(WOMENSENEWS)–In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hollywood volunteered to help the United States polish its image around the world. A group of moviemakers met with President Bush’s chief of Staff, Karl Rove, to discuss ways this might be done.
“We know how to tell stories,” said Ron Silver, the talented character actor, on a recent TV panel. “Why not use us?”
Unfortunately, a major problem is the kind of stories Hollywood has been telling. Mainstream American films have convinced much of the world that the United States is a decadent society, filled with gun-toting guys with bulging muscles and naked women who shake their assets at every opportunity.
As the Film Market Expanded, Women’s Roles Shrank
The economics of the film business, rather than any issues of morality, is at play here. When a Hollywood producer came to Boston University some time ago, he lectured to idealistic film students whose heroes were Truffaut, Scorsese and Cassavetes. But the mogul told them to forget those guys and write scripts for 14-year-old boys. That’s what Hollywood was interested in.
The globalization of the film market has had the effect of shrinking women and magnifying men. In the 1940s, female movie stars were larger that life. Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell often played feisty working gals who were clearly the stars of the show. Movie plots were built around them.
But teen-age boys are not interested in feisty gals, for the most part. They want an extension of what they see on their computer games–lots of action, lots of gore–and if there’s a woman around, she’s Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, a female with size DDD breasts who kicks butt just like the guys. As Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter puts it: “‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ stars Angelina Jolie’s lips and breasts and, in a much smaller role, the actual Angelina Jolie herself.”
What sort of product can sell to a teen-age boy in Thailand at the same time that it sells to a teen-age boy in Norway? Car chases, explosions, lots of cleavage. The special effects are getting grander as the human beings, especially the female ones, recede into caricature.
How many women are “bankable” today–that is, they can get a picture built around them? One, really. Julia Roberts. Maybe Sandra Bullock for romantic comedies. Demi Moore once, but no longer. Otherwise, most of the parts for females are girlfriends, bimbos, junkies and murderesses. What’s the most famous scene of recent vintage featuring a female star? Sharon Stone flashing her you-know-what when she crosses her legs in “Basic Instinct.”
Producer Wants Women ‘Naked or Dead’
Action producer Joel Silver summed up what a lot of Hollywood guys think when he said that in his movies he wanted women naked or dead. No wonder people around the world think American women are oppressed sex-pots. And of course, women who are naked or dead don’t talk much–rather like a woman in a burka.
If women don’t talk, what can we know about them? In her book, “Fast Talking Dames,” Yale professor Marie di Battista notes that the great movie heroines of yore may have been sexy, but they were sassy too. Roz Russell was faster with a quip in “His Girl Friday” (about a newspaper reporter) than was her co-star, Cary Grant. Katharine Hepburn was Spencer Tracy’s equal because she could talk just as smart and fast as he could. Talk was power; today too many women are silent–either because they’ve been slashed to death or because their entire job is to display body parts.
Of course Hollywood has always sold sex and glamour–from Pola Negri vamping in the silents to Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate that blows her skirt up to reveal her panties. That was practically pure compared to what’s on screen today. One producer I know says that many of his fellow filmmakers find normal sex boring–they are interested in perverted, violent, sadomasochistic sex. But in the past, even though sex sold, there was a more complex view of American life in Hollywood movies (along with the schlock) because the major audience was adult Americans, not affluent teen-agers. And filmmaking was cheaper, so you didn’t always have to dumb down your product to make it sell. Why was “Armageddon” so loud and stupid? Because loud and stupid sells–and when you are paying over a hundred million bucks for a movie, you don’t take a lot of chances.
Another criticism heard abroad of American society is that our families are in terrible shape. And if Hollywood is all people have to go by, no wonder that’s what they think. American parents in mainstream movies are usually either dolts who are outsmarted by their horny teen-age sons, or psychopaths who ruin their children’s lives. (See “American Beauty.”) Outside of a few chick flicks, mothers are monsters. Where are the sort of roles Greer Garson used to play, heroic moms who held the family together in times of crisis? Among the missing.
Other than Tom Hanks, who plays the roles Jimmy Stewart used to get–the decent, average Joe who loves his family, plays by the rules and stays honest no matter what befalls him–actors today prefer to bulk up their pecs so they can bash heads and wade in gore all the way to the bank. And who does the complex social dramas that Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck were famous for: “Grapes of Wrath” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”? Would either of those films get greenlighted today? Probably not. Fourteen-year-old boys wouldn’t understand them.
So, if Hollywood is going to try to show the world what America is really like, some producers are going to have to take risks. They won’t be able to simply let car chases, explosions and breasts fill the screen most of the time. Characters will have to really talk to each other; women will have to be real people, with brains as well as bosoms. Men will have to be seen raising their kids, going to work and wrestling with real social issues, not just blasting every sentient body in sight.
How soon will that happen? Maybe when we all take a trip Over the Rainbow.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.