Most of us could do with knowing more screenwriters, male and female. It is a role that continues to get criminally little attention compared to directors, some of whom will happily claim the possessory “A film by…” credit even when that film has been entirely scripted by someone else. Nevertheless, female screenwriters in Hollywood, where 88% of screenplays produced last year were written by men, must contend not only with the usual entrenched sexism, but enduring fears and prejudices towards any script with identifiably “female” themes (should this be what they choose to write).
Despite this, many women have succeeded in grappling successfully with the Hollywood beast, since the earliest days of the industry. This article is not intended as a list of the “greatest” female screenwriters of all time – always a dubious exercise in an industry so rife with structural prejudice – but simply as a very short introduction to ten names more than worthy of attention.
Naturally, such a list requires leaving out many deserving writers, particularly Anita Loos (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and everyone from Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”) to Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”). Feel free to add any others below. I have not included writer / directors other than those who have written screenplays for other directors. And yes, racial diversity is lacking. While women such as Shonda Rimes (“Gray’s Anatomy”), Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), Felicia D. Henderson (“Soul Food”) and Aisha Muharrar (“Parks and Recreation”) have earned significant creative freedom working in television, the feature film industry, and studio system in particular, has a far weaker record. The only non-white woman ever nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, Suzanne de Passe, was not a screenwriter by trade.
As for who does best represent modern Hollywood, there were numerous contenders, with Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) chief among them. In the end, I opted for someone who is vocally engaged with feminist concerns, and therefore perhaps the most natural heir to the women who preceded her.
JUNE MATHIS (1889 – 1927)
Signature work: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
Her story: June Mathis may not be a well-known name, but she is one of the most influential characters in Hollywood history. Appointed head of Metro’s script department in 1920, she became the first ever female executive in the industry, and one of the most powerful overall. Her claims to fame include discovering Rudolph Valentino, who she insisted on casting as her heroic lead in “The Four Horsemen”, despite fears he was “too ethnic and too fat”, in D.W. Griffith’s charming indictment of the future international sex symbol. Aside from being a female pioneer, Mathis is also considered one of the greatest influences on the modern screenplay format – one of the first screenwriters to include stage directions and physical settings in her work, her insistence on unity of plot and theme drove forward the development of silent film as a narrative form and remains a hallmark of Hollywood storytelling to this day. Her relative obscurity can be attributed in part to her early death from a heart attack aged just 38, by which time she had already accumulated 113 film credits.
In her own words: If you are vibrating on the right plane, you will inevitably come in contact with others who can help you. It’s like tuning in on your radio. If you get the right wave-length, you have your station.
FRANCES MARION (1888 – 1973)
Signature work: Anna Christie (1930)
Her story: “Anna Christie”, the highest grossing feature of 1930, is famous as the film which revealed the voice of silent film star Greta Garbo for the first time. What is less known is that its writer Frances Marion was one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood at the time. Despite enjoying enormous creative freedom under a long-term contract at MGM, Marion was never fully enamoured with the Hollywood system – discussing “Pollyanna”, one of her many hit collaborations with superstar Mary Pickford, she describes how “we proceeded with the dull routine of making a picture we both thought nauseating. I hated writing it, Mary hated playing it”. In 1930 she became the first woman to win a screenwriting Oscar for “The Big House”, but by the mid-1940s she had decided to leave behind Hollywood altogether to concentrate on a career as a playwright.
In her own words: The newspapers sure have loused me up, calling me a sexpot! Where’d they ever get such a screwy idea?
JOAN HARRISON (1907 – 1994)
Signature work: Rebecca (1941)
Her story: Joan Harrison studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne before becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary, soon progressing to writing and eventually producing scripts for him. For a time she was the only woman producing feature films in Hollywood. Twice Oscar-nominated, including for Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, she is one of several women deeply involved in Hitchcock’s output and yet rarely celebrated (two other collaborators, Peggy Robertson and his wife Alma, were belatedly recognised in last year’s biopic “Hitchcock”). Unlike those two however, Harrison’s ascendency through Hitchcock’s ranks ultimately led her beyond his stable to a writing and producing career of her own.
In her own words: No production which does not satisfy the feminine point of view is a success.
RUTH GORDON (1896 – 1985)
Signature work: Adam’s Rib (1949)
Her story: Ruth Gordon is best known for her acting roles in later life, most famously “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Harold and Maude”, but her preceding career had a fascinating trajectory. An actor of moderate success in mostly supporting roles, in 1942, aged 46, she married 30 year old writer Garson Kanin and the pair embarked on a joint screenwriting career. Their greatest success was the classic Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy romantic comedy “Adam’s Rib” – the couple were close friends with Hepburn and Tracy, and able to fine tune the screenplay to their personalities. The collaboration resulted in a hit film and Gordon’s second Oscar nomination. Her total of three screenwriting nominations make her the all-time most nominated woman for original writing.
In her own words: If you believe, then you hang on. If you believe, it means you’ve got imagination, you don’t need stuff thrown out on a blueprint, and don’t face facts – what can stop you? If I don’t make it today, I’ll come in tomorrow.
BETTY COMDEN (1917 – 2006)
Signature work: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Her story: In 1930s New York, aspiring actors Betty Comden and Adolph Green were introduced, and began a legendary six-decade collaboration that has been called the longest-running creative partnership in Hollywood history. “It’s a kind of radar,” Comden explained. “We don’t divide the work up, taking different scenes. We sit in the same room always. I sit at the typewriter. Adolph paces more. A lot of people don’t believe this, but at the end of the day we usually don’t remember who thought up what”. Despite common misconception, the pairing was never romantic. Spanning Broadway and Hollywood (with seven Tony awards from twelve nominations being a sign of Comden’s success in the former arena), their biggest success came with “Singin’ in the Rain”, commonly hailed as the greatest film musical ever made.
In her own words: There is something about the creative process… which is that you can’t talk about it. You try to think of anecdotes about it, and you try to explain, but you’re never really saying what happened.
ELAINE MAY (born 1932)
Signature work: Tootsie (1981)
Her story: Like Gordon and Comden, Elaine May initially rose to prominence as one half of a duo, in this case with Mike Nichols. The pair developed an improvisational comedy act in 1950s New York which was considered groundbreaking and highly acclaimed, but in 1961 at the height of their fame, the pair decided to head in separate directions – Nichols as a director, May as a writer. May did subsequently direct films herself as well as working as a writer-for-hire – her work on “Tootsie” went uncredited, but as the sole woman involved in the creative process, there are many lines in the final film that one suspects bear her touch. She resumed her collaboration with Mike Nichols after a more than thirty year absence by writing the screenplay for his 1996 remake of “The Birdcage” – still the most financially successful film ever with a gay lead character.
In her own words: What is important in life and art? You know, when I was very young, I thought it didn’t matter what happened to me when I died so long as my work was immortal. As I age, I think, Well, perhaps if I had to trade dying right now and being immortal was just living on, I would choose living on.
NORA EPHRON (1941 – 2012)
Signature work: When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Her story: Nora Ephron was born into the business – her parents Henry and Phoebe were a screenwriting duo, while two of her sisters became screenwriters. Despite this, Ephron herself went into journalism, a career at which she thrived until the day she helped her then-husband Carl Bernstein re-write the screenplay adaptation of his book All the President’s Men. Her version of the script was never used, but it led to her first screenwriting work in television, and Hollywood came calling soon after. Her screenplay to “When Harry Met Sally” is considered a classic of the genre, while scripts she directed herself range from “Sleepless in Seattle” to her final film “Julie and Julia”. Despite the occasional misfire (The “Bewitched” remake), she remained until her death last year one of pitifully few women in Hollywood regularly entrusted with large budgets to tell original tales.
In her own words: Most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments.
CALLIE KHOURI (born 1957)
Signature work: Thelma and Louise (1990)
Her story: Callie Khouri’s current hit television series “Nashville” has been acclaimed for its multi-layered female leads, but such praise can be no surprise to the woman best known as the writer of “Thelma and Louise”. Her first produced screenplay, it made Khouri the first woman to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for a solo-authored script. She has frequently spoken of her desire to create flawed female characters, explaining of Hayden Panettiere’s character in “Nashville” that “I’m putting out a character right now who needs a serious talking to about the way she deals with people and the way she so happily exploits herself. But I’m also showing that she’s more than that”. “Thelma and Louise” may not have turned out to be the game-changer for women’s representation in Hollywood that many hoped it might be, but it remains an iconic and enduring classic, both on feminist and purely cinematic terms.
In her own words: Let them get their deal worked out about the way women are treated in films before they start hassling me about the way men are treated. There’s a whole genre of films based on the degradation of women, and until there’s a sub genre of women doing the same thing to men in numbers too numerous to court, then just shut the fuck up.
RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA (1927 – 2013)
Signature work: Howard’s End (1992)
Her story: The only woman to win two Oscars for screenwriting (for “Howard’s End” and “A Room with a View”), and the only person to win both the Booker Prize and an Academy Award, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was one third of the legendary production outfit Merchant Ivory. Along with producer Ismael Merchant and director James Ivory, their output in the 1980s and 1990s was so prolific and distinctive that the term “Merchant Ivory” became shorthand for a genre. An acclaimed novelist, Jhabvala did not even consider filmmaking until approached by Merchant and Ivory well into her thirties. Despite her huge subsequent success in the field, with twenty three screenplay credits, she retained a self-deprecating disdain for the discipline, listing “writing film scripts” among her recreations in her Who’s Who entry.
In her own words: I told them I’d never done anything like this before. But they said ‘It doesn’t matter. We haven’t either’.
DIABLO CODY (born 1978)
Signature work: Juno (2007)
Her story: Diablo Cody matched Callie Khouri’s achievement in winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for her debut produced screenplay. Cody has faced plenty of criticism, but she is one of very few women in Hollywood succeeding in seeing her original screenplays produced on a regular basis. This is no mean feat – as Cody describes, “the attitude toward women in this industry is nauseating. There are all sorts of porcine executives who are uncomfortable with a woman doing anything subversive. They want the movie about the beautiful girl who trips and falls, the adorable klutz”. This only makes it more impressive that Cody’s output includes screenplays such as “Young Adult”, a film featuring a female anti-hero in a mould almost always male.
In her own words: Only male writers can afford to be coy and self-deprecating.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.