Liz Smith: Women Rule The Box Office!

And more from our Liz: Sharon Stone, done wrong but still going strong — and possibly to pair up with Sofia Vergara

“MY DEAR, after a certain point in a woman’s life, the only thing that helps is champagne.”

That was Bette Davis, clinking glasses with her onscreen (and off!) rival Miriam Hopkins in the movie “Old Acquaintance.” This was one of the ripest and one of the last of Davis’ “women’s movies” of the 1940s. Men were away at war, and women ruled the box-office — as stars and as a potent audience.

After World War II ended, women were fired from factories, shoved back into the house, and restricted by Dior’s long-skirted, tightly corseted New Look. The image of women onscreen became less interesting, independent or dangerous. Female attendance dropped from its all-time highs.

But these things are cyclical. And over the years the female audience has ebbed and flowed. (The 1950s had those overripe Douglas Sirk movies, like “Magnificent Obsession” and “Imitation of Life.” More recently, the first “Sex and the City” film drove women mad.) Now, we are seeing another uptick: the audience for the “Twilight” films skews heavily female — young women, in particular. (Guys go along, but if they had to choose a vampire story, they’d rather watch HBO’s “True Blood.”)

Now, that same phenomenon has happened with “The Hunger Games,” which broke all sorts of box-office records over the weekend. Women — and not just teen/tween girls — made up 61% of its audience. True, more men were eager to see this than any of the “Twilight” movies — perhaps because of the much-discussed violence, or perhaps because Jennifer Lawrence is considered hot, especially when she narrows her eyes and wields that bow and arrows. (It can’t be the sex, because there was none of that in “The Hunger Games.” The “Twilight” movies entertain similarly chaste themes. They are not the wanton bloodsuckers of Anne Rice books, for sure.)

We don’t need a crystal ball to predict that when the time comes for the sequel — I’m surprised it’s not shooting right now, actually — that the onscreen relationship between Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth will heat up. If the ladies jamming movie theaters right now have one complaint, it’s that there wasn’t more of Mr. Hemsworth. But fans of the books know he’s heavily featured in the second novel.

Death games and depressed vampires. We’ve come a long way from Miss Davis in her Travis Banton or Orry-Kelly gowns and her champagne. But women still have the power, baby.

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WOMEN CAN also give up their power — even famous women, who perhaps think they are “too much” for any man as themselves, and therefore try to subvert the very qualities that intrigued the world in the first place.

Madonna is singing/raging all about it in her new CD “MDNA” — although she also expresses her own failings in one poignant, if startlingly titled song, “I F**ked Up.” (This ode to her faults is free of the techno sounds that infuse so much of her music.)

Another power female with regrets is Sharon Stone. The actress says she feels her second husband, newspaper editor Phil Bronstein, did her wrong. She certainly feels that way in the matter of their child Roan, whom she and Phil adopted after she suffered several miscarriages (not to mention a near-fatal brain hemorrhage). When the marriage went sour, Bronstein fought for, and won, primary physical custody of the boy. Stone (who is not without humor) says, attempting to explain why she lost her son: “I had had a brain hemorrhage and was an actress who made sexy movies.” (Roan visits his famous mom every month on weekends. Stone adopted two more children after her divorce from Bronstein.)

The actress adds: “His initial intention with me was probably corrupt. I was suckered. I’m embarrassed to say that.” Hardly the words of a femme fatale. But then, Stone hasn’t really led the life of a femme fatale — despite some of her early roles, including the deadly ice-pick psycho of “Basic Instinct.”

The actress has raised millions upon millions for various charities, specifically in the fight against AIDS. She stepped in as a world-traveler/fundraiser when Elizabeth Taylor’s precipitously declining health prevented her from performing all her strenuous public duties for AmFAR, which La Liz had co-founded with Dr. Mathilde Krim. Stone leapt in with boundless energy, and her auctioneering talents soon became as famous as … well, uncrossing her legs in “Basic Instinct.”

Stone’s career — despite the notoriety of that split-second reveal and her Oscar nomination for “Casino” — never took off as spectacularly as had been expected. Some in Hollywood said she was trouble. Others, such as co-star Michael Douglas, simply put it down to her being a beautiful woman who “didn’t suffer fools gladly” in an industry where beautiful women are expected to suffer anything.

Stone points to her humanitarian causes, her children, and not playing the Hollywood game as reasons she didn’t soar as long as might have.
“Besides,” she explains, “I haven’t always been good in my roles. And I don’t think I had a well-directed career.” Ever sanguine, she adds, “If I’m not going to be a big movie star again, then guess what? That wasn’t my destiny.”

I think Stone has always been good actress, but I can’t disagree that she made some odd choices and worked with people who didn’t care to dig the best out of her. Although I do think Emilio Estevez got a great performance from her — and Demi Moore — in 2006’s “Bobby.” When I saw that movie, I was sure one of those ladies was going to cop an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, I was just about the only one who saw it.

But what about men? Surely, this great beauty wants some companionship? Stone doesn’t rule it out. But — and Raquel Welch said the same thing to me several years ago — “I’m not going to be with a guy just so there’s a guy in my life. I’m good with just me!”

P.S. and just in: It is rumored Stone will play Sofia Vergara’s lover in John Turturro’s new movie, “Fading Gigolo.” (Miss Vergara is the hot-as-a-pistol star of TV’s “Modern Family.”) But the much odder casting news is that Woody Allen will play a pimp in the movie. This has got to be a comedy.

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