade, but female directors dropped from 11% in 2000 to 6% in 2001 Many actresses are orming their own production companies to nurture projects they believe in.

Consider Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic. It took Salma Hayek, who has her own production company, many years to get the movie made. It was nearly cast with a non-Latina actress, but Hayek dug in her heels and ultimately produced and starred in it, earning kudos for her performance. “It took extraordinary tenacity,” says Frida director Julie Taymor. “She struggled hard to make the movie and waited until all the right pieces were together. ” More women in the audience Perhaps the most persuasive argument for more movies for and about omen comes from female-driven box office grosses. If you just want to shake the guy executives, look at the Big Fat Greek Wedding phenomenon,” says director Haynes of the $ 5 million picture that has been playing more than eight months and grossed over $ 210 million. “It’s due to female filmgoers. It’s a female-centered kind of story that is about the family and all these characters in a household. Women are telling their friends to see it, and they’ll drag their husbands. That’s what characterizes its unique slow burn and staying power. So, guys, it’s notjust testosterone movies we should be considering when we’re putting films together.

Sigourney Weaver, who stars as a journalist who writes eulogies for fallen firefighters in The Guys, thinks executives were already starting to realize the power of estrogen. “Women and men in the business are realizing much more what a resource we are and how popular stories about women are,” she says. “And think it might continue for a while. Dare I knock on wood? ” Weaver is perplexed by the industry’s conventional wisdom. “They have this theory that men choose the movie,” says Weaver. “It’s a bizarre misreading of how the world works. The women I know say, ‘l don’t want to see that buddy movie.

If you want to go ut with me, you have to see this movie. ‘ In Hollywood, they all say men want to see Mel Gibson and women want to see Mel Gibson. Nothing against Mel . . but think people want to See good stories and good stories always have great women’s roles. ” Searching for relevant movies Julianne Moore also thinks Hollywood misses a major opportunity if there’s a return to short-shrifting movies for women. “My theory is, there’s always a female audience,” says Moore. “But we will only go if they make movies for us, because we’re just too busy. It makes me crazy when people ask why women don’t go to the movies. No. there are no movies for us and No. 2, we have jobs and families. I never get out of the house with two little kids. If go, I want to know it really is something for me. want it to be relevant to me. ” Patricia Clarkson, who plays Moore’s close-minded best friend in Far From Heaven, sees more people in the industry sticking up for such movies. “l do think there are more great people in our business that want to make great projects and they’ll make these female-driven parts and take the risk,” she says. “l think it is getting better. ” In more ways than the number of movies being made. Many also praise the richness of this year’s roles.

Says Paramount’s Lansing: “There’s been a diversity of women’s roles, more women in complicated roles dealing with complicated issues, and fewer women as victims. ” And the definition of a strong role has changed, too, says Emily Mortimer, a supporting-actress contender for her role as a self-loathing ingenue in Lovely & Amazing. “For a while, there was this cliched notion that good women’s parts meant strong women, women that carried on or were tough and bitchy,” she says.

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