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The Bridesmaids effect: Funny women flourish in female-written comedies

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LOS ANGELES -- Call it The Bridesmaids Effect: Ever since the R-rated 2011 comedy became a runaway hit, taking in more than US$280 million worldwide and earning Oscar nods for actress Melissa McCarthy and writers Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo, a rash of female-written comedies is enticing viewers with provocative new characters who are more like women we know.

The latest is Pitch Perfect, written by 30 Rock and New Girl scribe Kay Cannon and starring a cast of comediennes including Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp and Brittany Snow. The musical comedy, which counts Elizabeth Banks among its producers, focuses on the competitive world of college a cappella. Full of music and laughs, the story centres on the Bellas, an all-female group of singing misfits.

"Bridesmaids I think opened up a door to allow women to show a bunch of different women in different ways of being funny. It was kind of like an arrival moment," Cannon said. "Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, they made it cool to be funny and to be embarrassed and to look a thousand different ways and show a bunch of different areas of their lives."

And they aren't the only ones. Diablo Cody opened doors and eyes with 2007's Juno, which introduced a female protagonist who was sharp, endearing and facing real-life circumstances. The appeal was in her intelligence, not her sexuality, and moviegoers could relate. The film earned Cody an Academy Award for best screenplay and was also nominated for best picture, best director (Jason Reitman) and best actress (Ellen Page), plus took in more than $140 million at the box office.

Since then, women have been finding a voice in comedy more than ever before. This summer saw actresses Zoe Kazan and Rashida Jones pen interesting comedic characters to play in their own starring vehicles: Ruby Sparks and Celeste and Jesse Forever, respectively. Lauren Miller and Katie Anne Naylon wrote about female friendship and entrepreneurial efforts (as phone-sex operators) in For a Good Time, Call.... Playwright and director Leslye Headland also made her screenwriting debut this summer with Bachelorette, an adaptation of her play that explores a group of New York girlfriends dealing with life questions when the first among them marries.

Women are also making comedic strides on TV. Elizabeth Meriwether created New Girl, which earned five Emmy nods. Lena Dunham is the multi-hyphenate talent behind HBO's Girls, which also earned a round of Emmy nods, including producing, writing, directing and acting honours for Dunham. Mindy Kaling of The Office wrote her way into a starring role on her new show, The Mindy Project. Whitney Cummings helped create 2 Broke Girls. Then there's Chelsea Handler, who has written and produced Chelsea Lately since 2007.

"Really what you see in the last 10 years is ... this groundswell of female writers and sometimes female directors being accepted by the comedy community," said Headland. "And then you get to 2011, where Bridesmaids did something that's actually never been done, which is an R-rated, female-centric comedy that makes money."

Both Headland and Cannon, whose scripts were written before Bridesmaids was released, say the success of that film made it easier for them to get their movies made. Cannon, who is also an actor, initially turned to writing because she wasn't finding or getting the kind of roles she sought.

"I didn't necessarily always feel that what I was reading was how women actually talked, or it was an archetype I didn't fit," she said. "I wasn't going to be the prettiest ingenue or the character actress."

Fey's 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon, is a new kind of character, Cannon said: A real woman who's really funny as she faces real-life challenges.

Headland says the new breed of funny female writers arose out of frustration, and feminism.

"These writers ... are adept at really expressing those characters and writing those stories because I'm assuming they're struggling with the same thing I am, which is: What's going to happen to us? And what do we want to say to the women before us and also the women coming up after us?" she said. "There are new problems with being a woman that no one's talked about. There are new dilemmas that are coming up that just haven't really quite been articulated."

Actresses such as Kendrick, Snow, Wilson and others say these new female-created characters look and sound more like actual women they know.

"There's something to women writing for themselves, women writing for women, that just feels a lot more honest and therefore a lot funnier," Kendrick said.

Still, despite this new wave of comedic opportunities, women are still drastically underrepresented as writers, directors and producers in both TV and film.

"There's still only maybe three female writers or two female writers to 10 guys in any kind of writer's room," Cannon said.

But at least women's voices are now in the mix.

"You're not going to solve the problem, but you can start the conversation," Headland said. "I think part of your job, especially as a woman, is to let yourself be a little ugly and to show uglier parts of yourself. That's your job as a female artist."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2012 D3

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