This art doesn't imitate life

March 27, 1995|By BARBARA WILKINS

NOW THAT WOMEN in real life actually hold the high-level, high-paying, glamorous jobs that existed only in the movies 50 years ago -- and women executives are among those who decide what films get made -- how has the way women are portrayed changed to reflect the revolution that has taken place?

Well, Toto, we're not chic and sexy, funny and tough any more.

Among the memorable roles over the past few years: Glenn Close's demented stalker in "Fatal Attraction," Sharon Stone's icy predator in "Basic Instinct," Demi Moore's harassing boss in "Disclosure," Susan Sarandon's waitress and Geena Davis' repressed, dependent wife in "Thelma and Louise," Meg Ryan's upscale ditz in "Sleepless in Seattle." ("Oh, I know there's somebody just right for everybody, and, for me, it's this guy in Seattle. So I did a computer search on his background and had him followed by a detective.")

In "The Accused," Jody Foster was a slut and in "Nell," she was pre-verbal. In "The Piano," Holly Hunter was mute. While it is true that Barbra Streisand's psychiatrist in "Prince of Tides" was a competent, attractive woman, let us not forget her patient, Savannah, was locked away because she tried to commit suicide once again. And Julia Roberts' hooker in "Pretty Woman" was so absurd that I couldn't even get annoyed.

This is coming a long way, baby?

Fifty years ago, when there were virtually no opportunities open to women, they were often portrayed as competent, attractive professionals. Now that virtually every profession is open to women, they're portrayed as maniacs and predators, sluts and hookers, pre-verbal or even mute. And when they do work, there sure seems to be a preponderance of waitresses, a blue-collar job that was one of the few available half a century ago.

Nowhere in film is the actual position of women in society reflected, and the reason is simple enough. Like any other business, the film business is market-driven. The target film audience is composed of teen-age boys. Is there a teen-age boy alive who could even be dragged to a film where there were no car chases, no blood and guts splattering the screen, no little green creatures from outer space and where the female character was an attractive, competent professional? Not on your life.

Actresses always complain that there are no good roles for women. Even with all of the powerful women film executives who claim to be feminists, it's not going to change.

"Little Women," with an audience 67 percent female, may do respectable business. But it's a lesbian, an HIV-positive heterosexual and a sexpot in the new female buddy movie, "Boys on the Side."

Women film executives, just like their male counterparts, want top-of-the-chart blockbusters. They'll keep on producing "Dumb and Dumber," "Jurassic Park" and all of the rest of the mindless, violent, bloody films that keep teen-age boys coming back to the movie theaters over and over again to generate those millions and millions of dollars.

As for the new, vast female professional class, I don't see them stampeding the cineplex and driving a film to the top of the box-office charts anytime soon, even if there were one that reflected the actual lives most of them lead. With rewarding careers open to them now, with husbands or lovers, with family commitments, they don't have to go to the movies to see their fantasies acted out on the big screen. Why bother, when so many of those fantasies have already come true? And who has time, anyway?

Barbara Wilkins is a novelist in Beverly Hills. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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