Beauties, Beasts, Biz

011606 article vilkomerson Beauties, Beasts, BizAt the New York Film Critics Circle awards at Cipriani on Sunday night, an evening considered to be the official kickoff to full-on Oscar fever, the red carpet was decidedly low-key. Apparently, it was all about serious awards for serious actors. Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee and Capote’s Philip Seymour Hoffman gamely made their way through the throng of press, suffering questions such as, “Where’s the next hot shooting locale?”—Alberta, Canada, yes, really—and “Are those designer duds you’re wearing?”, to which Mr. Hoffman’s strained-but-polite response was “Sure, I tend to wear a suit to these kinds of things.”

But it wasn’t until Reese Witherspoon arrived—gleaming blonde in an elegant black Alexander McQueen dress and posing readily with an unwavering smile—that a good old-fashioned rush of starlet energy swept the room. The actress was being honored for her performance as June Carter in Walk the Line, a performance that has, in both a commercial and an artistic sense, pushed Ms. Witherspoon to the front of the pack of actresses that the media, Hollywood and America’s movie viewers might very well anoint as the next Julia Roberts.

In fact, Ms. Witherspoon, with her strong whiff of box office, is all kinds of special after the dismal year for women that has just passed. It used to be that starlets opened movies, but those days are over. Remember the good old 90’s when Julia Roberts and her 88-inch legs sent Pretty Woman skyrocketing to $178 million-plus, and didn’t relinquish her grip on the box office for a decade? Notting Hill, $116 million; My Best Friend’s Wedding, $126 million; Runaway Bride, $152 million. America’s Sweethearts even got close to the $100 million mark. She also nabbed an Oscar for the $125 million-plus Erin Brockovich—see? She’s a real actress. Now what do we have? Diane Lane couldn’t save Must Love Dogs any more than Drew Barrymore could deliver on Fever Pitch. Shopgirl, which got great reviews and starred the fetching Claire Danes, only managed to eke out $10 million. Now imagine if it had been a young Julia Roberts beaming out at Steve Martin in all her chestnut-maned glory from behind a glove counter. Box-office gold!

Consider the other actresses receiving accolades this award season—Felicity Huffman from Transamerica, Woody Allen’s latest muse, Match Point’s Scarlett Johansson, A History of Violence’s Maria Bello, Memoirs of a Geisha’s Ziyi Zhang, Charlize Theron in North Country, perennial Oscar favorites Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench in Proof and Mrs. Henderson Presents. The cumulative grosses of all those films, by the end of 2005, was $89,129,354.

Come on! The latest installment in the Harry Potter trilogy took in $101.4 million on its opening weekend alone.

“I think it’s an interesting time,” Ms. Witherspoon said, poised and political, on that red carpet. “There’s a lot of interesting women’s roles, and there can be more, and there will be more. The success of each woman in this business creates more success for more women. I just try to do my best and try to create more opportunities for women.”

Well, perhaps in her newest role, that of frequent producer, à la Drew Barrymore, she’ll do just that—but she better get cracking.

Besides Walk the Line, projects with mainstream A-list actresses mostly landed with a resounding thud—or not at all—in 2005. Nicole Kidman—she of the No. 2 slot on The Hollywood Reporter’s most recent annual power list of actresses, with a reported per-picture fee of $16 million to $17 million—made Variety’s Top 250 Films of 2005 at No. 32 with The Interpreter and No. 42 with Bewitched. Renée Zellweger showed up nearby at No. 43 for her only appearance of the year, in Cinderella Man, the Ron Howard film that no massive advertising campaign could save. The tag team of Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette (pretty and serious!) in the chick flick In Her Shoes brought in over $32 million.

None of these films even came close to the $77 million hauled in by the G-rated March of the Penguins.

Only Jodie Foster, who ranks near the bottom of The Hollywood Reporter’s top 10 women at $10 million to $12 million a picture, brought home a little bit of bacon with Flight Plan, which took in nearly $90 million in the U.S.—just a little less than Walk the Line, at $95 million. Even hard-working and much-praised Keira Knightley had a hard year: Domino at $10,169,202, Pride & Prejudice with just $34,118,092, The Jacket at $6,303,762.

Starlets, where are you?

Julia Roberts, who is still allegedly Hollywood’s top-earning woman, opted out for 2005 in honor of her twins. Gwyneth Paltrow came out to do a little press at Harvey Weinstein’s request for Proof—box office: a little over $7.5 million, youch!—and immediately went home and enjoyed her reported second pregnancy.

It goes on and on: Kirsten Dunst, without her Peter Parker, with Elizabethtown sucking in over $26 million; Jennifer Aniston (who gets a reported $9 million a picture) going off the tracks in Derailed, with a box office of $35,701,396.

Even in the top-grossing films of the year, it wasn’t Hermione Granger or Princess Amidala or Katie Holmes as Batman’s love-toy that made the franchises profitable.

Naomi Watts wasn’t even the sell in King Kong—it was that damn pesky C.G.I. ape.

"WE SHOULD BE WRITING MORE GREAT ROLES for women, period,” said Ms. Witherspoon’s Walk the Line director, James Mangold, also on that red carpet on Sunday. “Another problem is that movies are generally made for 14-year-old boys—and 14-year-old boys want to watch 25-year-old action heroes. So the truth is, any movie, like all the ones being honored here tonight”—he gestured vaguely in the direction of Ang Lee and Philip Seymour Hoffman—“that makes it into reality, is a movie that made it despite the system that’s really built almost predominately and universally to make movies about comic-book heroes.”

And it’s not just action, it’s comedy, too: Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and company clearly killed the female-led romantic comedy, in the year when The 40 Year Old Virgin ($109 million!) replaced the likes of There’s Something About Mary.

Certainly familiar heroes dominated the highest-grossing films in 2005: The final Star Wars was first on the list with a whopping $380 million-plus dollars, followed by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, War of the Worlds, Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Batman Begins all coming in over the heady $200 million mark. But none of these films had a juicy part for a woman—save a gloriously campy Tilda Swinton in The Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, the only film with a meaty role for a woman in the top 10 was Mr. & Mrs. Smith—which had the decided advantage of, well, Brad Pitt, and the prurient interest in the co-stars’ scandalous love affair off screen.

“This town does not discriminate,” said a Hollywood agent with a stable of solid film and television stars who wouldn’t speak on the record. (“This is the kind of thing that can get us fired.”) “I don’t there’s anything politically or biased behind [the lack of female roles]. I think the populace dictates it. The only thing that matters is money. The studios sit there every day and try to figure out how to make money. If they think there’s an audience for midgets, they’ll start making movies about midgets.”

But do certain stars still guarantee an audience anymore? “The days of the star vehicle just don’t exist anymore,” said another former big-time Hollywood agent that declined to be named. The ex-agent continued: “Julia Roberts couldn’t open Mona Lisa Smile any more than Tom Hanks could open The Terminal.”

“Do the studios feel that the extra 10 to 15 million extra for a major box-office name is always worth it, when they can use that money for special effects, or a sequel that already had a built-in audience? It’s probably a debate rather continually,” said casting director Amanda Mackey Johnson, of Mackey Sandrich Casting, who currently is at work on Robert De Niro’s 2006 project, The Good Shepherd.

“American studio movies tend to be about people moving, rather than talking. Other than Angelina, most of the top girls don’t do action—nor are they asked to.” (Let’s be kind and not talk about Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux here.) “Movies like Erin Brockovich,” Ms. Mackey Johnson said, “where you have a compelling theme, a very dynamic script and a real movie star doing a change-of-pace breakout performance … it’s an unusual combination, and it doesn’t come together all that easily.”

A FEW NAMES IN ADDITION TO MS. WITHERSPOON and Ms. Jolie—whose star status seems miraculously immune to bad reviews and poor attendance, as her films preceding Mr. & Mrs. Smith included the much reviled Alexander and the largely unseen Taking Lives and Beyond Borders—continue to crop up as contenders to Ms. Roberts’ throne, but the name repeated again and again is Rachel McAdams.

The 29-year-old dimpled beauty, who first appeared on the public’s radar in 2004’s Mean Girls and The Notebook, was one of the few women for whom 2005 was a very good year, with featured roles in Red Eye, the boys-club flick Wedding Crashers and The Family Stone.

And Ms. McAdams is playing it very, very carefully.

“Studios are not in the business of developing stars; studios are in the business of exploiting them,” said Ms. McAdams’ longtime manager, Shelley Browning. “The heat isn’t created by the studios, it’s created by the audience—unfortunately, talent is not the only component. There were plenty of times I couldn’t get Rachel arrested, and now the same people who wouldn’t take my calls to hear about her are calling me to say, ‘Well, what does she want to do?’”

Ms. McAdams’ success, Ms. Browning maintains, is due to a combination of “wild” talent, a level head and smart choices in material. “I think it’s about showing your range and your diversity as an artist. I think it’s hard to be bankable if you don’t have unlimited range, because not everybody has the ability to be brilliantly comedic and fantastically believable in a drama—that’s an unusual quality. Other than Reese Witherspoon, I don’t know who else out there can do it. I don’t think Scarlett does comedy, I don’t think Keira Knightly does big, broad Mean Girls type of comedy. A lot of these women are wildly talented, but finding those vehicles that are the appropriate showcase for the range and scope of somebody’s artistry—it’s hard to do,” she said.

So true. “While this year may not have had its Bridget Jones,” e-mailed Kelly Carmichael, vice president of production at the Weinstein Company, “I think there were a lot of tremendous performances from actresses.” She named the year’s usual suspects: Felicity Huffman, Michelle Williams, Judi Dench and Charlize Theron. As for the new crop of girls, Ms. Carmichael likes Keira Knightly, Amy Adams—from Junebug—Rachel McAdams, and Michelle Monaghan. But even the Weinsteins can see the value of the built-in audience: They’ll be releasing Clerks II, by Kevin Smith, and the fourth installment of the Scary Movie franchise.

And Ms. Browning also stressed the importance of what she calls “career architecture,” working across genres and audience demographics. But that approach can backfire. Jennifer Garner’s attempt at breaking a piece off the comic-book audience, Elektra, tanked. And fine, let’s finally mention that pink elephant.

Charlize Theron, an Oscar-winner and universally acknowledged bombshell, did two movies in ’05: the Academy-friendly North Country, in which she donned dowdy overalls and fought for women’s rights, and the adolescent-friendly Aeon Flux, which involved tight black leather outfits and guns and doing the splits. Neither delivered financially, and Aeon Flux barely cracked the top 100 box-office films of the year.

“There is much pressure on women,” said the former Hollywood agent. “Tastes change, culture changes. Aeon Flux, unfairly, sets back women in action roles by 10 years. Hollywood always learns the wrong lesson from it; what they take away is that women can’t do action roles, when what they should learn is that people didn’t see Aeon Flux because it was a really bad movie.”

“The irony,” said publicist Ken Sunshine, who represents Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Barbra Streisand, among others, “is that we’re in an era where the heads of many studios are women—and there are far more women in executive positions than ever before. As a wily veteran of the progressive political world who cut his teeth working for Bella Abzug—one of the great public figures of all time and one of the original feminists—I’m very sensitive to this. Unfortunately, the big bankable box-office successes have too few roles in them.”

Another problem facing the starlets of today is the risk of overexposure due to a barrage of tabloids out to illuminate every dark corner of their private lives. Lindsay Lohan currently appears on the cover of Vanity Fair and has spent the past year as a constant source of speculation among gossip columnists, the Internet and tabloids; her only film contribution in 2005 was Herbie: Fully Loaded (a not unrespectable $66 million).

“It gets boring,” said Ms. Browning of the tabloid saturation. “Once there is no mystery left, then I think you are in trouble. I told Rachel when we first started working together that to succeed in Hollywood is to be not seducible. No matter how much money or sparkle or visibility they throw at you, if it doesn’t have a strong and quality role for you, then you have to stay away. And that’s hard. They throw everything at you—director’s names, star’s names, money and all the accoutrements that come with celebrity. And it’s hard to say ‘no thank you.’”

“One piece of advice I would put out there is: Don’t take yourself so seriously,” said Mr. Sunshine. “I wish celebrity culture was more fun. Publicists take themselves so seriously, the game of P.R. is taken way too seriously. We’re not curing cancer here—we’re selling movies, just like people sell a lot of things.”

AFTER THE DISASTER THAT WAS 2005 for women, selling the world the next Julia Roberts might be even trickier. The franchise films will continue to sell big—and how many Narnias and X-Men do we have to look forward to?—while the romantic comedy genre languishes without a go-to leading lady, for now. Will it be Rachel? Will it be Reese? Or Keira? Will Dakota Fanning please report to puberty, stat?

Back on the red carpet, indie and stage actress Jennifer Jason Leigh was playing the role of date to new husband Noah Baumbach, writer and director of critics’ darling The Squid and the Whale ($5.6 million to date). “I think this year was a good year for movies,” said Ms. Leigh, “but maybe not particularly for women, actually, now that I think about it. But for men it was a very good year. The movies, for themselves, seem to be better—like I can think of five movies that I love, which I almost can never do. So that’s good news.”

While that may be true, in 2005 the marriage of commerce and art showed itself to be less stable than ever—and it’s actresses who suffered the most. “The high-grossing films are not all that interesting to me, I have to say,” said Edie Falco, who was there to present the Best Picture award to Brokeback Mountain’s producer, James Schamus. “It’s not stuff I would want to be in. Yes, you would want the big paycheck—but that’s never really been my concern.”