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Make room for Daddy.

I was tempted to subtitle this column What ever happened to Meryl Streep? Except I wasn't sure anyone but me had noticed her disappearance. Remember Meryl? She used to star in those quirky films about complex, oddly accented women "of a certain age" back in the 1980s. Many of these films were easily missed, since they passed through town rather quickly. Even the ones that stayed around awhile were often problematic, since Streep usually came to a bad end, or at least had to cry and whine a lot. But she was given a lot of complicated dialogue filled with multisyllabic words. And she did get to be on screen, fully clothed, during most of the important action. So her films were always interesting.

Since "the year of the woman" hit us all in the head, I haven't seen much of Streep--in anything worth mentioning, anyway. And the few women I have seen on movie screens have had a lot less in the way of dialogue, clothing, and dignity

than Streep used to.

As Michelle Pfeiffer gutsily pointed out at the Seventeenth Annual Women in Film luncheon, major movies have been valuing heroines for rather different assets these days. "Demi Moore was sold to Robert Redford for $1 million," she said sarcastically. "Uma Thurman went for $40,000 to Mr. DeNiro, and just three years ago, Richard Gere bought Julia Roberts for . . . what was it? . . . $3,000? I'd say that was real progress."

Go, Michelle.

And those, I might add in all seriousness, are the good roles. In the last several months, as I dragged myself from cineplex to cineplex in search of the perfect summer movie, I have seen very little in the way of female flesh, clothed or otherwise. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that women and girls have all but disappeared from major movies, as male screen heroes, in blockbuster after blockbuster, go hand-to-hand with each other, or tend to the care and training of young male heirs and proteges.

The biggest films of the season-rising Sun, The Fugitive, Cliffhanger, In the Line of Fire, The Firm, Last Action Hero, Jurassic Park--have mostly employed women in the most fleeting and tangential of roles. Most often, as in the first three, women appear in brief segments early on, in which they are brutally done away with and then reprised throughout, via flashback, as a reminder of the point of the rest of the action. Even when women and girls manage to survive, they usually serve as stage props and plot gimmicks around and through which the important conflicts are played out--as bait for villains or inspiration for heroes.

But I don't want to belabor the bad news about female representation--both quantitative and qualitative--in contemporary movies. The disappearance of female life on screen should not be surprising to anyone who understands the process by which movies are conceived, developed, and produced. This, after all, is an industry in which powerful female executives can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And female directors number in about the same range. So it's most unlikely that women's concerns or perspectives or professional interests will figure prominently in production meetings.

Let's move on to the next question: Just what are the boyz in the Hollywood 'hood busying themselves with in this, the most successful box-office year in movie history? Obviously, since it's not women and girls, it must be boys and men, which is pretty much business as usual, I suppose. Or so I thought as I read, with sinking spirits, the promotional literature I received touting the spring and summer releases. But once I stopped grumbling under my breath about the pervasive maleness of it all ("Get over it, girl," I finally said to myself. "We know all about it. You're getting to be a bore.") I realized that something is actually different this year.

There's macho and then there's macho. In the 1970s and 1980s, we have gotten used to a particularly mindless, brutal, mean-spirited kind. But the men in the new films aren't like that. They seem, mostly, to be worrying about things that haven't come up in movies for a long time, like character, virtue, justice, and emotional and political integrity. They seem to be returning to an old-fashioned, liberal-populist style of macho that is almost innocent, in a pre-1950s Frank Capra/Gary Cooper/Gregory Peck kind of way.

Corny, it certainly is. Nasty and mean-spirited, it is not. And that is a relief.

I am not, certainly, implying that it's all right for the female to be expunged from the face of the representational earth, if that makes the poor, beleaguered male feel safe enough to let his macho guard down a bit and go in search of his lost soul. The absence of female players and issues is, as ever, deplorable, and the struggle to correct it is obviously a top priority. Meanwhile, however, back in the No Woman's Land we inhabit, any improvements in the image of masculinity are worth noting. And if women are even more invisible than ever, well, better invisible than mutilated, I always say.

This may seem like a depressing angle from which to view progress. But look where we're starting from. Male pop-culture heroism has been an ugly and terrifying thing to behold in the last two decades. As the rise of feminism has caused panic in the bastions of male power, the male-dominated movie industry has pulled out all stops in its portrayal of masculinity as sheer cold-blooded brute force--the better to intimidate you with, my dear.

The slasher films of the 1970s, from the low-budget women-in-danger flicks to such classier versions as Dressed to Kill and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, have presented near-orgies of bloodthirsty assaults upon women who dared to express the slightest inclination toward sexual or other kinds of autonomy and agency. Even films that did not prey upon adventurous women were often as not celebrations of the nastiest kinds of male aggression and mean-spiritedness--repeated in ever-escalating doses in sequel upon sequel, from Lethal Weapon to Die Hard to Mad Max.

Many of these movies were commendable in various ways, most often--as in the cases of the first Terminator and Mad Max films--in their biting exposes of a society gone bad at its roots. But they tended, nonetheless, to glorify the most ugly and uncivil aspects of traditional masculinity and to serve as warnings to all gentler souls, especially women, that their needs and values and desires--for kindness, fairness, decency, community-counted for naught and were incompatible with the new world order.

This was not always so. For all its celebration of the cowboy, the gangster, the soldier, and the cop, Hollywood's image of masculinity did not, in the classic past, rest so emphatically on the denial and destruction of the female principle and its various stereotypical attributes.

In fact, women in the movies--before feminism reared its head, no matter how demonized or objectified--were nonetheless allowed dignity and centrality in the lives and affairs of the heroes. In those days, American men were secure enough in their identities and positions to engage women comfortably in serious ways without fear of being overpowered or outdone by "the weaker sex." Those were the days when Bogart tangled with Bacall, Tracy went toe to toe with Hepburn, and most of Hollywood's leading men took on such powerful women as Crawford, Davis, and Stanwyck at one time or another--and survived intact.

Even during the 1950s and 1960s, when a softer, more malleable version of the female lead, as played by Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, and even Marilyn Monroe, emerged, Hollywood portrayed women as formidable sparring partners. In those days, still, the working out of romantic relationships was an arena within which male identity was defined, and it was respected as such.

Those days are long gone. One shudders to think of the fate of Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day in the age of the Spur Posse, when young men in my 'hood wear T-shirts warning that Mike Tyson Will be BACK. In that social context, the new male heroes give reason for hope. With the glaring exception of Rising Sun--which is every bit as racially offensive as the protesters insist, and at least as sexually brutal and retrograde--the big movies of this season present as heroes decent fellows who have fallen on hard times and who, in overcoming opposition, injustice, and their own worst character flaws, grow in character and social virtue.

Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, in The Firm, for example, are moral casualties of the greedy 1980s who undergo a spiritual rebirth to decency and the love of justice. Cruise learns a corny lesson about the true meaning of the law and treats us to it, straying pretty far afield from the more cynical book on which the movie is based.

In In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood even toys with the idea of putting his own career second to that of his woman--who, unfortunately, is a ridiculously young and glamorous Secret Service agent; you can't win 'em all--since living life the traditionally macho way, we learn, has cost him his marriage. Okay, so it's schmaltzy. But we're talking Dirty Harry here, the guy who used to get off on threatening dark-skinned punks to "make my day" by giving him reason to shoot them.

The same kind of resurrection of male sensitivity shines through even in so mindless a movie as Cliffhanger, in which Sly Stallone tries to mumble deep sentiments as he recovers from a lapse of pure heroism--he failed to save a young woman's life--with the help of Janine Turner. Both women, of course, are on-screen for only minutes, so as not to detract from the main action. But hey, we're talking Rambo here, not Mr. Rogers.

Best of all, last spring, there were two movies--Dave and Sommersby--in which really terrible men of the 1970s and 1980s variety were literally replaced by old-fashioned versions of male heroism based on earlier cultural models. In Dave, a George Bush-like President is replaced, Frank Capra-style, by a populist saint of a guy who puts the country to rights. And in the historical romance Sommersby, a brutal bounder of a Confederate landowner is replaced by a poetry-reading prince of a gu who also puts the entire community right with his wholesome values and skills.

But the most interesting resurrection of the cinematic male soul in recent months is to be found in the dozen or so films about fathers, or father-figures, and sons.

The concern with fatherhood is a real growth industry in Hollywood and the reasons are contradictory. All too often, this concern merely reflects another aspect of patriarchal defensiveness in the face of women's incursions into social and political spheres. For too many yuppie males--the class from which moviemakers are recruited--fatherhood, in these days of corporate down-sizing and other assaults on professional male privilege and security, may represent one last bastion of male authority.

Whatever the reasons may be, though, the new male concern for children and for parenting skills, and the shift from business and warfare to domestic matters, is welcome.

So let's see how the boys are doing in the kitchen. The Man Without a Face, Sleepless in Seattle, Jurassic Park, Searching for Bobby Fischer, This Boy's Life, King of the Hill, Jack the Bear, American Heart, A Far Off Place, A River Runs Through It, Dennis the Menace, Last Action Hero, and The Adventures of Huck Finn are only some of the recent films in which fatherhood, or at least the mentoring and guidance of young boys, is the subject.

Indeed, many of these films--Jurassic Park, Searching for Bobby American Heart especially--could serve as instructional tracts for prospective fathers. In each, a man totally uninterested and unfit for fatherhood goes through a change of character in which he learns to care for and about a young boy and bond with him.

It is incredible that not one of these movies--with the exception of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park--has seen fit to include a young girl in its parable of fatherhood. Absentee fatherhood and its effects on children in this country is an equal-opportunity epidemic, after all.

Still, that it should be Spielberg who is the exception is interesting. This, after all, is the man who a mere dozen years ago was making films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which women and people of color were demeaned and trampled upon by white male imperial power. But this time out, he gives us a male scientist-hero who learns to nurture and nestle two children. a boy and a girl, while his girlfriend fights off pterodactyls. And the girl is a computer whiz, to boot.

I do not wish to make more of all this than is reasonable. It is obvious that in a movie industry like ours, run almost exclusively by white men and driven by the dominant American values of power, warfare, and commerce, women and feminism will get short shrift. (I haven't seen a sequel to Thelma and Louise yet, have you?) And this will continue to be true until women move into positions of power at the top and organize to exert more pressure for change from the bottom.

In the meantime, however, I am pleased to see the male soul deciding to go to war with itself instead of us, at last, and rediscovering the old-fashioned virtues of American liberalism and humanism. Maybe if we just leave them alone for a while and go about our own business, they will regain their "self-esteem" and do the right thing in even more movies.

Then, at last, it will perhaps be safe for women and girls to inch our way back onto the big screen and start negotiating for our proper places in the world.
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Title Annotation:popular film portrayals of women and men; Culture
Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Being canned.
Next Article:Violence at the top.

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