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Women's roles grow in 2nd installment
Touch of romance spices up adventure
PETER HOWELL - MOVIE CRITIC, N.Y.

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The debate over women's roles in Tolkien's tales is set to begin anew with the Dec. 18 release of The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, the second part of the trilogy. The story of the quest to destroy an accursed ring is about to become bloodier, but also much more complicated in the romance department.

Arwen gets a rival for her affections for Aragorn. The other woman is Éowyn, the scrappy niece of Théoden, king of Rohan, the Human domain threatened by evil lord Sauron in The Two Towers.

Éowyn falls hard for Aragorn, but she's equally determined to enjoin the fight to save Rohan. Debate has long raged over her motivation: Is it love she seeks, or just a strong ally in war?

"There's a lot more female energy going on in this movie," Tyler says with approval. Éowyn is played by Australia's Miranda Otto, 34, who had to sit out the hoopla of The Fellowship Of The Ring. As she arrives in the hotel suite for an interview, following Tyler, Otto says she's happy to finally get some screen time for her character.

She's especially happy it's another female character. But she's careful not to go overboard in suggesting the movie a woman's picture. "My character, particularly in the third film, has some really great stuff to do for a woman," says Otto. "I don't think it's going to be like Beaches or something. It's not a chick flick like that, but I certainly think there will be a lot of interest for women watching it. I really enjoyed watching Liv in the first film. I like, as a woman, seeing women on screen."

Otto plays with her strawberry-blonde hair as she talks, absent-mindedly wrapping long strands of it around her neck. She chooses her words carefully, because people who haven't read all three volumes of The Lord Of The Rings probably don't want to hear just yet what happens in the final episode, The Return Of The King, which is scheduled for a Christmas 2003 release. But as far as The Two Towersgoes, there's no secret about who Éowyn is most interested in. "There's someone whom I fall in love with: Viggo Mortensen's character Aragorn. Whether that goes anywhere is a question. I don't want to give it all away, but I certainly fall in love with his character."

Two women chasing after Aragorn sounds like trouble, but there's been more fighting about Arwen and Éowyn than there ever has been between them. Tolkien scholars have argued for decades about the meaning of these two prominent female characters, as well as the role of Galadriel, the Elf queen played by Cate Blanchett. Some claim Tolkien was a closet misogynist; others defend him as a proto-feminist.

Still others, like New Zealand author Juliet Marillier, view Tolkien as a product of his male-dominated times. He wrote The Lord Of The Rings in the 1930s and 1940s, writing from the perspective of a middle-aged British university professor, nostalgic for the quiet English patriarchy of old. "Arwen's role in the books is little more than trophy bride — there's no fast riding with sword at the ready," says Marillier, who penned the fantasy series known as The Sevenwaters Trilogy. "Éowyn is an archetype, not a real woman, and remote, queenly Galadriel never comes to life in the way Gandalf does.

"Unfortunately, this approach has myriad imitators whose gender stereotypes are evidently accepted without question, since their books sell. Tolkien was very much a man of his time and society, but there's no excuse for restricting women characters in that way now."
But Tyler and Otto aren't troubled by Tolkien's intentions, whatever they were. And any rivalry between the two women in the film didn't continue backstage. Otto describes how she first met Tyler at the remote New Zealand set of Rings:
"I saw Liv Tyler from a distance and she's so beautiful with her long hair, just so tall and gorgeous. And I thought, `Oh, she's really famous,' and she just saw me, without having been introduced, and came over and said, `Oh, God, another woman! How fantastic! We can hang out. It will be great to have another girl here!'" To hear Tyler speak, any romantic contest between her and Otto over Mortensen wouldn't even get started. He's simply not her type. "I'm not attracted to him," Tyler says bluntly. "I mean, he's cute and he's a great actor, but I get paid to kiss him and I don't have to like it. I mean, if you ask me why I love my fiancé so much, we could be here for 3,000 hours and still not hit on exactly what the reason is, 'cause there isn't really one."

Otto is more demure about Mortensen's hunk appeal, but she's good at hiding her feelings. Her biggest movie prior to Rings was the Robert Zemeckis horror hit What Lies Beneath, in which she played Michelle Pfeiffer's mysterious neighbour.
"Yeah, I'm the freaky neighbour," Otto confirms. "A lot of my friends didn't recognize me in that film. They didn't even know I was in it. Afterwards they said, `Miranda was in that?' But I like that very much. I like the disguise of it. I like all the different colours of hair and the wigs and the different costumes. I like how the costumes change you into someone else."

Despite the fact there are so few women in The Lord Of The Rings, Otto and Tyler share the view that the book and the film have been unfairly described as male-oriented, with its emphasis on violence over romance. Otto admits she didn't read Rings "because I thought it was a boys' book — and I read a lot of books. But I was wrong, because when I read the book, it's not a boys' book at all. It would be great to put it out to women that it would be a good film to see, that they would enjoy it. I think that having more women on screen in the second film is only as asset." Also," she adds, "there are nice boys to watch in the film. Kind of boys for every generation, really."

Tyler says she knows men who have rebelled against the violence of Rings. "I think it depends on the person. I have a lot of male friends who are very straight who felt like they didn't want to watch all the fighting. It was too much for them; they got bored of that. Other people, all they wanted to do is watch the battle scenes."

Or take part in the battle scenes, if you're Liv Tyler and Miranda Otto. Both women get to mix it up with the lads in Rings: Arwen leads the evil Dark Riders on a merry chase; Éowyn draws her sword. Otto had to take weapons training to learn how to handle her blade properly, and she loved every minute of it — especially when she took a combat skills class with a large group of women.
"The sort of energy coming out of these women was absolutely frightening," she says, smiling. "I think any guy who would have walked in there would have been terrified. I think women have a lot of physical aggression in them and don't get much of a chance to let it out."