Where Have All the Leading Ladies Gone?

It's that time of year again, when young men take over the seats — and the screens — at multiplexes around the country, and when film industry watchers ask and get asked whether it's time to perform the last rites for Hollywood's leading ladies.

Despite the success of films such as "Sex and the City," which led the box office on opening weekend, the question of why there are so few female-driven films remains. One reason the subject won't die is because movies such as "Sex and the City" are still the exception.

"Women-starring and women-targeted movies are still a niche business — a sometimes successful niche business," said Elizabeth Guider, editor of The Hollywood Reporter. "But they are still the counter-programming and not the main event."

Another reason is because of comments such as the one made by a male Warner Bros. executive that lit up the blogosphere last fall after the films "The Invasion," with Nicole Kidman, and "The Brave One," with Jodie Foster, fizzled at the box office. According to the online chatter, Jeff Robinov, Warner's president for production, declared the studio would no longer make films with women in the lead.

Guider said it was actually someone else who made the comment and Robinov who denied it and tried to clean up the fallout, but that ultimately it doesn't matter. "Whoever it was, there was something to that comment," Guider said. "Warner took the whole big tent pole theory to a completely new level in the last eight to 10 years. There is no doubt that this skew has been decidedly male."

At no time is this more apparent than in the summer when Hollywood rolls out its big tent pole popcorn movies, usually with the word "man" or "boy" in the title — as in "Spiderman," "Ironman" and "Hellboy." Summer is dominated by big special effects movies, action heroes like Will Smith and Harrison Ford, funny guys such as Steve Carell and Mike Myers, and the young male audiences who go to see them.

In the summer, women tend to take a backseat or a supporting role to men. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pepper to Robert Downey Jr.'s "Ironman," Liv Tyler plays Betty to Edward Norton's "Hulk," and Anne Hathaway will play Carell's girl Friday in "Get Smart," which opens this weekend.

There are a few summer films where women take the lead, such as the big-screen spin-off of the American Girls dolls, "Kit Kittredge," starring 12-year-old Abigail Breslin, which opens this weekend and goes into wide release July 2; "Wanted," in which Angelina Jolie plays an assassin; and "The House Bunny," starring Anna Faris as a Playboy Bunny who, at 27, is deemed too old for the mansion.

For the most part, the movies that appeal to women — lighter on the effects and heavier on the dialogue — are released in the fall. "The Changeling," the Clint Eastwood drama also starring Jolie as a woman fighting to get back her child, is scheduled for the fall, along with the remake of "The Women" by "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English, starring Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett Smith, Meg Ryan, Candice Bergen and Eva Mendes.

What about the rest of the year? Are there fewer films with leading ladies on the big screen than in the past? The answer is not clear cut.

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