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The dearth of leading roles for women — especially those of a “certain age” — is a cliche in Hollywood. But today’s actress is no Norma Desmond waiting for her close-up. She is likely busy creating a career that doesn’t depend on Hollywood blockbusters.
From the flourishing independent film movement to interesting work overseas, actresses willing to look outside the studio system often find themselves in roles as meaty as those of their male colleagues.
“In terms of mainstream films, there aren’t great roles for women,” says Nicole Kidman, who in 2007 starred in the small relationship drama “Margot at the Wedding” for Paramount Vantage as well the big-budget “The Golden Compass” for New Line and “The Invasion” for Warner Bros. “But I see the glass as half full, not half empty. That’s my view on life.”
As the studios become more focused on action-adventure franchises and youth-oriented fare, choices for actresses of any age are limited.
“Year to year, to find these amazing roles is hard and divided among a few potential actresses,” says Bob Berney, head of specialty division Picturehouse, whose “La Vie en Rose” features a SAG Award-nominated performance by Marion Cotillard.
But the pickings can be quite rich for the actress willing to branch out from studio pictures into independent features, European films, artistic projects, animation and even the stage.
“It’s a magical mystery tour,” says Tilda Swinton of her diverse resume, which includes this year’s SAG Award-nominated turn in Warner Bros.’ “Michael Clayton.” There is no game plan and never has been, beyond living a fulfilling and curiosity-sustaining life. And I have succeeded so far in doing that.”
The indie/specialty film world offers some of the best outlets for actresses to inhabit interesting characters — and maybe get the performance seen by mainstream audiences.
Fox Searchlight films provided substantial roles to three actresses this year: Laura Linney in “The Savages,” Ellen Page in “Juno” and Keri Russell in “Waitress.” And upcoming is an adaptation of “The Secret Life of Bees.”
“That’s obviously a book that older women have embraced and made into a huge, huge best-seller,” says Searchlight COO Nancy Utley. “Older women want to see themselves on the screen. We hope in bringing it to the screen, we’ll capture that market.”
Lianne Halfon — whose company, Mr. Mudd, made “Juno” — notes that women behind the scenes can make a difference as well. As “Juno” was written by a woman (Diablo Cody) and focuses on a headstrong 16-year-old girl, Mandate Pictures specifically sought out a woman to produce the film. “They wanted a female producer,” Halfon says. “Diablo’s script had three pretty complex characters, and a lot of people thought it would be difficult to bring to the screen.”
Berney notes that, until recently, the lack of women directors may have played a role in limiting movies about women, especially given “the macho world of production.” On the other hand, “The Women,” to be distributed this year by Picturehouse, is written, produced and directed by a woman, Diane English. “It’s improving,” he admits. “Mira Nair is doing studio films; Susanne Bier did ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ (DreamWorks/Paramount). Women directors bring another point of view and stories that will also help actresses.”
Sarah Polley wrote and directed “Away From Her” (Lionsgate), based on a story by Alice Munro and starring Julie Christie, with Olympia Dukakis in a supporting role. “It was a terrific project,” Dukakis says. “That — and a couple of smaller movies that I’m doing — I really like the scripts, the roles, the people. There’s not necessarily a lot of money or exposure, but if I’m focused on the work, I’m finding parts to play.
In Europe, Catherine Deneuve, at 64, is still a highly revered — and quite busy — actress. “No one would bat an eyelid if she were seen as the sexiest woman in France,” Swinton says. “I’m loath to divide things up geographically. There are all sorts of limited-minded European filmmakers, as there are open-minded American filmmakers. But, generally speaking, there’s more of a sense in Europe that the artist’s whole trajectory or body of work is significant.”
Perhaps its no surprise, then, that some of most memorable female roles come from European productions. Berney notes, however, that finding a breakthrough role like Cotillard’s in “La Vie en Rose” can be challenging. “Marion has been in a lot of movies in France, and to find that one role that gives you awareness is very difficult.”
Nonetheless, Berney says, “European films have been more open to roles for women.” 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” had several strong roles for women, he notes, and Picturehouse’s “The Orphanage” is carried by Belen Rueda, a Spanish actress. “If you think of Penelope Cruz doing great stuff in the Pedro Almodovar films, maybe the roles and writing are more diverse in European films.”
Kidman believes making career choices based on a personal connection to the material rather than potential commercial appeal leads to career longevity. “After (2001’s) ‘Moulin Rouge,’ I gave birth, and people said, ‘What are you doing?'” she says. “I chose (2006’s) ‘Fur,’ and people said the same thing. That’s me. I have a quirky sensibility. I don’t know what I’ll do next. As long as it’s an art form you love, no matter what venue you’re exploring in, you’ll always have things to do.”
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kidman’s co-star in “Margot,” agrees that picking projects based on an emotional response to the material is ultimately more satisfying.
“I have an eclectic sensibility, and it isn’t always an intellectual process but an intuitive feeling,” Leigh says. “Sometimes I want to work with a director, but sometimes the (character) is intriguing to me, and I want to come to understand her.”
The good news, notes Dukakis, is that a good performance will often draw audiences regardless of the size of the film’s budget. Picturehouse’s Berney agrees.
“The audience wants to have more strong roles for women and a more diverse approach to stories,” he says. “Ultimately, the audiences dictate the money, and both independents and studios have responded to that. But there’s still a ways to go.”
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