The last year that Hollywood's No. 1 box-office hit focused on a woman was 1964. The movie? "Mary Poppins." The next year Julie Andrews was again anointed box-office champ, thanks to a film about a certain singing nun in the Alps. For actresses at the box office, it's been downhill ever since.
Though Julia Roberts is considered the most bankable actress in the business, not one of her films has grossed $200 million in the domestic market. Neither has a Jodie Foster movie. Or a Reese Witherspoon movie. In fact, in 40 years, no film about a woman has been No. 1 for the year at the box office. Not once. Not even the only female-centered film to cross the $200 million line, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," starring Nia Vardalos. To be fair, we're cheating slightly: if you adjust the figures for inflation, the No. 1 and 3 top-grossing films of all time feature women at the heart of their stories: "Gone With the Wind" and "The Sound of Music." But those were in 1939 and 1965, and frankly, my dear, who gives a damn in Hollywood about ancient box-office history?A lot has changed since "Mary Poppins," and a lot of those changes have been good for women. Thanks in no small part to the women's movement, the number of women studio executives, agents and producers has exploded. Terrific parts are still being written for great actresses: just look at last year's Oscars. Yet women remain second-class citizens at the box office. Why?
Part of the answer is how technology and globalization have changed the kinds of stories we tell on screen. Prior to the '50s, stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Greta Garbo stood shoulder to shoulder with the Gables and Grants and Bogarts. You couldn't show sex on screen, so sexual tension had to be conveyed in verbal banter. Think of Bogart and Bacall in "The Big Sleep," indulging in scintillating verbal foreplay as a discussion of horse racing becomes a metaphor for seduction. Think of all the ways Gable and Colbert, traveling across country together in "It Happened One Night," had to forestall actually doing it. Doris Day would never have been the huge star she was if she'd actually let Rock Hudson into her bed—she had to talk her way out of sex. Words meant as much as images. "There used to be a variety of roles for women," Frances McDormand explained a few years ago. "Not just leading roles but character roles. They're not there anymore because movies aren't dialogue-driven, and that's what female relationships are based on."
As color replaced black and white, sound got louder and the screens got bigger, spectacle increasingly replaced character. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas didn't help. The rise of the blockbuster—heralded by "Jaws" and solidified by "Star Wars"—convinced the studios that youth was the most lucrative market. And "youth" meant boys. That meant action heroes were needed—men of action. There were exceptions, notably Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" series, Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs" and more recently Angelina Jolie in the Lara Croft movies. All these were successful, but the scale of their success was nowhere near what their male counterparts generated around the world. Women's roles in blockbusters increasingly became merely decorative.
The growing importance of the foreign market has only solidified this trend. In the past five years, the domestic market has been basically flat, while the overseas box office now represents 63 percent of studio revenue. Dramas and romantic comedies—the strongest genres for women—have the least international appeal: all that chatter must be dubbed or subtitled. The true international language is the sound of exploding gas tanks, the rat-tat-tat of machine guns and the thunderous footstep of a T. rex. No female action hero has become an international franchise on the scale of Indiana Jones or Spider-Man. While every old action comic gets dusted off and converted into a big-screen extravaganza, the one that's yet to make it to the screen is ... "Wonder Woman."
Increasingly, as the Hollywood studios have become cogs in ever-larger corporate wheels, the movie industry has become a two-tiered business. Economically, everything depends on the home-run hits: the "Spider-Men" and "Pirates" and "Shreks" that give stockholders a good night's sleep. The second tier is the small or independent film, which is where women now thrive. That's not a horrid place to be. Hollywood, after all, cares about its image almost as much as it cares about money. Oscars count for a lot. And from "Gone With the Wind," "Mrs. Miniver," "Rebecca," "All About Eve," "Annie Hall," "Terms of Endearment," on up to "Out of Africa," "Chicago" and "Million Dollar Baby," best-picture winners are as likely to have female protagonists as male. These movies make Hollywood proud. It's just that financially they are tributaries to the mainstream.
Consider the three female performances this year that are most likely to be Oscar-nominated at the year-end. Julie Christie as the Alzheimer's patient in the Canadian film "Away From Her," Marion Cotillard as the valiant, self-destructive Edith Piaf in the French biopic "La Vie en Rose" and Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in the just-released "A Mighty Heart." The latter was made for less than $20 million—a pittance compared with the $300 million gambles taken on Tobey Maguire's Spidey and Johnny Depp's Captain Jack. The French and Canadian movies were made in part with government support: a common practice in most countries, but never in the United States. These Oscar-bait parts—meaty, tortured, heartbreaking—are anything but decorative. And for those who see them, they will be remembered long after we've forgotten which summer sequel Kirsten Dunst or Keira Knightley was in. But they are playing in different leagues. Here at home, all three of these movies will probably gross as much as "Shrek the Third" made on its opening weekend. Don't shoot the messenger for saying so, but when Hollywood looks into the eyes of a woman, what it sees is a loss leader.