Angelina Jolie's Heroine Chic: When Star Power Trumps Gender What do a CIA agent, an inappropriate electronics store manager, and an alien annihilator have in common? They're all female film characters — played, respectively, by Angelina Jolie, Jane Lynch and Sigourney Weaver — originally written for men to play.
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Heroine Chic: When Star Power Trumps Gender

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Heroine Chic: When Star Power Trumps Gender

Heroine Chic: When Star Power Trumps Gender

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

A slick summer action movie opens this weekend about a sexy CIA spook who may be a double agent.

(Soundbite of movie, "Salt")

Mr. DANIEL OLBRYCHSKI (Actor): (as Orlov) The name of the agent is Evelyn Salt.

Ms. ANGELINA JOLIE (Actress): (as Evelyn Salt) My name is Evelyn Salt.

Mr. OLBRYCHSKI: (as Orlov) Then you are a Russian spy.

NORRIS: The character Evelyn Salt was originally named Edwin. The part was written for Tom Cruise. He dropped out, and the equally glamorous Angelina Jolie took the part.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on gender switching in Hollywood.

NEDA ULABY: We're not talking Sandy Dennis playing Peter Pan here. We're talking about when a role is specifically written for one gender but then reworked for another. Gender switching generally goes in just one direction, says pop culture commentator Alyssa Rosenberg. Certain male characters can become female.

Ms. ALYSSA ROSENBERG (Senior Web Editor, Washingtonian): You can be really tough or you can be really funny. And if you're one of those two things, you can occupy a man's slot in a plot.

ULABY: Here's the funny.

(Soundbite of movie, "The 40 Year Old Virgin")

Ms. JANE LYNCH (Actress): (as Paula) Do you have any weed?

ULABY: In the movie "The 40 Year Old Virgin," screwy store manager Paula scores pot from one of her own employees before a vacation.

(Soundbite of movie, "The 40 Year Old Virgin")

Mr. SETH ROGEN (Actor): (As Cal) So where are you going?

Ms. LYNCH: (as Paula) I'm not going anywhere. I'm just staying in my apartment.

Mr. ROGEN: (as Cal) Just going to get baked.

Ms. LYNCH: (as Paula) I want to be baked the whole time. Watch TV. I'll probably re-watch "Gandhi."

Mr. ROGEN: (As Cal) "Gandhi" baked is good.

Ms. LYNCH: (as Paula) Yeah, isn't it?

(Soundbite of commentary feature from "The 40 Year Old Virgin")

Mr. ROGEN: That was written as a guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDD APATOW (Director, "The 40 Year Old Virgin"): It was Paul.

ULABY: That's Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow commenting on the DVD.

(Soundbite of commentary feature from "The 40 Year Old Virgin")

Mr. APATOW: We had so many - we had a lot of guys come in to read for the manager.

ULABY: But casting Jane Lynch was actually the brainstorm of star Steve Carell's wife. The part was largely improvised, and now it's hard to imagine anyone but Lynch as the bad-boundaries boss.

Similarly, Sigourney Weaver so owns the part of Ellen Ripley in "Alien," it's hard to believe the part was not written with a woman in mind.

(Soundbite of movie, "Alien")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Hey, Ripley.

Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER (Actress): (as Ellen Ripley) Right here.

Unidentified Man: (as character) We're clean. Let us in.

ULABY: Director Ridley Scott has this commentary.

(Soundbite of commentary feature from "Alien")

Mr. RIDLEY SCOTT (Director, "Alien") The idea of making the hero a heroine, I think, was a masterstroke because we truly expect Sigourney probably to be the first one to go.

(Soundbite of movie, "Alien")

(Soundbite of screaming)

ULABY: Casting a woman in this role meant playing against certain Hollywood meanings and symbols. That's something director Robert Schwentke bumped up against when he could not get Sean Penn for the starring role in "Flightplan." He cast Jodie Foster instead.

Mr. ROBERT SCHWENTKE (Director, "Flightplan"): Interestingly enough, when you're dealing with a main male protagonist - and I'm now really talking about mainstream studio movies - there's a certain iconography that you can use.

ULABY: Images that work as an established shorthand that help tell the story quickly.

Mr. SCHWENTKE: When this was a male, he was walking down the lonely boulevards at night in Berlin and his coat was sort of blowing, and you look at it and, yeah, you know, that's a stand-in for loneliness.

ULABY: When you put a woman in the exact same shot, Schwentke says:

Mr. SCHWENTKE: You just go, what is she doing at 3:00 in the morning all by herself on a street?

ULABY: So Schwentke opted for a montage that set up "Flightplan's" implausible plot. Jodie Foster's daughter vanishes during a trans-Atlantic flight.

(Soundbite of movie, "Flightplan")

Ms. JODIE FOSTER (Actress): (as Kyle Pratt) You've got to search the holds now.

Ms. FOSTER: (as Kyle Pratt) Julia? Julia? Are you in there?

ULABY: In "Flightplan" and "Alien," the action is all in tight, enclosed spaces. Blogger Alyssa Rosenberg points out the heroines are not out roaming around. They're defending a tiny, confined piece of turf.

Ms. ROSENBERG: You know, women are allowed to have their backs to the wall but not to go out and conquer things. I'm sort of facetious here, but I do think that with men, you know, you're allowed to be sort of expansionary. Go out. You can conquer things.

ULABY: A very few roles written for women have been switched to male actors, but they're smaller parts. And interestingly, they tend to be lawyers.

Rosenberg says it's hard to think of even one leading female role that a big Hollywood studio could manage to gender switch.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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