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Women storm the box office

For a while, it was starting to feel as if leading women had become an endangered species in Hollywood movies.

Julia Roberts has, for several years, been pretty much the only female star on the A-list. In the quest for box office bucks, movieland's popular wisdom has long decreed that teenage boys, who prefer explosions and grossout jokes, are the audience that counts.

But something strange is happening in American movie houses. All of the sudden (or so it seems), women are popping up all over. This month and next bring a series of films with women in the lead, many of them destined for Oscar campaigns.

Already in theaters is Frida, about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, with Salma Hayek in the title role, and White Oleander, starring four women and no men. Sweet Home Alabama has coasted on Reese Witherspoon's charm to a box office haul of about $120-million. Coming soon and already attracting Oscar buzz is The Hours, with the powerhouse trifecta of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore in the leads; Streep is also about to appear in a showy role as writer Susan Orlean in Adaptation. The musical Chicago, with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the leads, is generating early Oscar talk.

Streep is not the only middle-aged female actor _ a rarely seen item on the casting agenda _ spending significant time on the big screen this fall. Susan Sarandon had prominent roles in three movies: The Banger Sisters, with equally middle-aged Goldie Hawn, Igby Goes Down and Moonlight Mile.

Meanwhile, the indie movie Real Women Have Curves, with an ensemble cast of Latina actors, has been such a critical hit that HBO released it theatrically (it opens in the Tampa Bay area today) instead of only on cable television.

Monster's Ball, a small 2001 indie film, led to a best actress Oscar for Halle Berry. The nominating committee also honored Kidman for her singing role in Moulin Rouge; gave a rare nod to comedy (Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary); chose Sissy Spacek for the nano-budget In the Bedroom; and tapped Judi Dench for the little-seen Iris.

Producers and directors say that for one thing, the success of Roberts in Erin Brockovich two years ago _ a film that took in $125-million at the box office and brought Roberts an Oscar _ trickled into the perceptions of Hollywood decisionmakers.

"I think Erin Brockovich has had a big effect, certainly from the perspective of the people I see, agents and studio executives," says Peter Kosminsky, director of White Oleander. In Brockovich, Roberts played the title character, a brassy single mother and legal assistant who takes on a chemical company over environmental pollution.

Another factor is the rise of a new generation of female actors with the chops to carry commercial fare such as romantic comedies, thrillers and even that long-lost genre, the musical.

In the recent past, says Nina Jacobson, president of Disney's motion picture division, "You'd ask, "What women can open a movie and carry it, regardless of genre?' There's one name, Julia Roberts. . . . Now there are a number of women starting to expand that list: Reese Witherspoon, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman."

And in recent months, some female-oriented films have shown box office clout. Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama and Nia Vardalos in that chug-chug-chugging sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding have had huge commercial success. In studying market research, studio executives were amazed to find that female moviegoers made up two-thirds of the box office total in early October: $55-million on an $80-million weekend.

If studio executives _ men and women _ are noticing one thing, it's the aging of the baby boomer generation and the need to make movies that appeal to its tastes. And in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some audiences seem drawn to kinder, gentler entertainment.

"Maybe we've had a good dose of death and mayhem," Jacobson says. "And the more traditionally female pictures, which are more about love and affirmation of human contact, is probably something everybody needs a little more of these days."