Why Ladies Have a Beef With Hollywood

The often-heard argument that we can send a man into space but we can’t cure the common cold had peculiar relevance for me recently. I’d been touting the miraculous powers of echinacea for three sniffle-free months while those around me dripped, snorted, coughed and took to their beds, but herbal pride goeth before a cold, and its disabling severity forced me to miss Wit , a Super Bowl party and the taste of everything that passed under my nose over a 48-hour period, Benadryl inhaler notwithstanding.

I couldn’t refuse an invitation to a huge cocktail party where I planned to air-kiss my way in and out. When I found myself greeted by a throng of smooch-worthy faces, I immediately went into semaphore mode, the pantomime obligatory among Manhattanites with viral paranoia. You hold up your hand like a traffic cop, mouth the word “cold” or point to the nose, whereupon the erstwhile hugger-kisser leaps backward in a slightly exaggerated simulation of horror and each of you feels silly.

My immediate concern was whether I could make it to Ames, Iowa, for a scheduled lecture. Fortunately, the cold had crested during the weekend, so I doped myself up and was already flying when I got to La Guardia. After some seven hours of travel (a radar snafu in O’Hare: Was this a dry run for Y2K?), I arrived at the state university too late for dinner with that night’s speaker, Dr. Carolyn Porco, an astrophysicist who’d served as consultant on the film Contact . The title of the lecture series was “Creating Reality: Film in America” and Dr. Porco, who was to address Hollywood’s dismal portrayal of scientists, had a printed bio that seemed more sci-fi than sci, with such entries as “leader of the Imaging Team for the Cassini mission to Saturn,” and of “the Rings Working Group during the Voyager ‘s encounters with Neptune.”

I was sorry to miss the Alice-in-Hollywood gossip at dinner, but headed for the lecture to get a gander at the doctor. Would she be a female Einstein, gray hair flying, thick glasses, ergonomically impaired posture from late nights hunched over the terminal? The evening began with a clip from Contact : Jodie Foster, riding with windswept hair in her convertible, hears communications from outer space, rushes to the lab, pulls her hair back in a rubber band, puts on her glasses and, babbling numbers, embraces the computer. From free, fresh, wind-in-her-hair woman to science geek in three minutes flat.

The extremely attractive and engaging Dr. Porco–dark tumbling hair, no glasses and about 46 if you go by her generational ID (she was 16 when she saw 2001 )–was using the clip as a positive example of how thrilling science can be. She talked of the Eureka moment when the hunches and research finally pay off, and bemoaned the cinema’s evil scientist stereotype–often Teutonic with heavy brows and a heavier accent. But, I wanted to say, beneath the demonization of the scientist and the cautionary cliché “There are certain things man isn’t meant to know” lies an understandable fear of just the kinds of creative genetics that science has recently mastered. And how wrong is our suspicion that scientists engaged in detecting life on other planets aren’t especially interested in life on this one?

Her beef against movies is all too familiar: The minute a film touches on your area of specialization, or even the piece of earth you call home, you’re suddenly enraged by the glaring discrepancies and distortions and you cry foul, whether it’s music insiders distressed by the portrait of Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie or West Siders protesting the Disneyfication of Broadway in You’ve Got Mail .

As a professional debunker of stereotypes of women, what struck me in the clip was the persistence of that old bugaboo, the either-or opposition between the unfeminine career woman and the normal, man-oriented feminine ideal. Fifty-four years ago, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound , Ingrid Bergman played a psychoanalyst whose career-woman severity–glasses; prim, pulled-back hairdo–awaits transformation through the love of a good man. In her scenes with Gregory Peck, the amnesiac who also needs her transforming therapy, she blossoms into a Real Woman, only to retreat into bespectacled professionalism in the consulting room.

In the 70′s and 80′s, feminists ridiculed such portraits of women as a conspiracy on the part of patriarchal Hollywood to force women back into the home. Now, after three decades of women’s liberation, we get the same dualism, and often as not these are movies written and/or produced by women! In Hope Floats , Sandra Bullock’s inner quandary is resolved by a sweet-talking man. In One True Thing , and Stepmom , stay-at-home moms are at one extreme, working women at the other, and the only way the latter, the bad girls, can become good girls, is to become madonnas, or at least virtuously maternal.

In Stepmom , Julia Roberts’ character walks off the set of a photo shoot to mind the kids and get a life. A shutterbug friend said: “As if a photographer can’t do both. It’s one of the reasons for becoming a photographer.” Actually, in that cunning way that movies have of allowing us to have our cake and eat it, too, Stepmom speaks with a forked tongue: The ubiquitous ad-photo and talk-show rap of smiling pals Ms. Roberts and Susan Sarandon tells us on the one hand that there are two kinds of females: a chick, beautiful, ambitious and selfish, and a woman, homey, not so young and lovable. But on the other hand, their rivalry is only a narrative pretext. We like them both and they like each other.

Though Ms. Roberts is a drop-dead babe, she’s also a woman that women like, more Audrey Hepburn than Marilyn Monroe. As so often happens, story line goes one way, star chemistry another. In a similar vein, Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound , however repressed and nunlike her lady shrink, is bursting with womanly vitality. On her first date, a mountaintop picnic with Peck, her explosive pronunciation of the word liverwurst is one of the most absurd and delicious sexual euphemisms in 40′s cinema.

But in fact certain professions are more demanding and sequestering than others, and choices must be made in relationships of any kind. Jodie Foster’s astronomer is more open to life on other planets because her life on this one is so unencumbered. Since her choice of métier is shown to be motivated, if only subliminally, by an attempt to communicate first with a dead mother, then a father, there’s no one on earth–not even Matthew McConaughey–to make her regret that after four years in space she’ll come back to a population 50 years older.

I felt time running out on all of us when I came back to New York and the supposedly political spectacle of the impeachment circus, only to be constantly reminded by the columnists, quoting House Manager Ed Bryant, of Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution , wherein Marlene Dietrich cleverly betrays her assigned role to save her worthless, womanizing lover. One can only hope that the present animosities won’t imitate the movie and end in copycat gunfire.

Meanwhile, women can be forgiven a moment of collective delight at Monica Lewinsky’s performance via videotape on the floor of the Senate. Who says virgin and whore are mutually exclusive? We’ve watched Monica, the Valley Girl blabbermouth and love junkie, turn into a self-possessed young woman, who played her hand brilliantly, having learned to exploit both prurience and legal maneuvers at the hands of masters.