A Comment on "No More Female Leads"

by Paul William Tenny

A couple of days ago, Nikki Finke wrote on her blog that three anonymous sources recounted hearing a top Warner Brothers exec say that they weren't going to produce films with female leads anymore. I didn't think very much of it at the time because the world is full of people who would say things like that, people who would say it and not really mean it, and people who would lie to screw over somebody else.

A couple of other blogs picked up the story, got an official denial from Warner Brothers which was expected and means absolutely nothing, but Robert Sanchez of IESB raised an interesting question, one he didn't bother to find the answer to.

Given how tough it is to sell women as female leads, "how many female hero films have done great numbers at the box office since Aliens?" bionic-woman.jpgThat's kind of an unfair question. Men like action flicks which need heroes in them and men identify with men, that's just a fact of life. I think the better question is when addressing the ability of actresses to play lead roles is how well films of any genre (by year) have done with female leads.

A quick look at 2007 which hasn't wrapped up yet has zero films in the top 10 with female leads, though many of them have female co-stars. Based on what I know of these films since I haven't seen hardly any of them, I don't think anything in the top 20 has a female lead either.

At this point before going very deep into 2006, it occurs to me that few of these films have a single male lead either. Most films these days have ensemble casts where nobody is the real lead, and those that have an identifiable lead only have the top spot by a small margin.

The Da Vinci Code from 2006 was a prime example of what I'm talking about. Two people are present throughout the film, both of which the film couldn't exist without. Given his star power and talent, Tom Hanks is easily the lead of this film, yet the female co-star in Audrey Tautou is every bit as critical to the story as Hanks character is, perhaps more so, given that the story literally revolves around who she really is.

I think that you'll find in many instances the strongest female roles in cinema this past decade come in co-equal roles with males, and you can to some degree account for the lack of films with female leads in that the single-star lead formula is being slowly left behind.

Perhaps the two best candidates for 2006 would be Dreamgirls and The Devil Wears Prada. I've seen neither but am willing to take a leap of faith here, given who is in these two films and what they are about, that they qualify as films with female leads - though certainly not action, but nonetheless not without their heroes.

Dreamgirls barely grossed $150 million worldwide but was award-laden and critically acclaimed. Prada did significantly better at the box office, bringing in $326 million on a budget of just $35m, which is nothing short of fantastic.

Neither film was done at Warner Brothers, and neither ranked above 17th in 2006 for domestic gross.

2005 is pretty much the same story - no films in the top 20 had a female lead, only female co-stars or male leads, and even the male lead roles are few and far between. The Chronicles of Narnia was probably the most successful film in recent times with a female co-star, though in this case we're talking about a child.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith would have had a shot, had Brad Pitt not been in the film, but then again it probably wouldn't have done as well had that been the case.

kate-walsh.jpgBringing Down the House had moderate success in 2003, 13th best grossing, but the story doesn't change. Even if a quarter of all top 10 films had female leads, that's still not enough for some.

This isn't to say that female actors can't open or lead movies, though. Most of the writers in Hollywood are male, which by the numbers would tend to write more roles for males and more stories that are suited for men.

Sexism in the writers room is equally as likely as a natural consequence of a male-dominated field writing to their own strengths and interests. The same to a limited to degree could be said for studio execs.

As is usually the case in life, it is not an open and shut case. Films with female leads don't do well, but there aren't very many of them to begin with. I'm more likely to believe this to be a numbers problem than intentional discrimination, even if discrimination is exasperating the problem.

I for one have found no problem enjoying television shows with female leads, which seems more prevalent than in film, especially when the writing is good. I don't know how well this will play with people as an example, but Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer ran seven strong years with a female lead that was both a hero and a person with extreme weaknesses. It never did the kinds of numbers that House did, but again, that may be a factor not related to the star.

I don't really care for Sarah Michelle Gellar's acting abilities and there were flaws in her performance and the show itself early on, but the goods outweigh the bads and prove that women can lead a show, at least on television. Private Practice while declining from its series premier (the same with Bionic Woman) are two very high-profile shows that are doing very good business for their respective networks, and that's something that can't just be ignored.

How odd is it then, that with the movie business moving away from leads and towards ensemble casts eliminating opportunities for female actors to lead, that television which is nothing but ensemble casts is creating more and more opportunities for women to lead the way.

And which studio produced and what network owned by that studio aired Buffy, just in case you don't have enough irony in your diet? You guessed it - Warner Brothers.
in Film, Television


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