Women Are Heard But Not Screened

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 01, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--There were more than a few inauspicious moments in the designated year-of-the-woman Oscars. The opening tribute to Hollywood's women began, after all, with a chorus of ''Some Day My Prince Will Come.''

Billy Crystal then remarked on a dismal lack of decent women's roles, adding his equally dismal assessment. ''Some of the most-talked-about women's parts are Sharon Stone's in 'Basic Instinct.' ''

The Academy gave the award for Best Actress to Emma Thompson for her portrait of a strong woman of her time. Her time was 1910. And nobody even remarked on the fact that the best female role of the year had gone to Jaye Davidson of ''The Crying Game.''

No, this was most certainly not the year of the woman in Hollywood. It was, however, the year of the ''new man.'' The year of men under the influence of women. Or maybe the year of the woman -- the woman's movement, the woman's message -- behind the man.

By now, the movie that walked away with the big Oscar, ''Unforgiven,'' has been called a revisionist Western so often that the words should appear on the screen as a subtitle. But all four movies that garnered the most attention -- ''Unforgiven,'' ''The Crying Game,'' ''A Few Good Men'' and ''Scent of a Woman'' -- are equally revisionist.

They feature an anti-gunslinger who takes up bounty hunting to support his kids. An Irish no-longer-terrorist struggling with tenderness. A Lone Rambo of a military man taken down for his outlaw code. A blind, The issues raised by women in our culture are now the stuff of buddy movies self-hating veteran hell-bent on self-destruction.

In one way or another, they tell stories about men mustering out of violence. In short, they tell stories about manhood in the '90s, an era of military conversion that's not only economic but psychological.

Of all these, ''Unforgiven'' is the most obvious. It's as if the movie itself were a mea culpa, as if Mr. Eastwood were asking for forgiveness in ''Unforgiven,'' for Hollywood's glorification of violence.

The script was first written in 1975, long before Mr. Eastwood began making Ronald Reagan's day. But he only decided to make the film last year, after and because of the Los Angeles riots. Indeed, talking backstage Monday night, he sounded rather like a new man at 62: ''The story preaches that it isn't glamorous to take a gun, it isn't glamorous to kill people. It isn't pretty.''

''Scent of a Woman'' is more subtle but it's no less a tribute to the times. The outline reads like a chapter of Robert Bly. It's about old men and new, hard men and soft. It's about ''fathers'' and ''sons,'' and needing each other.

The older man's strength and the younger man's sensitivity eventually combine to make a whole. They save each other from the crippling effects of their institutions -- the rigid regulations of military and prep school.

The messages in these post-Ollie North, post-Cold War movies are closely identified with the messages that women have been conveying for a generation. They say that superheroes are fine . . . in outer space. That justice isn't something to be decided by a Terminator. That there's more than us and them, winners and losers. That life is complicated, often painful and, in the end, relationships may matter the most.

In these Oscar winners, men turn their backs on significant pieces of male history. At times, watching them is like looking in the recent election-year mirror and seeing a young man win against an elder stuck in that history. The president and cinematic winners ran on a domestic -- truly domestic -- agenda.

The odd thing is that women's messages are heard more than women are seen on the screen. The issues raised by women in our culture are now the stuff of buddy movies. Indeed, as Ethel Klein, who has tracked both politics and the Oscars for her polling firm, says with some irony, ''Bill Clinton won on a women's agenda and these men are winning Oscars on our agenda.''

Make no mistake. I am delighted by these cinematic messages and new images. But I cannot help wondering why these questions of life are most important, given star billing, when they happen to men?

In ''A Few Good Men,'' a younger generation reforms the military . . . a man's job. In ''The Crying Game,'' a terrorist learns the power of commitment . . . from other men.

Where in the darkened theater are the complex, meaty roles for women who are changing our beliefs, our institutions, our country? Still waiting for someday, for their Prince to come?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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