- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

Audiences today have little trouble swallowing Uma Thurman as a bloodthirsty assassin seeking — and getting — revenge in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” Nor did they bat an eye when “Charlie’s Angels” outfought everyone, including a fair share of fellas, in two major films.

Miss Thurman, Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie and the growing ranks of female screen warriors can all thank Sigourney Weaver. As Lt. Ellen Ripley in 1979’s “Alien,” re-released this week as a special director’s cut, Miss Weaver broke the mold of the standard — read, male — action hero.

Anyone watching “Alien” for the first time might assume that the heroic mantle might be shouldered by Tom Skerritt as the interstellar mining ship Nostromo’s rugged captain.

Nope. Ripley proved the most resourceful of them all, escaping the alien’s death kiss and managing to flush it out of her spacecraft in the nick of time.

Marcus Nispel, the director of the hit remake “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” credits Miss Weaver’s work as the inspiration for his film’s feisty heroine played by Jessica Biel.

“Having a strong female protagonist, just like Sigourney Weaver, not just a girl who cried all the time, that’s what I was looking for,” Mr. Nispel says.

The cultural change Ripley wrought didn’t happen overnight.

“In the beginning, to be a powerful female action character you needed to be terminated,” says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, citing 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” and Glenn Close’s character in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction.”

However, as cultural changes percolated through the country, Hollywood soon caught up

“This was inevitable given the changes in gender roles,” Mr. Thompson says. “We clearly were going to find some sort of equalizing [at the movies].”

Is it progress?

“Some people think that women [having] roles in just as violent and sexually exploitative things as men is not such a great addition,” Mr. Thompson says.

Miss Weaver herself helped the cause a second time by starring in the action-soaked “Aliens” (1986), revealing her maternal side in between her heroics.

Some audiences weren’t thrilled to see Linda Hamilton’s guns flashed as she saved the future in James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” (1991), but they embraced the film, nonetheless.

“Alien” director Ridley Scott gave us “G.I. Jane” in 1997, casting a shorn Demi Moore as an aspiring Navy SEAL who could out-hustle and out-cuss the boys. That movie floundered, but audiences gobbled up such subsequent heroines as Angelina Jolie’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001) and the aforementioned “Angels.”

“I don’t think Angelina Jolie would be able to pull it off if Sigourney hadn’t opened the door first,” says Shellee Haynesworth, president of the District-based Women in Film & Video.

Ms. Haynesworth says the small but growing number of women behind the scenes in Hollywood, like Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing, is having an impact on women’s heroic roles. “This lends itself to more stories about women in a variety of roles,” Ms. Haynesworth says.

The numbers, however, still favor the boys. A 2002 study completed at San Diego State University showed that in more than one out of five films released that year, women were shut out of all the key (behind the camera) creative and executive positions — i.e., no women directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers or editors.

Ms. Haynesworth says the rise of professional women’s sports leagues has also played a role in shaping modern screen images of women. Modern audiences have come to accept women as more physically capable. They are also getting used to women with more muscular physiques, witness all the attention paid to Brandi Chastain’s chiseled upper torso following the USA Women’s World Cup victory in 1999.

Terry Lawler, executive director of New York Women in Film & Television, says Miss Weaver told her group in 1988 that the role of Ripley originally was written for a man.

“By imagining a woman character in that role, they were able to break ground,” Ms. Lawler says.

“It proved that this kind of a movie with a woman as the lead could make a lot of money and become a classic,” she says.

Ripley does strip down to her underwear in “Alien’s” climactic moments, but otherwise Miss Weaver’s portrayal is not overtly sexy.

Ms. Lawler, for one, doesn’t mind if women action heroes look stylish when they save the day. “For years, male action heroes have traded on their sexuality, just look at Sylvester Stallone’s rippling physique in ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II,’” she says. “Sexuality and sex appeal is part of why the films are appealing. The key is for there to be roles for women in which they don’t have to be scantily clad.”

Women action heroes may have one edge over their male peers: Because they aren’t as indestructible, they seem more human.

“You understood [Ripley] was afraid,” Ms. Lawler says, “but that didn’t matter. It didn’t keep her from doing what she had to do. Because you saw that fear, you identified with her.”

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