Behind some of cinema's most vivid and heroic women characters in recent years is a British director with a gray bristle of beard on his chin and a Cuban cigar in his mouth.
He launched Sigourney Weaver's Ripley on the first of her battles against rapacious aliens and later set Thelma and Louise loose on their journey of female rebellion. In "G.I. Jane," which opens Friday, he's poised to unleash a heavily muscled, shaven-headed, gutter-talking Demi Moore on the most male of preserves, the SEALS, the Navy's special-forces unit.
So last week in Washington, where a retrospective of his films was shown at the Kennedy Center by the American Film Institute, Ridley Scott willingly accepted the characterization of himself as a feminist. "I guess I must be," he said as though he'd never considered the question before. "A lot of men have a problem with strong women. I never have."
The actresses who appear in Ridley Scott films had better be strong. Scott said that Moore put on 25 pounds of muscle to play Navy Lt. Jordan O'Neill, who endures as much physical punishment as any woman ever has on the screen. In addition to all the heavy lifting, running, and swimming in the open seas, Jordan is literally beaten up by a training officer, her head slammed into wooden poles and her ribs kicked. But in the end, with her eyes blackened and lips split, Jordan perseveres, a symbol, Scott says, that certain women can perform any job a man can.
In Scott's view, it's not a question of whether women can succeed in a man's arena, it's whether men can handle their success. Quoting one of the male officers in "G.I. Jane," Scott said of Moore's character, "She's not the problem. We are."
In its story line, "G.I. Jane" is as predictable as a movie can be. Even Scott volunteers that the film is formulaic. But he is not apologetic. "If formulaic is somebody who is unlikely to succeed starting down a process and succeeding -- then isn't that what most films are about?" he asked, sipping cappuccino in a quiet corner of the Jefferson Hotel. "And art films are about people who aren't likely to succeed and then don't succeed. I know I'm being facetious, but mainstream films tend to have success as an ending, and I guess we didn't want failure."
At times, Scott, 59, a mild, rusty-haired man, sounds like someone determined to hue closely to Hollywood orthodoxy. A film student at London's Royal College of Art, he directed episodic television before putting in 10 profitable years as a director of commercials, many of them award-winning. (He even produced some highly visible ads after embarking on his career in feature films.)
In 1977, he directed his first movie, a period piece called "The Duellists," starring Harvey Keitel as a Napoleonic officer who through the decades relentlessly insists on fighting Keith Carradine to the death over a long-forgotten slight. The film, which cost only $900,000 to produce, earned enthusiastic notices and won the Jury Prize at Cannes.
It was a heady beginning, which caused Scott all the more disappointment when he discovered that critical acclaim does not equate with commercial success. After Cannes, he learned that only seven copies of "The Duellists" were to be circulated in the United States. No one would see his film. He was convinced he was a failure.
He was wrong, of course. Someone had seen his film. Someone important. The reception of "The Duellists" at Cannes landed Scott the opportunity to film "Alien," a science-fiction thriller about a woman commander of a spaceship that was carrying a toothy, serial-killing alien. Scott found himself with a staggering $8.6 million budget, barely enough now to cover the shooting cost of a music video but a major sum for a film in 1979. In short order, Scott had himself his first Hollywood hit.
"It was weird," he said. "In two films I experienced the art side and the Hollywood side of filmmaking. In a way there's a danger to understanding the difference because you then go down that route of optimum opportunity for Hollywood success, which is commerce over art."
It was a danger Scott was willing to undertake, having no desire to make films for a tiny audience.
"I didn't want to go down the route of spending a year of my life making a movie that would never be seen," he said. "I may as well go down a route making a film that a lot of people will see, which is the whole idea behind cinema."
Pioneering with women
In the mouth of another director, those words would seem a prescription for a Hollywood sellout, a movie-maker inclined to use audience surveys to divine his every plot turn. But Scott's films, always fluid and skillfully shot, are often inventive, visually arresting and sometimes even groundbreaking.