07/16/2013 10:40 am ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Women in Film: "The Heat" is On

Last week, something unusual happened at the movies. The much anticipated "Lone Ranger" tanked at the box office, joining "After Earth" and "White House Down" as the third testosterone-driven, mega-budget bomb of the summer. And yet, surprisingly, still soaring at cineplexes across the country is "The Heat," starring daring dames Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, which earned double its $43 million budget in just ten days.

This is a big surprise to the guys in suits in the movie biz. Since D.W. Griffith first shouted "Action!" a century ago, men's films have always dominated in Hollywood, and, "The Heat" notwithstanding, we still feel that formula today. According to a recent study, 90 percent of the 617 movies in theatres today were stories about men or groups of men.

But "The Heat" is telling us something that has been trying to rear its head for quite a while -- that women can deliver the box office goods as good as any guy -- and in any genre. By casting Bullock and McCarthy in what has typically been a classic guy's movie -- the crime-fighting, gun-toting "buddy flick" (like "48 Hours," "Lethal Weapon" and "Men in Black") -- director Paul Feig signalled that good movie making does not depend on preconceived notions of gender.

Historically, the sure-fire, big-screen hits have come from men-centric genres that by their very long-standing definition have been a men's only club; good old-fashioned shoot 'em ups with car chases and explosions or Westerns, starring ample packs of cowboys but not a cowgirl in sight; or war movies, with those loyal "bands of brothers;" and sci-fi sagas about intergalactic battles, in which even the non-human characters (whether they're made of fur or nuts-and-bolts) usually have male voices coming out from under all that make up.

And where does it always leave the women in those films? As either a damsel in distress or a dispensable victim who buys the farm in the first reel. Not good.

There's been a lot of ink as to why this is so -- the lack of female execs running studios who have the power to green light movies, and the preponderance of male studio executives who choose to green light movies that would have appealed to them in their youth. Plus, and very important, fewer women than men writing movie scripts from a female point of view.

But the fact is, when women have miraculously cut through all of the morass and crossed over to men's genres from time to time, they've been quite remarkable at it. Sigourney Weaver rode her "Aliens" success through four films over nearly 20 years; and Angelina Jolie brought a fresh brand of butt-kicking to "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." So, if given the chance, women can hold their own mightily in the action genre.

And the past two years have once again proven this out. When Jessica Chastain tackled her role in "Zero Dark Thirty" last year, she brought a new depth and dimension to a part that would customarily go to a guy, and she won across-the-boards praise from critics and movie goers alike. When Kathryn Bigelow took the director's reins of "The Hurt Locker," she demonstrated that women are just as capable as men of bringing the brutality, heroics and heartbreak of war to the big screen (and, btw, she was Oscar-rewarded for it). When Jennifer Lawrence stepped into the lead of "The Hunger Games" (based on a novel written by a woman), she easily filled the shoes of post-apocalyptic protagonists of the past -- like Schwarzenegger 's "Terminator" and Gibson's "Mad Max" - and handled all that deadly weaponry with just as much assurance and aplomb.

And when Judd Apatow invited women to write and star in his signature brand of usually male, gross-out comedy in "Bridesmaids," the movie became the first Apatow flick to earn itself Academy Award nominations (for best supporting actress and screenplay).

So I remain hopeful. It's been 22 long years since a pair of hell-raising chicks named Thelma and Louise knocked Hollywood on its ear, sending the message that something new was in the air. Maybe that something has finally begun to happen.

Meanwhile, to remind us all of the power (and profitability) of great cinema with great female leads, here are some blockbusters that made lasting impressions on viewers throughout the last few years. Take a look and see if your favorite is listed.

Women in Film: Where Are They?