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Last Updated:  Monday, 20 January, 2003, 19:58 GMT
2003: The year of women

By Keily Oakes
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Nicole Kidman
Nicole Kidman: Heading the field

This year's Oscars is being seen as a year for women, with female leads holding many of the key films on their own.

Chicago, The Hours, Far From Heaven, Frida and Talk to Her are all led by women actors of stature in serious roles, rather than a more typical love interest or romantic comedy role.

Nicole Kidman called for writers to create more strong roles for women following her triumph at the 2003 Golden Globes.

It appears the future is looking bright for actresses hoping to be seen on an equal footing with their male counterparts.

Kidman won best actress Globe and Bafta for The Hours - a film which features three women in the lead roles as their lives are touched by a Virginia Woolf book.

Also nominated was Salma Hayek, winning praise for role as the eccentric artist Frida Kahlo, a part which has seen her break out of playing the exotic love interest of previous movies.

And Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep, in The Hours and Far From Heaven, are also proving that mainstream roles for women are now regular box office pulls.

Wise path

Even female directors are slowly starting to make their presence felt, with Julie Taymor's Frida winning six Oscar nominations, and Gurinder Chadha's Bend it Like Beckham doing well in the UK.

Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger
Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger battle in Chicago
There has been a slow shift in the balance of power as studios appear to have changed their attitudes towards actresses carrying films, although the box office heavyweights of Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Tom Hanks still prevail.

Kidman may bemoan the lack of decent, meaty roles for women but she appears to have chosen her career path wisely, with just a few films with her cast as the love interest including opposite ex-husband Cruise in Days of Thunder.

Her bankability since she stepped out of the shadow of Cruise has seen her grab parts in The Others, Moulin Rouge and The Birthday Girl, with her as the star of the show.

Golden girl

But award nomination lists over the past decade show that female actresses can carry a film on their own merit - without a Tom Cruise, George Clooney or Leonardo Di Caprio to snare audiences.

Salma Hayek campaigned for years to make Frida
Salma Hayek campaigned for years to make Frida
Julia Roberts, who is noticeably absent from the latest clutch of award ceremonies after a quiet year, is still considered the golden girl of Hollywood.

Studios trust her to lead blockbusters such as Erin Brockovich and she can command the staggeringly high fees of her male colleagues - although falling short of the huge pay cheques of Cruise.

But many of her films still see her teamed up with bankable male stars such as Hugh Grant in Notting Hill and Brad Pitt in The Mexican.

Streep, who won a best supporting Golden Globe for Adaptation, has been one of Hollywood's consistently brilliant actresses and someone who has not been seen as screen "eye candy".

With 13 Oscar nominations under her belt her Hollywood credentials cannot be questioned, despite the fact that she rarely adorns the front pages of glossy magazines and keeps her private life out of the tabloids.

Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith have also proved acting ability has little to do with youth and beauty, as the studios often like to think.

'Worthy' films

Drew Barrymore is an example of an actress who was not prepared to sit back and wait for the juicy roles to come to her.

Drew Barrymore
Drew Barrymore started her own production company
Instead she started her own production company, Flower Films, choosing films that she herself would like to watch rather than looking to make "worthy" films which go down well with the critics and judging panels.

Moore is someone for whom 2003 is a pivotal year. She is coming into her own after years of playing supporting roles with two critically acclaimed films in Oscar contention - Far from Heaven and The Hours.

Cameron Diaz, Catherine Zeta Jones, Kirsten Dunst, Renee Zellwegger, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Stiles and Halle Berry have all seen their box office values and type of role improve in recent years.

Berry won the Oscar for her challenging performance in Monster's Ball.

Her turn as a Bond girl was seen to usher in a new era for the super spy franchise as her character Jinx was one of the stronger female roles to have appeared in the James Bond films.

But she still had to be rescued by the dashing secret agent at the end.

Denise Richards
Denise Richards has carved out a career playing beautiful women
And despite the apparent rise in the challenging and powerful roles available for actresses there is still a large market for actresses to play scantily-clad airheads with Denise Richards, Heather Graham and Tara Reid leading the pack.

It remains to be seen whether Hollywood makes permanent room for the strong female roles of the past year or two, or whether this new recognition from studios and scriptwriters is nothing more than a flash in the pan.



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