Angelina Jolie stars as a spy accused of treason in Salt, opening this Friday. She's not the first actress to take a part written for a man, though, or to prove that women can be critically and commercially viable action stars.
Andrew Schwartz/Columbia Pictures via AP
That distinction may belong to Sigourney Weaver, who in 1979's Alien proved women can be tougher than men when it comes to fighting extraterrestrials with acid for blood. Alien's producers intentionally made Ripley a woman to subvert science-fiction conventions — though the 1986 sequel backtracked by setting up a mechanized catfight between Ripley and the alien queen.
When women get action roles in movies, it's often because (as with Ripley in the Aliens sequel) the plot requires them to protect someone. In Flight Plan, Jodie Foster gets to sabotage and blow up a plane while remaining sympathetic — because she's rescuing her abducted daughter.
Touchstone Pictures via AP
There are some exceptions: In the world of Starship Troopers, being female is a strength, and not just because it means a hero (Dina Meyer as Dizzy Flores) can tap her maternal instincts when she needs to fight. Women "make better pilots than men do; their reactions are faster and they can tolerate more [disruption in gravity]. They can get in faster, get out faster, and thereby improve everybody's chances."
Stephen Vaughan/Columbia Tristar via The Kobal Collection
Giving a woman a man's role isn't always empowering. In the 1973 film The Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle leads a pagan society that practices human sacrifice, but the movie ends with a Christian appeal and a foreshadowing of Summerisle's downfall. In the 2006 remake, the Lord has become a Sister (Ellen Burstyn), and the women she leads seduce men and lead them to their deaths.
Alan Markfield/Warner Bros. via The Kobal Collection
Gender switches can sometimes make for production messes, too. Jodie Foster ended up at the center of one in 1996, when she sued PolyGram for replacing her in The Game, a movie about a businessman (Michael Douglas, right) who gets caught up in a dangerous adventure that may or may not be fictional. Foster's role was originally written for a man, but she and Douglas disagreed over whether she should play Douglas's daughter (Foster's preference) or Douglas's sister (Douglas's choice). Sean Penn, at left, ended up playing Douglas's brother in the movie.
Tony Friedkin/Polygram via The Kobal Collection
Fortunately, gender-switching in the movies doesn't always have to be a deadly serious business. Funnywoman Jane Lynch took a part originally intended for a man in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and transformed the character from just another bro into an insightful mentor with lascivious intentions — who helps Steve Carell's protagonist find himself professionally as well as sexually. (Suzanne Hanover/Universal via The Kobal Collection).
In the slick summer action movie Salt, the sexy CIA heroine — who may be a double agent — was originally a hero. Evelyn Salt was first imagined as "Edwin," and the role was written for Tom Cruise. When he dropped out, the equally glamorous Angelina Jolie took the part.
Such Hollywood swaps generally go in just one direction, says Alyssa Rosenberg, who wrote about the phenomenon on her pop culture blog. And that's male to female.
And if you want one of those slots?
"You can be really tough, or you can be really funny," says Rosenberg. "If you're one of those two things, you can occupy a man's slot in a plot."
Take Jane Lynch: Her screwy store manager Paula in The 40 Year Old Virgin was originally named "Paul," and a lot of guys read for the part. Casting Lynch was actually the brainstorm of Nancy Carell, the wife of star Steve Carell. Lynch's performance was largely improvised, and now it's hard to imagine anyone but her as the bad-boundaries boss.
Similarly, Sigourney Weaver so owns the role of Ellen Ripley in Alien that it boggles the mind to believe Ripley wasn't specifically female from the first.
"The idea of making the hero a heroine was a masterstroke," says director Ridley Scott in the DVD commentary. "Because we truly expected Sigourney to be the first one to go."
The traditionally gendered meanings and symbols in Hollywood movies meant that director Robert Schwentke had to change certain scenes when he couldn't get Sean Penn for the starring role in his 2005 film Flightplan. He cast Jodie Foster instead.
"Interestingly enough, when you're dealing with a male protagonist — and now I'm talking about mainstream studio movies — there's a certain iconography you can use," Schwentke says on the DVD. "When this was a male [character], he was walking down the lonely boulevards at night in Berlin and his coat was sort of blowing and you look at it and [think], 'Yeah, that's a stand-in for loneliness."
But when you put a woman in that exact same shot, Schwentke says, "You just wonder, 'What is she doing at 3 o'clock in the morning all by herself on the street?'" So Schwentke opted for a montage that set up Flightplan's implausible plot — Foster's little daughter vanishes during a transatlantic flight.
It's noteworthy that all the action in Flightplan and Alien takes place in tight, enclosed spaces. Blogger Alyssa Rosenberg points out that in both movies, the heroines aren't out roaming around — they're defending a tiny, confined piece of turf.
"I do think women are allowed to have their backs to the wall," Rosenberg says. "But not to go out and conquer things. With men, you're allowed to be expansionary."
And when roles written for women have been switched to male actors, they're often smaller parts. Interestingly, the characters tend to be lawyers.