Michelle Yeoh battles her way through a multiverse, Angela Bassett leads a grieving nation at war, and Cate Blanchett deviously manipulates members of a world-class orchestra.
Wide-ranging stories led by female actors fill the list of movies vying for Academy Awards on Sunday, reflecting gains in an industry that has long relegated women to secondary roles in the shadow of male heroes.
"It's such an extraordinary year for women," "Tar" actress Blanchett said at last month's British Film Academy Awards (BAFTAs).
"And we know we are just the tip of the iceberg," she added. "Every year, there's idiosyncratic, remarkable performances that just break down the myth that women's experience is monolithic."
"Tar" is competing for the prestigious best picture prize with front-runner "Everything Everywhere All at Once," a kung fu adventure starring Yeoh as the protagonist tasked with saving the world.
"Women Talking," about Mennonite women grappling with sexual assaults in their community, also made the best picture field.
In the supporting actress race, Angela Bassett is in the running for playing Queen Ramonda in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," a Marvel superhero flick that put female warriors at the forefront.
Still, Hollywood remains far from a place of gender parity.
"Women are making progress in certain areas on screen," said UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt, co-author of an annual Hollywood diversity report. But, Hunt added, they "have a long way to go, particularly behind the scenes."
In 2017, public revelations of sexual misconduct by producer Harvey Weinstein, which supercharged the #MeToo movement and was chronicled in last fall's movie "She Said," prompted women to speak out about their lack of power in Hollywood and demand equality given that they make up roughly half of the overall US population. Data shows some improvement.
Women accounted for 47.2% of leading roles in the top theatrical and streaming films in 2021, UCLA researchers found. That was an increase from 32.9% in 2017.
But among directors - the most powerful role on a movie set - just 21.8% were women in 2021. It was 12.6% in 2017. Just three women have won the Oscar for best director in the awards' 94-year history, and none were nominated this year, overlooking Sarah Polley of "Women Talking" and Gina Prince-Blythewood of "The Woman King."
'DEFINITELY TAKING STEPS FORWARD'
The ranks of executives who greenlight films and set budgets also lean heavily male, according to UCLA data from 2020. Researchers found 82% of film studio chief executives were men, as were 80% of the senior management teams just below the CEO level.
"It's not equitable," "Black Panther" star and 2014 Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o said of the number of women running studios. "It's about fighting for more seats at the table, the leadership table, to ensure that that becomes the norm."
To promote gender parity, advocates created the ReFrame stamp, a certification that productions could use to show that they hired women in at least half of the key roles on screen and behind the camera.
In 2022, 29 of the top 100-grossing movies in the U.S. and Canada met that criteria.
"Tar" director Todd Field said he hoped Hollywood was moving beyond past attitudes about gender. A decade ago, he said he was told he could get a bigger budget for a film he was pitching if it starred a man.
"There's a great tradition of strong female characters and strong female leads in movie history, mainly in the 1950s," Field said. "Why that shifted at any point, I'm not sure of."
"The idea that we're sort of leaving this area behind and able to work with a much more broad view of humanity, I think is a healthy thing," he added.
More films centered on women are slated to reach cinemas in the coming months. They include "The Marvels," a superhero film with three female leads; an adaptation of coming-of-age novel "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," and a new take on the iconic Barbie doll from Oscar-nominated director Greta Gerwig.
"We are definitely taking steps forward and we have to keep that," said Yeoh, adding that women still need to press for opportunities. Older women, especially, must fight the idea that they are past their prime, she said.
"We need to rewrite all that nonsense," the 60-year-old said, "and I'm here to do it."