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Stars in the reckoning

Some of English cinema's highest paid actresses have reached a pivotal point in their careers, even as a new `pack' is eager to take over the centre stage. ANAND PARTHASARATHY sizes up the current and upcoming work of eight women whose talents dominate Hollywood today.

Hollywood's talented woman brigade — (clockwise from top left) Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Renee Zellwegger, Reese Witherspoon, Meg Ryan and Angelina Jolie... a tremendous force indeed.

HAVING PUT her first acting Oscar — for her 2000 triumph, "Erin Brockovich" — on the mantelpiece, Julia Roberts was busy with two other products slated for 2001 release: the laid-back comedy adventure, "The Mexican", where she plays the girl friend of reluctant gunman Brad Pitt, and the frothy comedy that takes on the Hollywood system: "America's Sweethearts", where she was joined by Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack.

As these films were being wrapped up, she received a new script from actor George Clooney and the director who crafted her Oscar triumph in "Erin Brockovich" — Steven Soderbergh. Clipped to the manuscript was a $20 bill with a handwritten note: "We hear you make twenty per film now!"

It was her reputed rate as Hollywood's highest paid actress — they jokingly chose to ignore the million.

Ms. Roberts accepted the $20 — and signed on as the only major female actress in a macho, all-male action comedy: a remake of "Ocean's Eleven", the classic 1959 "caper" movie that starred the famous "Rat Pack''— Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr.

"Don't tell Jerry Weintraub (the producer); but to work with Steven Soderbergh again, I would have done it for 20 dollars!" Julia said later. "Ocean's Eleven", is lovingly crafted in the style of the old Howard Hawk films. The film, which opened in the US this month, to critical and commercial acclaim, will be brought to India in July 2002, by Warner Brothers.

It is an indicator that when female stars reach the mid-thirties — a pivotal career point for them in Hollywood — they have to do subtle artistic shifts. Only a year younger, at 34, that best known of Hollywood's "Australian imports", Nicole Kidman, has just been named "Entertainer of the Year", by the authoritative U.S. based film periodical,``Entertainment Weekly". This is on the strength of her 2001 triumph in that quintessential "Bollywood-style" masala musical, "Moulin Rouge". The weekly reported that hard on the heels of Ms. Kidman's triumph as the 1890s Parisian dancer Satine, she achieved artistic success with another film, a ghost story, not seen in India, called "The Others".

"Was it a good year?" she asked herself at the end of 2001,``It was an interesting year. Creatively, very fulfilling. But there were some pretty dark times...''. She was referring to her other high profile life as Mrs. Tom Cruise which ended in a sad divorce a few weeks ago. But Nicole Kidman is confident that she will land on her feet. Actresses like Kidman and Roberts are not unaware of Hollywood's history: where 30-something is the age when one has to choose career options with care — or be forgotten for ever. At 35, Elizabeth Taylor decided to keep her scandal-bedevilled career afloat, by doing the searingly downbeat, "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf"; Jane Fonda left girlish projects behind to appear as a call girl, in the searing film that won her an Oscar: "Klute'', and Katherine Hepburn, decided to do her first film with a certain Spencer Tracy, launching in mid-career, one of the screen's legendary partnerships. At 35, Ingrid Bergman, on the other hand, fell in love with her director, Roberto Rossellini, married him — and effectively brought her career to a close.

One actress who at 33 has decided that it is already time for course correction is the American actress Renee Zellwegger. She popped up in an extremely small part in the Winona Ryder film "Reality Bites"(1994) which defined what came to be known as "Generation X". Two years later, she played a single mother who supports a brash, struggling agent (Tom Cruise) as he struggles to retain the business of the only sportsman who ties up with him (Cuba Gooding Jr). But in 2001, Renee decided to do something completely different: she played her own age — as an unmarried English secretary, who is desperate to land her man — whether it is the suave Colin Firth or the insufferable boss Hugh Grant. "Bridget Jones's Diary" based on the seminal novel by Helen Fielding, and now on release in India, was a triumph for the American actress of Swiss-Norwegian parentage.

British critics notoriously snooty when it comes to Americans playing English characters, acknowledged that she was "bang on" when she played the neurotic, man-hungry, chain-smoking, weight-watching, liquor-swilling "singleton". Last week Zellwegger won a nomination as Best Actress (Comedy/Musical) for the Golden Globe awards of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a weather cock of which way the `hawa' will blow, come Oscar time. She will compete with Nicole Kidman (for "Moulin Rouge") and with another under-rated talent from "Down Under" — the Shekhar Kapur find, Cate Blanchett. Many considered her role as the Virgin Queen "Elizabeth", in the 1998 film worthy of an Oscar. But a frothier "Shakespeare in Love" set in the same era, took away the statuette — in the person of Gwyneth Paltrow. Ms. Blanchett has been seen in recent months on the satellite movie channels in her first major film, the 1997 "Paradise Road", where she shares honours with Glenn Close in an emotional drama set in a Japanese camp during World War II.

The 1999 film about the lives of air traffic-controllers, "Pushing Tin", found her emoting alongside John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. But her current claim to fame is for her role in a 2001 comedy, "Bandits" (not yet released in India) — a clear change of pace for this 32-year old actress who has hitherto specialised in heavy or emotional drama. She will also be seen as Galadriel, in the film version of first book of the three-part epic novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Lord of the Rings", that has just been released in the U.S.

The ``thirty plus'' stars like Blanchett and Kidman will compete for the Golden Globes — and other awards — this year, with new actresses in their 20s, who are unwilling to wait in the artistic wings for too long. The "Best Actress-Comedy/Musical" in the Globes sees another entrant whose film has just been released in India. In "Legally Blonde", 26-year old Reese Witherspoon, is hilarious as a woman who is intent to disprove the `dumb blonde' stereotype.

Reese began her film career in the trashy 1993 Alicia Silverstone starrer, "The Crush" and can be seen in the Hallmark serial, "Return of the Lonesome Dove". With "Legally Blonde", she has taken a quantum jump into the big league. Only a year older, at 27 Angelina Jolie already has a Best Supporting Actress Oscar under her belt for her role in "Girl Interrupted". In recent weeks, satellite movie channel viewers have had opportunities to see her work as the determined FBI agent in the grim 2000 thriller, "The Bone Collector", doing the footwork for an immobilised Denzel Washington.

Ms. Jolie had a large front bench fan following in India in the year gone by, for two very different roles: as the "video vixen" in the hi-tech actioner "Lara Croft:Tomb Raider"; and as the sultry and mysterious stranger who casts her spell on Antonio Banderas in the steamy period romance, "Original Sin". Angelina is the daughter of 1960s icon Jon Voight. And her determination to leave her artistic mark in the sifting sands of cinematic acclaim is apparent in everything she says and does.

The upcoming line-up of aspiring actresses in made-in-Hollywood films, includes one surprise entrant from Spain. Known in her own country as the Madrid Madonna, Penelope Cruz, 28, has been a top Spanish film talent for over 10 years. But audiences for English language cinema appreciated this Latin actress for the first time in the 2000 film "Woman on Top". In 2001, Indian audiences saw Ms. Cruz in the World War II romance "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", where she plays a Greek villager who falls in love with an officer of the occupying Italian army played by Nicolas Cage. Early in 2002, Paramount will bring to India, her latest film, "Vanilla Sky", with Tom Cruise, said to be a "roller coaster ride of romance, comedy, suspicion, love and dreams", set in New York.

In a category of her own is Meg Ryan whose infectious grin belies her 41 years. Having appeared opposite Tom Hanks in the heart tugging 1993 romance "Sleepless in Seattle" and opposite Nicholas Cage in the similarly structured "City of Angels", Ms. Ryan seemed to have cornered the market in "three-hanky" affairs of the heart. Then came her 1999 triumph again with Tom Hanks: the breezy "You've Got Mail", rehashing the classic comedy of pen friendship, "The Shop Around the Corner", for a new Internet-enabled age.

Just to let us know that she is still the queen of "out of this world" melodrama, Meg Ryan has just completed "Kate and Leopold", where she plays a 21st century New Yorker who romances a 19th century Duke (Hugh Jackman). They automatically choose Ms. Ryan for such products because in lesser hands it will seem trite and artificial. But a dose of the Meg magic makes it all believable.

How many of these Women of Hollywood will be around 10 years from now ? No one knows — yet.

They may take courage from the presence in the Golden Globe nominations list this week, of a veteran English thespian. "There's nothing like a Dame!" went the old American song — something that Dame Judi Dench proves every time she agrees to join a Hollywood production.

With less than five minutes of screen time, she took the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love". She came within a whisker of another statuette last year in the bewitching comedy, "Chocolat". In between, she had no problem with accepting generous pay packets for doing the corny part of "M" in all three James Bond films made since 1995. But in 2001, she has delivered possibly her most nuanced screen role, playing the novelist Iris Murdoch in the biographical British film "Iris" (and getting a Golden globe nomination for Best Actress in the Drama category).

Dame Judy has seen 68 summers and will be almost certainly there when the nominations for Academy Awards are announced in February. How many of today's eager band of Hollywood women will be around to say the same — when they are in their sixties?

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