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With Amy Schumer and other female stars, comedy is queen in Hollywood

Comedian Amy Schumer attends the 74th annual Peabody

Comedian Amy Schumer attends the 74th annual Peabody Awards in New York City on May 31, 2015. Credit: AP / Charles Sykes

Ten years ago, women were secondary characters in most of Hollywood's biggest hits. The highest-grossing film of 2005 was the latest male-centric episode of "Star Wars." The year's most successful female-led movie was the spy comedy "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," in which Angelina Jolie shared screen time with Brad Pitt. Posters for the blockbuster hit "King Kong" didn't even show its female star, Naomi Watts -- just the big gorilla.

That era isn't entirely over, but women seem more visible than ever in the movies. Though they aren't yet leading big-budget action franchises or Marvel superhero movies ("Wonder Woman" may change that in 2017), women have become a driving force in a genre that has been largely off-limits to them: comedy.

Not the romantic comedy or the family comedy, but the raunchy comedy. Thanks to stars like Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer, whose "Trainwreck" comes out July 17, there's never been a better time for foul-mouthed, sloppy-drunk, nonmonogamous women in the movies. It's an unexpected change in Hollywood, where "feminist" films have often meant serious dramas about victimization like "The Accused" or "North Country." By taking on rowdy comedic roles, the kind once dominated by men, women are breaking down long-established social and sexual taboos.

"The uptick in the power of women has been very clear," says Judith Phagan, an associate professor at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue who teaches a course in comedy. "Amy Poehler and the 'Saturday Night Live' crew, they've given women a very clear, loud and equal voice. What I see among my students, especially the women, is that they feel very empowered by it."

Like Poehler, most of Hollywood's current comediennes began in television, a medium with a history of female-centric shows from "I Love Lucy" to Lena Dunham's "Girls." McCarthy was a star of CBS' "Mike and Molly" before her breakout role in "Bridesmaids." That movie's co-writer, Wiig, was an acclaimed cast member of "SNL." Schumer, a stand-up veteran, launched her Comedy Central series, "Inside Amy Schumer," in 2013 after popping up on shows like NBC's "Last Comic Standing."

These actresses might have remained on the small screen if not for the success of 2011's "Bridesmaids," starring Wiig as an insecure single woman who nearly wrecks her best friend's wedding. Arguably the first gross-out comedy with a female ensemble cast, "Bridesmaids" managed to steal the mojo of 2009's "The Hangover" -- the highest-earning R-rated comedy ever -- but without the entrenched chauvinism.

"I'm patting myself on the back, but 'Bridesmaids' was a seminal moment," says its director, Paul Feig, who is currently shooting the all-female "Ghostbusters." "But when I was making it, there was so much pressure on it in the industry. Everyone was holding their breath and holding the green light on any project that was female-driven to see how we did."

Even Wiig, who co-wrote the script with Annie Mumolo, had doubts about how far "Bridesmaids" could push the envelope. The film's most infamous scene, in which several women suffer visibly and audibly from food poisoning, was added by Feig and producer Judd Apatow. "We wrote the script, and we didn't really have anything in that tone, and it seemed to be such a big statement," Wiig later told The New York Times.

"Bridesmaids" became a $288 million hit and opened Hollywood's eyes to the box-office potential of female-led comedies. "I don't know how many times the industry has to learn the lesson that if you put real, funny women characters up there, it'll do well," says Jessie Nelson, director of the upcoming comedy-drama "Love the Coopers," starring Diane Keaton. "Whenever women get up to the plate," she says, "they can create a commercial movie."

One early example of the "Bridesmaids" effect was 2013's "Identity Thief," initially conceived as a male buddy comedy about a scam artist and his victim. According to screenwriter Craig Mazin, the project languished until its star, Jason Bateman, saw "Bridesmaids" and suggested McCarthy play the scammer. The result was an unusual male-female comedy -- but not a romance -- that opened at No. 1 and established McCarthy as a bankable star in her own right. (Her comedy "Spy" opened in June with $30 million and trounced the dude-centric comedy "Entourage.")

In Mazin's opinion, the mixed reviews for "Identity Thief" reflected a lingering double standard on gender. "A lot of reviews said, 'This movie's no good because the main character, Melissa McCarthy, is just mean,' " he says. "We would never say that about a man. There's a whole tradition of men we love because they're funny-mean. But a woman being funny-mean? Oh, no, that's not allowed."

Stephanie Zacharek, chief film critic for the Village Voice, sensed something similar in the largely negative response to this year's action-comedy "Hot Pursuit," starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. "It troubles me when you have people saying, 'We want more comedies from women, but we only want it to be smart comedy,' " says Zacharek. "I happen to love crass toilet humor. I think it's only fair that women should be allowed to participate on that playing field."

Despite their on-screen success, women remain largely underrepresented behind the camera. Rockville Centre-raised Schumer wrote "Trainwreck," but the director, Apatow (who grew up in Syosset), is male. In fact, aside from "Hot Pursuit," nearly all the female-driven comedies of the past few years have been directed by men.

"There's a dearth of female writer-directors, and it's a symptom of something wrong," says filmmaker Paul Weitz, who wrote his latest film, "Grandma," for Lily Tomlin. "I think comedies are a good wedge for female perspectives because you can fight back against cultural prejudices. And hopefully there'll be more writing-directing women making them."


Amy Schumer hits the big screen with 'Trainwreck'

"I'm just a modern chick who does what she wants," Amy Schumer says in the trailer for her new movie, "Trainwreck."

Schumer plays a hard-partying but successful magazine writer -- named Amy -- whose love-life is strictly casual until she falls for a sports doctor played by Bill Hader.
The eclectic supporting cast includes John Cena, LeBron James and Tilda Swinton.
Rarely has a romantic comedy been so hotly anticipated. "Trainwreck," which arrives in theaters Friday, is Schumer's first starring role in a feature film, and she's also the screenwriter. Behind the camera is Judd Apatow, who only rarely steps into a director's chair; that he's doing so for Schumer says something about her high profile. (She was recently tapped as the opening act for Madonna.)

Schumer's show for Comedy Central, "Inside Amy Schumer," has become a cultural talking point thanks to her relentless skewering of sexual mores and gender stereotypes. For her breakout film, however, she has chosen a rom-com, one of the most conservative of genres. That tension could make "Trainwreck" a little more interesting than, say, last year's "About Last Night."

Box-office predictions for "Trainwreck" have been in the $120 million range -- a hit by just about any measure.

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