In many ways, I am not at all surprised the Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are currently enjoying a moment with the success of their film The Heat. Both are extremely likable actresses; both have been on something of a box office roll, and the arrival of a true female buddy cop film has long been overdue. After all, why should only the guys have any fun?
But more importantly they are proving completely true a continuing maxim of big screen success. That is that actresses often do better—artistically and usually commercially—when partnered with other women instead of paired up with any number of leading men, regardless of their supposed box office draw or potential romantic chemistry.
Dolly Parton might not be the best evidence of one of the box office’s biggest names but she will suit us well as an example here. Parton found film success when she was part of predominately female ensembles in films like Nine to Five or, later, Steel Magnolias. Stuck though in starring vehicles with men, anyone from Burt Reynolds to Sly Stallone, and it’s been disaster for her, both in terms of quality and revenues.
Geena Davis had her biggest screen success opposite Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise. She followed that hit up with the female-centric League of Their Own, also a critical and commercial success. After that bofo box office double play though subsequent films she made opposite male stars like Michael Keaton and Dustin Hoffman did nothing to further her career.
Speaking of League, it’s notable as well that the only true, credible movie hit Madonna has ever been able to score is in that feminine baseball tale and not in any of her pairings with such leading men as Sean Penn or Rupert Everett. (She did get lucky with Warren Beatty and Dick Tracy though.)
Tina Fey scored in Baby’s Mama opposite Amy Poehler but couldn’t strike gold again with her first true foray into full RomCom territory; Admission, opposite Paul Rudd, from earlier in the year was a misfire.
Some movie veterans, like Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep, have been around long enough that they seem to have caught onto this unique feminine phenomenon. Many of their recent and semi-recent films have kept them firmly within the company of other women. MacLaine appeared in the aforementioned Steel Magnolias as well as Terms of Endearment and Postcards from the Edge. Streep too seems to know a winning formula when she finds it. Consider her Mamma Mia!, The Devil Wears Prada, and Julie & Julia, all quite female-centric.
As of this writing, I’m worrying about Kristin Wiig’s next movie move. She broke through resoundingly with Bridesmaids, again performing as part of a female ensemble. She may lose whatever traction she has gained however with her next film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, that has her playing opposite Ben Stiller. If so, as we’ve seen, she wouldn’t be the actress to flop when surrounded by a bunch of guys.
So what are we to make of this interesting trend, this division of the sexes, if you will? One thing it says to me is that, sadly, surprisingly, even after 100 years of movie making, we still haven’t figured out how to write a credible love story or a way for the two genders to interact on screen in a way that both the man and the woman can come across as real, likable, creditable and interesting. (Again, Bullock lost ground—and gained a Razzie Award—when she did What About Steve? where she played the fool opposite Bradley Cooper.)
Considering this fact of moving-going life, curious then that so many actresses have, for many years now, staked the majority of the cinema careers on the genre of the romantic comedy. Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Lopez and innumerable others have seemed to have starred in few other types of films in recent years. The male actors they play opposite however often have lots of options—sci-fi tales, buddy comedies, action movies, superhero tales, dramas. Hence, this phenom is not only about women doing better when they work together, it also points to an underlying problem: the lack of diversity for women in movies today. Or should I say “still”?
Sadly, I don’t see a turnaround coming anytime soon. It might take until both writers and audiences do some serious growing up before we see films where male-female relationships can be portrayed mutually humorously, without the jokes coming at the expense of the other. In the meantime, if I were an up-and-coming actress in Hollywood today, I would certainly be tempted to ditch every script that got forwarded to me unless, of course, it was set in a decidedly female space, like a nunnery, a hair salon or on an all-woman’s bowling team.