Sunday, March 23, 2003

Strong women may nab Oscars

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

At first glance, tonight's Oscar diamond jubilee - the 75th annual Academy Awards - seems a celebration of strong women on the screen.

However, a look below the surface suggests it still might be a token, limited to the women we see on screen. Nominated women remain scarce behind the cameras.

But it is hard to deny the punch of women's roles in such films as The Hours, Chicago, Far from Heaven and Frida.

The first two films are the night's strongest contenders, while Far from Heaven and Frida each pulled in major acting nominations and several lesser nods.

As soon as I saw the cast assembled for The Hours, I knew Oscar nominations would be forthcoming. After all, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Miranda Richardson, Allison Janney, Toni Colette and Claire Danes might be the most impressive ensemble of women ever in a film.

And with its potent study of women, depression, emotional strife and Virginia Woolf, The Hours is one of those productions that seems to cry out for "Oscar."

I'm on record disliking The Hours - I think the characters are overly victimized and the film is pretentious. Still, I can't knock the performances. I'm only surprised that only two of the actresses - Kidman and Moore - got nominations.

Streep has to settle for a supporting nomination for another film (Adaptation).

Still, Streep becomes the all-time nomination champ, surpassing Katharine Hepburn's 12 nominations with her 13th, for Adaptation.

Moore has two nominations this year. The 42-year-old redhead, who seems to typify the Year of the Woman on screen, also has been recognized with a nomination for The Hours, and Far From Heaven, another look at the special challenges facing her gender. More complex, moving and honest than her Hours portrayal, it's my Moore performance of choice.

At first glance, Chicago offers more stereotypical female roles - two sexy song-and-dance gals, hot-footing it through 1920s Chicago nightclubs, in the blonde and brunette tradition of Marilyn Monroe and Cyd Charisse.

But the nominated Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones offer more than sexy clothes and choreography. They're sassy, complex, scheming femme fatales going toe-to-toe in a struggle for the spotlight.

A third strong female Chicago character - a prison matron for Pete's sake - is also in the running, thanks to Queen Latifah's nomination. (And, in a nice turn-about is fair play, the only guy with an Oscar nod among the Chicago actors plays a pathetic victim - John C. Reilly.)

The other take-charge women in the best actress and supporting actress categories are the passionate and determined Salma Hayek, playing the equally passionate and determined Frida Kahlo; Diane Lane, as a rebellious, lustful adulterous in Unfaithful, and a robust Kathy Bates as a latter-day hippie, sitting in a hot tub with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt.

Except for those debatably victimized Hours women, this is a group of tough, no-nonsense women. And these characters must have been a delight for the actresses to play - especially because full-bodied women's roles sadly remain the exception in Hollywood movies.

Once the Oscar season ends, Hollywood will return to action films, popcorn pictures, special effects and teen sex comedies, which means serious roles for women once again will fade until next fall's serious-drama Academy Awards season.

That truism won't change until women gain a stronger foothold in the front office and production ranks in Hollywood.

For example, the best picture Oscar goes to producers - but of the 10 producers listed for this year's five nominated films, only one is a woman (Frances Walsh, who also co-wrote her film, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).

None of the nominated composers or cinematographers is female. The editing group has only one woman - the remarkable Thelma Schoonmaker, whose Gangs of New York nod is her fourth nomination for her work with Martin Scorsese.

Of the writers nominated for the 10 films in the two screenplay categories, Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the only woman.

So, for the foreseeable future, strong women's role will remain a seasonal phenomenon: If a movie is going to earn Oscar attention, it's going to have strong, complex, and intriguing characters of both sexes.

That, at least, is worth celebrating.

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