Something to Talk About

The unwritten law says it's guy time. Forget Pocahontas — she's really PocaBarbie. The men of Apollo 13 and Batman Forever rule summer '95, unless you count Divine Marie Brown, the L.A. hooker who momentarily stole the show from Nine Months star Hugh Grant with a $60 curb-side blow job that provided more provocative food for thought than any of Grant's frantic onscreen mugging.

It's not that strong women are rare in summer movies; they're an endangered species. That's why it's hard to explain the recent influx of female-driven films, led by Michelle Pfeiffer as a Marine turned inner-city teacher in Dangerous Minds, Sandra Bullock as a computer whiz in The Net, Julia Roberts as a tamer of horses and a straying husband in Something to Talk About and Cindy Crawford as a lawyer — yes, I said lawyer — in Fair Game. The alien Natasha Henstridge plays in Species is more typical of how the Hollywood boys' club runs the gamut from A to B: She's the babe and the killer bitch in one package.

The Grant scandal is an even handier metaphor for Hollywood's ingrained sexism. Grant told Brown she was his black fantasy. Then, bam, the fantasy became a threat when the police busted him. Suddenly a career was at stake — his! The spin doctors went to work pronto, painting the Brit as Everyman caught with his pants down. Poor baby. By the time Grant got through charming Jay, Dave, Larry, Regis and Kathie Lee, he was the victim, and Brown was the bitch who sold her story to the tabs.

Woman as male fantasy and threat. 'Twas ever so in Hollywood, especially in this summer of Adams and predatory Eves. In Nine Months, Grant has nightmares in which his baby-minded girlfriend (Julianne Moore) appears to him as a praying mantis ready, as a male friend tells him, "to steal his seed." In Species, the alien Sil is an eager breeder who beds a scientist (Alfred Molina) and tells him seconds after he climaxes that she can feel the baby move inside her. Sil gives birth that night, after she kills him. Not since the days of David Lynch has male fear of female ardor and anatomy flowered so poisonously on film.

Why? Men, of course. Misogyny is the subtext of films from First Knight (Julia Ormond brings down the fleeting wisp of macho glory that was Camelot) to The Bridges of Madison County (Meryl Streep breaks Clint Eastwood's grieving heart). Only two of this summer's films are directed by women — Amy Heckerling's Clueless and Antonia Bird's Mad Love — and both dare to feature females whose lives don't revolve around men. Male directors either ignore women (Die Hard With a Vengeance, Crimson Tide), reduce them to sideline sex objects (Braveheart, Judge Dredd) or turn them into man-eaters.

Women don't have to become killers to scare men. Being strong, smart, assertive and independent will do the trick just as effectively. A recent article on Alicia Silverstone in the New York Times described her as "not threatening." It was meant as a high compliment. Crawford, Bullock, Roberts and Pfeiffer are bucking the trend but not without compromise. For all their star power, these actresses are still enslaved by the men who write, direct, shape and promote their films.

Fair Game, written and directed by men, allows model Cindy Crawford to make her screen debut as Miami lawyer Kate McQueen. An encouraging sign, except that Kate never sees the inside of a courtroom, since she spends most of the picture running from assassins and flirting with detective Max Kirkpatrick (William Baldwin). In interviews, Crawford has told of feuds with Fair Game producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon) about cheesy nudity and violence. Clearly she didn't win all her battles. Crawford packs a phallic pistol and traipses through the rain in a transparent slip. Share the fantasy, babe.

The Net doesn't reduce the gifted and quick-witted Sandra Bullock to a shill for a cheap-jack thriller, but it's not for want of trying. Things begin promisingly with Bullock as Angela Bennett, a computer analyst with expertise in detecting and deleting viruses. But it's Angela who finds her own identity erased when she accidentally uncovers a program that could threaten national security. Bullock has the quick intelligence to spark a vivid techno-thriller. Sadly, The Net isn't it. It took five screenwriters — all men — to put her in situations that ask her to play dumb. To stretch what little there is of suspense, director Irwin Winkler forces his star into damsel-in-distress routines that demean the intelligence of her character.

Something to Talk About gives Julia Roberts the advantage of an edgy script by Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise). Roberts plays Grace Bichon King, a Southern wife, mother and horse farmer whose smooth life buckles when she catches her husband, Eddy (Dennis Quaid), making out with a blonde on a street corner. Later, Grace addresses her female friends: "Is there anyone here who for any kind of reason had any kind of sex with my damn husband?" At times director Lasse Hallstrom lets the film slip into an upscale version of Brett Butler's Grace Under Fire sitcom. Even when melodrama threatens, Roberts' steadying, sharply observed performance keeps things touchingly real. Khouri's script has the buoyant wit to deal with Grace's anger without turning her into a lethal avenger. No fair telling how, although Hugh Grant should take note.

Dangerous Minds provides Michelle Pfeiffer with one of the strongest women's roles of the summer in this true story of LouAnne Johnson, a nine-year career Marine who left the military to teach English at a California high school populated by what LouAnne calls "rejects from hell." The young and mostly unknown cast is outstanding. And Pfeiffer gives a funny, scrappy performance that makes you feel a committed teacher's fire to make a difference. The film also benefits from the sly touch of Elaine May, who collaborated with Ronald Bass (Rain Man) on this screen adaptation of Johnson's 1992 memoir, My Posse Don't Do Homework. Still, Dangerous Minds (lousy title) is too slick for its own good. John N. Smith, the masterful Canadian director of The Boys of St. Vincent, sets up a documentary reality in the classroom that is undercut by endless TV-style subplots that make LouAnne more an observer than a participant in her own story. Maybe producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Bad Boys, Crimson Tide) don't know how to let a strong female character carry the ball. Dangerous Minds often unspools like a hokey update of Sidney Poitier's To Sir With Love. Still, in a summer when most women are forced to play dumb and strip to thrill or kill, Pfeiffer does herself and her endangered species proud.

From The Archives Issue 202: December 8, 1975
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