About "American Quilt" and Anne Bancroft: Do women’s movies have a common thread?


[…] Based on Whitney Otto's best seller, "American Quilt" recounts the romantic travails of a group of older women (played by Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Nelligan, Jean Simmons, Lois Smith and Alfred Woodard) who gather together to make a wedding quilt for Burstyn's granddaughter (Winona Ryder). A little conflict, a bit of bawdiness, some tears, much nurturing and forgiveness are spread over an episodic course of intimate conversations and illuminating storytelling.


Not all these elements and patterns appear in every woman-centered film of 1995. But a surprising number pop up again and again, even in such unexpected places as the teen-age comedy "Clueless." And none of these pictures even flirts with the unpredictability and edginess of what many recall fondly as the best "women's movie" of recent vintage, "Thelma and Louise."


Of course, it must be said that this genre in the making is nowhere near as rigidly uniform as the hundreds of male-centered action movies Hollywood has churned out in the past dozen years. And even if the newer women's pictures do share a certain sensitivity, their creators are aiming to make them no less tough than all that guy stuff.


Seeking an edge


"We wanted edge, intelligence and wit. We really didn't want this  movie told through gauze," says "American Quilt" producer Sarah Pillsbury, whose previous films with partner Sanford include such flavorsome fare as "Desperately Seeking Susan," "River's Edge" and "Eight Men Out." "We don't think of women's stories and women's lives as soft. Actually, most women's lives are pretty damn hard, and the idea that there's not a hard edge to a women's story because no one pulls out a gun and shoots somebody is really offensive to us.


"Our concern about all of these women's movies that are coming out," Pillsbury continues, "is people who see something that is emotional and will call it sentimental and manipulative. Because it might have provoked some feeling in them, they think they were manipulated as opposed to, maybe, they saw something that moved them. We made a point of emphasizing that life hurts, but you can triumph over that with the power of forgiveness."


Pillsbury and Sanford hired director Jocelyn Moot-house precisely for the tough-minded spirit they'd seen in her work. The Australian filmmaker, however, actually viewed "American Quilt"  as softer than her astringent feature debut, "Proof" and the raucously illuminating "Muriel’s Wedding," which she produced for her husband, P.J. Hogan.


"I wanted this to be a very gentle film, very loving," Moorhouse says. "That was selfish on my part, I guess, because I'd made a rather vicious film with “Proof.” But the script that won me over was very loving and tender, but at the same time not sentimental. It does explore those areas of how women love men and women deal with certain emotions ? especially if they're cerebral  women - how they deal with the more primal urges. Intelligent women can often be completely confused by their hormones taking over.


"That’s one of the little secrets about women that often aren't explored in movies," Moorhouse continues. "Maybe it's good to show some of those secrets, maybe that's why there are all these new films coming out about women. Perhaps what will happen is that it will continue along this path. But when you have films with a lead female character, we'll get to know her through a more truthful side. What I certainly want to do with future films is show more of a female's self in reaction to things, as opposed to what men might expect a woman to do."


The intimate, verbal and open-hearted nature shared by many of the current films seems natural enough to actress Alfre Woodard. "There probably are reasons why they're happening right now, but they should have been made all along," says the double Emmy-winner and star of "Crooklyn" and "Passion First" as well as TV's "The Piano Lesson." "It's the absence of them in the past that we should note. This is what women do when they're together. You sit two women in an office, waiting for more than 10 minutes, and they will start to share stories. And even if they're strangers, women don't listen casually; they start to comfort or give advice or empathize. It is something that's very natural, What's very unnatural is that if it has not been in the cinema before."


Bancroft's answer


Anne Bancroft is not surprised by that. She is arguably the lasting and most prolific movie actress in the entire "American Quilt cast, this Oscar-winner for "The Miracle Worker" and indelible Mrs. Robinson from "The Graduate." An she has an unexpected answer to the age-old actress’s lament that there aren’t just aren't enough good roles for women in movies.


"Listen, it's tough for women to get good roles in life - the hell with Hollywood," Bancroft says laughing but not joking. "Is it not true? Look at the president's cabinet. Look on the list of doctors at any hospital. Look at the astronauts. Aren't there far more men than women doing the dramatic work in the world? That’s why I’ve always been interested in the world and not the movies." But things do change, and change again. Bancroft, herself prospered during an era when an emergence of feminism inspired all kinds of new and challenging female roles. And that wasn't the first time that women made lots of terrific movies.   


"It's cyclical," says Samantha Mathis ("Little Women"), who plays a younger version of one quilter in one of the new movie's flashbacks. "If you look at the movies of 1930s and '40s, God, there were great women's roles. Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, the list goes on and on. As for where it's going, it'be really nice if we get to a point where a movie like this isn't considered a 'Woman's movie.' It would be good to get beyond those perceptions that something is male and female, just human. I think this movie ["American Quilt"] is very human; it's not just a 'chick flick,' if you will."  © The Boston Globe