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Films like ‘Hunger Games’ showing actresses can drive franchises

Michael Ordona
Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.”

The latest entry in a billion-dollar film franchise relies on (gasp!) acting. Good thing it’s got the right woman for the job.

Without the action set pieces of the previous films, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I” depends on lead Jennifer Lawrence’s ability to convey Katniss Everdeen’s transformation from shell-shocked pawn to revolutionary heroine. The actress delivers, solidifying her status as the series’ main draw.

“Hunger Games” isn’t the only franchise in which Lawrence is key; she also kicks butt until she turns blue as Mystique in the “X-Men” movies and is becoming a seemingly perennial Oscar contender with one already on her mantel.

And she’s 24.

Lawrence is special, but expectations may be changing for actresses in Hollywood.

Natalie Dormer, who co-stars in “Mockingjay” as film director Cressida, says, “Opportunities are definitely opening up. I think cinema has (learned from) the great strides taken in television in the last decade, not categorizing women as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ where a woman had to be an angel, a mother figure, or a femme fatale, the baddie, the psychopath.”

Dormer, whom viewers will recognize from “Game of Thrones” as Margaery Tyrell, cites among these compelling, complex roles “Edie Falco in ‘Nurse Jackie’ or Robin Wright in ‘House of Cards’ or the women in ‘Game of Thrones,’ so on and so forth.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence’s version of Mystique has benefited from a dramatic expansion of the role — what was an easily identified villain in the original trilogy has become a layered, conflicted character with a real journey.

There’s no shortage of women in action roles these days, including Gal Gadot as the new Wonder Woman, Chloe Grace Moretz in the “Kick-Ass” movies and Michelle Rodriguez of “Fast and Furious.” Franchise princess Zoe Saldana has “Star Trek,” “Avatar” and, of course, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” And Marvel’s scheduled “Captain Marvel” will concern the former Ms. Marvel version of the character, Carol Danvers.

But that’s not exactly the point.

“It’s not about ‘girl power’ and all that,” Dormer says. “It’s about the story and the protagonist. The gender becomes, hopefully, irrelevant. Having watched ‘Interstellar,’ the roles played by Jessica Chastain or Anne Hathaway 15, even five years ago could easily have been male roles. That’s, I think, what we’re aiming for — where we’re not waving a flag, going, ‘Yeah, girl power!’ but there’s equality and it’s about the story.”

Dormer, a fan of “Aliens” franchise standard-bearer and multiple Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver, cites Angelina Jolie’s assumption of the lead in “Salt” after Tom Cruise pulled out:

“That’s the ultimate. Why can’t they be interchangeable? Why can’t this protagonist be female?”

Steven Soderbergh seemed to address that question with “Haywire.” The serial experimenter commissioned a script that hit most of the branches of the spy-movie cliche tree, but cast an electric woman in the lead — MMA champ Gina Carano, a more convincing kicker of behind than most male action-movie stars. The result is transformative and fun.

“Haywire,” though, made only $33 million. So audiences don’t want to see women headlining such movies, right?

Scarlett Johansson has been stinging legions of fans as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but when Marvel announced its long-range slate, there was no solo Widow movie on it. Perhaps Johansson can’t carry an action movie herself … except that her “Lucy” is knocking on the door of $450 million worldwide.

“The numbers achieved by Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Catching Fire’ last year spoke for themselves,” Dormer says, “that it should be the biggest-grossing movie in the U.S. last year.”

But Lawrence and Jolie are in rarefied air as women expected to carry franchises and also contend for Oscars. The only other one in that envelope right now is probably Shailene Woodley.

Woodley’s first franchise entry, “Divergent,” racked up $288 million worldwide. Meanwhile, her $12 million romantic drama, “The Fault in Our Stars,” busted loose with $303 million, making it the biggest bang-for-the-buck hit of the year. And she has already garnered major awards and nominations.

This is no small evolution in an industry in which women are not only more easily pigeonholed but also routinely paid far less than men.

A comparison of the most recent Forbes lists of top-paid actors and actresses finds the average of the Top 10 actresses’ earnings at $18.2 million. Their male counterparts average $41.9 million. No. 1 on the actress list, Jolie, would be No. 9 on the actor list — and she barely edges the bottom two, Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg.

Of course, big-money franchises still tend to be driven by the Robert Downey Jr.s of the world. But this year’s third-highest grosser is Jolie’s “Maleficent” with $757 million, and Saldana was actually a bigger name at the time of the release than male lead Chris Pratt in the second-highest, “Guardians” ($765 million).

The top moneymaker, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” ($1.09 billion) starred Wahlberg, but the kids went to that movie to see giant robots. Despite ticket-price inflation and the addition of Wahlberg — surely a more proven box-office name than previous “Transformers” star Shia LaBeouf — “Extinction” actually grossed less than the previous entry.

Lawrence, meanwhile, is a shared lead in this year’s No. 4 movie, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” ($746 million), and last year’s “Hunger Games” installment grossed $865 million. “Mockingjay” will almost certainly blast her past Johansson and Jolie as the year’s top-grossing actress.

And make no mistake, Lawrence carries this billion-dollar franchise.

With “Mockingjay Part I,” “Hunger Games” continues to be more intelligent and serious of purpose than the other young-adult lit-spawned series it’s unfairly lumped in with. That this installment is not action-packed means it falls squarely on the shoulders of its young lead.

“Katniss Everdeen is a reluctant hero in ‘Part I,’” Dormer says. “There are conflicting things happening in her mind. It’s right out of Joseph Campbell, ‘the hero’s journey.’

“It can be ‘the heroine’s journey,’ too.“