Women's business

Film - Philip Kerr enjoys a low-budget movie that puts the girls on top, for once

If there's one thing that irritates me about Hollywood today, it's the way that male movie stars get all the attention. It's the male film stars who get the best parts and the $20m fees, and whom the studios believe will "open a movie": a movie that will probably be about a man. If Tom Cruise is starring in a picture, then you can bet that it will be about the character he is playing, not the character played by his leading lady. Each year, Premiere magazine publishes a "power list" of the 100 most influential people in Hollywood; invariably, 90 per cent of these movers and shakers are men. The recent Oscars ceremony may have focused attention on black actors in film, but if you really want to find second-class, underprivileged citizens in Hollywood today, you need look no further than its women.

Take What Women Want, which starred Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Much of the film was devoted to showcasing Gibson's versatility - gee, he can dance, he can sing, he can be vulnerable, he can even send himself up (gosh, what a great guy). Meanwhile, Helen Hunt, one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood, was reduced to looking merely beautiful and falling for a man who seemed, to me, to be her obvious intellectual inferior. Is that what women want? I don't think so.

Even more preposterously, in As Good as it Gets (which wasn't very good at all), we were asked to believe that Hunt, then aged 34, could fall for a short, balding, myopic, 60-year-old, fat man with the personality of an obnoxious polecat, merely because he happened to be played by Jack Nicholson. Actresses working in Hollywood today - which means women under the age of 40 - are really on screen for one thing: to convince the rest of us that the likes of Harrison Ford (59), Jack Nicholson (65), Robert Redford (64), Sean Connery (nearly 72) and Clint Eastwood (ditto) can still pull babes less than half their age and weight.

Sixty years ago, things were very different. There were lots of wonderful films about women, with great characters and memorable dialogue. Actresses such as Greta Garbo, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, Mary Pickford, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Myrna Loy, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Doris Day and Bette Davis could all "open a picture", and the Hollywood system recognised that they were as powerful and important as their male counterparts.

Today, only Julia Roberts is judged to have as much business clout as any male star. And I believe, increasingly, that the only way this situation will improve is if female stars band together to form their own production companies, in the way that Carmen Callil, Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe founded Virago, in 1973, to publish books by and about women.

So what a relief to be able to tell you about a great low-budget film, from Momentum Pictures, and starring not one, but two great actresses, Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles. The Business of Strangers may have been written and directed by a man, Patrick Stettner, but it is still one of the most acutely observed films about women I have seen in a long time.

On her way from the airport to an important presentation, corporate high-flyer and fiftysomething Julie Styron (Channing) takes a call on her mobile and discovers that her company chief executive officer is flying in for an unexpected meeting with her. Expecting the worst, she sets up a pre-emptive meeting with a headhunter, Nick Harris (Frederick Weller), to line up her next position. Meanwhile, her presentation goes disastrously wrong when her assistant, Paula Murphy (Stiles), fails to arrive on time with the video and slides, and Julie fires the younger woman summarily. Back at her soulless hotel, Julie learns that rather than being fired, she is to be made president of the company. Softening over a drink or three, Julie runs into Paula at the bar, apologises for her earlier malice, and offers the assistant her job back.

Over several more drinks - these girls can certainly put the stuff away - the two women get to know each other and, gradually, Paula forces Julie to reflect on some of the choices and sacrifices that have been necessary in her private life in order for her to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Was it worth it? Equally, Julie learns a dark secret about Paula that seems to involve the hapless Nick Harris - and the relationship between Julie and Paula takes a very dark turn when the headhunter with the shit-eating grin becomes the unwitting victim of the misanthropy that these two women appear to share.

Stockard Channing is outstanding. Full marks to her for tolerating unmerciful close-ups that many of her vainer male peers would have baulked at. This film focuses on women working in the corporate environment. But it might just as easily be about Hollywood itself.

The Business of Strangers (15) is on release at selected cinemas