Jewish World Review Sept. 22, 2005 / 18 Elul, 5765

Michael Medved

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Leading ladies: More glamour, less grit | Reports of Julia Roberts' imminent retirement from motion pictures highlight one of Hollywood's most painful and puzzling predicaments: the disappearance of glamorous females from all prominent lists of top stars.

This phenomenon undoubtedly connects to pop culture's odd determination to erase gender differences by casting leading ladies as muscular killing machines, contributing to recent setbacks at the box office.

Of course, this tough-girl fad never applied to Roberts who, according to the international press, plans to leave acting after an upcoming role on Broadway to concentrate on her infant twins. Her superstardom began with her 1990 Pretty Woman role as a spunky hooker with a heart of gold, and she has always played romantic heroines who rely on beauty and brains, rather than brawn, to get their way.

This approach led her to the top of the Hollywood heap with a 1999 ranking as the No. 1 box office star. Most recently, she placed 7th on that list of leading moneymakers (below two Toms on top, Hanks and Cruise) and counted as the only female among the Top 10.

Box-office domination by male stars has become so total over the past few years that it's easy to forget earlier eras when female sex goddesses ruled the industry.

Remember Garbo, Loy?

In the 1930s, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Claudette Colbert regularly were among the top moneymaking performers. At the very pinnacle of the yearly movie star list, Marie Dressler, Shirley Temple, Betty Grable and, much later, Doris Day, Liz Taylor and Julie Andrews all vaulted over their masculine competitors and achieved recognition as the No. 1 star.

More recently, movies seem to have shoved women toward a strategy of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" in facing off against their macho rivals. In the two Kill Bill movies, lithe, lovely Uma Thurman becomes a sadistic avenger who, in one much-heralded scene, uses Samurai swords to dismember more than 80 highly trained, male Ninja assassins.

Even more improbably, the embarrassing Stealth features 22-year-old Jessica Biel (best known as the sweet, girl-next-door star of TV's 7th Heaven) as a crack Navy aviator shot down over North Korea, single-handedly battling Kim Jong Il's entire army to a standstill. Also this summer, Red Eye featured fragile, innocent Rachel McAdams (best known from The Notebook) inexplicably besting highly trained terrorist hit-man Cillian Murphy in deadly hand-to-hand combat. In the upcoming sci-fi adventure Serenity, it's ballerina Summer Glau who plays a telepathic tootsie whose phenomenal fighting abilities will decide the fate of the entire galaxy.

In one sense, such womanly superheroes follow the preposterous example of titans of testosterone like Rambo and the now-governor of California, who effortlessly slaughtered hordes of hapless extras. But Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and their preternaturally pumped-up ilk looked inescapably imposing, while many of the screen's female fighters seem willowy, otherworldly, even delicate.

Even Jolie stumbles

Consider Angelina Jolie, who violently bested every male in the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies and battled to a deadly draw with fellow assassin (and erstwhile husband) Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. With her luminous eyes and luscious lips, Jolie is always riveting to watch, but her buxom, waiflike form and skinny arms make it wildly improbable that she could hold her own against the brazenly buff Mr. Pitt.

While Mr. and Mrs. Smith scored at the box office, most other tough-girl movies fared poorly. Of all the recent major comic book adaptations, two of the most notorious flops involved female superheroes: Halle Berry produced kitty litter as the feline fury in Catwoman, and the conspicuously athletic Jennifer Garner failed to spark convincing current as Elektra.

Even Jennifer Lopez, popular in romantic comedy roles, achieved two of her biggest disasters with films in which she impersonated brutal killers: an avenging, battered wife, who masters martial arts in Enough, and a ruthless, amoral hit woman in the reviled Gigli.

Public rejection of such fare reflects the deep-seated refusal to accept trendy notions that women match men in brute and violent tendencies. Despite political correctness, most of us continue to harbor a visceral preference for brawny male cops or firefighters to come to our rescue in emergencies.

In the past, Hollywood's hyperfeminine sex symbols never tried to match men in terms of physical strength, but their classic roles still showed them holding their own in the battle of the sexes by deploying traditional female advantages of smarts, sex appeal, emotional resilience and intuitive understanding.

One of today's rising young stars is Reese Witherspoon, who played the ultimate girlie-girl in the popular Legally Blonde movies — a sorority sister with hot pink accessories who confounds skeptics as the sharpest mind at Harvard.

If aspiring actresses hope to pry their way into the exclusive Boy's Club of top moneymakers, they should heed Witherspoon's example. The public doesn't yearn for stylish chicks to replicate the sweaty brutality of male action stars, but prefers watching characters who display the distinctively feminine strengths associated with the natural superiority of women.

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Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life  

Michael Medved has taken an extraordinary journey from liberal activist to outspoken conservative. Along the way he has earned millions of admirers — and more than his share of enemies — by advancing controversial, often counterintuitive arguments. Sales help fund JWR.

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