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01.12.10

Finally, the Year of the Woman?

Sandra Bullock, Kathryn Bigelow, Meryl Streep. 2009 was an extraordinary year for women in Hollywood, but insiders are warning not to get too carried away with all the hype.

It wasn’t all that long ago—2007, to be exact—that Hollywood had sworn off women. Most infamously, Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov allegedly vowed that he no longer wanted to cast women as the leads in films after a series of the studio’s femme-driven films—Jodie Foster’s The Brave One; The Reaping, with Hilary Swank; and The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman—all tanked. (Robinov denied the claim.)

Then came 2008, and girly pictures such as Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! went on to become blockbusters. Hmm. Maybe leading ladies weren’t so toxic after all.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Hollywood's Most Successful Women in 2009

And then came 2009, bringing with it many more such Cinderella stories Twilight: New Moon, The Blind Side, Precious. Not to mention female-oriented films that were also directed by women: It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers), Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron), The Proposal (Anne Fletcher), An Education (Lorne Scherfig), and Bright Star (Jane Campion). And, of course: The Hurt Locker, which looks poised to make Kathryn Bigelow the first female recipient of a Best Director Oscar. This weekend, Bigelow is also expected to walk away with a Golden Globe.

My, what a difference two years makes. Last fall, newly installed Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross declared that one of his missions was to make movies for women. Two of the biggest upcoming summer movies are Sex and the City 2 and Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s chick-lit sensation, which stars Julia Roberts. And when The Blind Side recently crossed the $200 million mark in domestic ticket sales, a Warner Bros. executive told one producer that if he could cast any movie star in a movie right now, it would be Sandra Bullock. “That’s extraordinary,” the producer said. “He was including men!”

Considering that even when women are “hot,” they’re rarely selected over (or paid nearly as much as) stars such as Will Smith or Brad Pitt—particularly, when, like Bullock, they’re 45 years-old—the statement was, indeed, extraordinary, and is the reason many in Hollywood have come to consider 2009 The Year of the Woman.

“When you direct a movie, what you are is a director, not a ‘woman director,’” says director Nora Ephron. “When you make a movie, there is not the remotest sense on a day to day basis that you are not exactly the same as anyone else who directs a movie.”

But as for what it all means—as Nancy Meyers might say—it’s complicated.

After the initial, knee-jerk cheers of empowerment, there is a sense of déjà vu: Wait, haven’t I heard this before—like, when Ghost and Pretty Woman came out? There is also heightened scrutiny, which can reveal less rosy facts: In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis recently reported that, despite the hype, in 2009 only 10 percent of the films reviewed by the paper of record were directed by women. (Dargis was even more scathing, and foul-mouthed, about how Hollywood treats women in an interview with the Web site Jezebel.com.) And then there’s the slight, reflexive recoiling, caused by the understanding that to distinguish, in this case, is also to diminish.

As Nora Ephron, the director of Julie & Julia, which grossed $94 million domestically last summer (and has positioned Meryl Streep as a front-runner in the Best Actress race), told The Daily Beast: “Nobody really likes to talk about this. Because while there are unquestionably more women working as all sorts of things in the movie business, and while it is now clear that there’s a market for movies that are aimed primarily at women, there’s nonetheless a sense that when you write about it, or participate in something that’s being written about it, you become part of something that feels like a way to compartmentalize it and marginalize it and minimize it in a way that no one does with movies that are aimed at the male quadrants.

“When you direct a movie, what you are is a director, not a ‘woman director,’” Ephron continued. “When you make a movie, there is not the remotest sense on a day to day basis that you are not exactly the same as anyone else who directs a movie. So when there’s this kind of flurry of articles about it, it really does feel as if it’s a way to just push it to the side in a separate kind of meaningless category.”

Granted, this kind of gender-blindness isn’t always felt. Abbie Cornish, the young actress who plays John Keats’ love, Fanny Brawne, in Bright Star (another Oscar buzzy performance), said: “I just notice, with a female director, there’s definitely more of a connection to the emotion and the feeling of a scene, and the physicality. They’re much more intimate on set.”

Of Campion, she said: “Jane’s just like that, naturally—very nurturing.”

Being behind the camera, Ephron is sensitive to how women, as opposed to stars, are perceived in the business, and how that translates when it comes to actually doing business. And if she speaks with the same kind of delicacy and mixed emotions that Obama-era race discussions inspire—an issue that has recently been revived, thanks to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid—she’s not the only one.

Veteran producer Lynda Obst ( The Invention of Lying, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) says that, “In many ways, it’s such a delicate era for women.”

Obst argues that while the last 12 months have certainly brought “good omens” for women in Hollywood, the movie business right now is, in some ways, stacked against them in the Avatar age, when a $400 million film featuring blue aliens makes $1 billion in just 17 days, how many studio executives are sitting around wondering about how to appeal to women?

Yet despite the preponderance of FX-driven blockbusters, last year made a fairly solid case that there’s room for something else. Namely, movies like Julie & Julia, The Blind Side, and The Proposal, which were modestly made, and which went on to be very profitable. The Blind Side, which was made for less than $30 million, was one of the highest-grossing films of the year.

It’s no secret that what all those films have in common is that they drew a strong, female audience. Indeed, Obst credits Bullock—the star of as The Blind Side and The Proposal—for “being one of the women who is helping to preserve the smaller film—the non-$200 million movie.” Another one is Streep, who, at 60, is also (still) pulling her weight.

On a macro level, what no one is debating is that the culture of women on and in film shifted in 2009. We seem to have gotten over the Judd Apatow moment, as it were, when, as Obst points out, women “lost their protagonist role.” While charming and funny, films like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall pitted women mostly in sideline roles that were far less complex, or interesting, than their male counterparts.

There’s also no denying anymore that women are one of Hollywood’s most exploitable, and powerful, audiences.

“We have the moviegoing habit! We want to go to the movies!” said Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin of her gender. “We don’t play videogames. The young people need events. They wait for the DVD, they go on Netflix. But I think that what these [filmmakers and stars] have shown is that obviously women are a big audience and always have been.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.