I’ve been tracking women in Hollywood for three decades now and I remain shocked at what has not changed. In some ways it’s about market forces, but why do men ignore statistics that women make money? Geena Davis, Cate Blanchett, Laura Linney, Meryl Streep, and many more have stated the case.
But nothing seems to move the needle, even after the amazing year of the woman, 2013, when movies about and aimed at women grossed a record $2.5 billion worldwide–even as employment figures for women were still 6% of the top 250 highest grossers. For the best explication of what forces keep women in check in Hollywood, see the latest installment of the “Makers” series on PBS, “Women in Hollywood,” which debuts October 7.
Yes it’s true, as narrator Julia Roberts states at the start, that “Hollywood measures success with awards and dollars.”
Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton (producer of “Whale Rider” and “The Shipping News” and director of 2014 documentary “Code Black”) and producer Rory Kennedy (director of docs “Last Days in Vietnam,” “Ethel” and “Bobby Fisher Against the World”) manage to cover the history of women in Hollywood in films and television
in less than one hour. (There will be more material available online at the “Makers” website.) They chose to follow the money, Kennedy said Monday in a Q & A following a screening.
In early Hollywood, women were ubiquitous in all jobs, from writing and directing to owning studios, as long as there was little at stake.
But when budgets rose and guilds were formed, only men were members. Dorothy Arzner, the first to join the DGA and for a while Hollywood’s only working woman director, dressed like a man to feel comfortable in a boys’ club. The movies have long been less hospitable to women than television, which provides a more positive role model–and where the stakes are far lower.
Writer Linda Woolverton is moving on the show as she describes “every day going to war to fight for what I believed was the right thing, this new woman I wanted to see in the world” as she wrote Belle in the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” which went on to gross $425 million and was the first best picture nomination for an animated film. She proceeded to write “The Lion King,” “Alice in Wonderland” and its sequel and this year’s global hit “Maleficent,” with producer-star Angelina Jolie behind her. Whacking off those wings was a big deal, she said on the panel. Again, she fought to keep that in the script.
At the panel, both Woolverton and TV
writing room vet Marti Noxon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Mad Men,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) said things have gotten better, with more women writers. And “Women in Hollywood” suggests that television is better because more women are involved. If more women were allowed into the film process would movies get better? You bet. Kennedy says that the more women are in charge, the more they hire other women and add them to their stories. But while plenty of women have run studios since Sherry Lansing, why can’t Amy Pascal and Stacey Snider and Donna Langley and Elizabeth Gabler move the needle? For decades, just 30% of all characters in movies are women, who make up 52% of the world population. Hardly a niche.
The studios are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in tentpoles. Action and VFX remain a strictly male domain. Shirley MacLaine says that studio execs are more willing to put $250 million in a man’s hands than a woman’s. When I asked my most pressing question: why can’t Hollywood figure out Wonder Woman? Woolverton responded that getting rid of superhero movies was a must.
Also on the show: Lena Dunham explains that her mother raised her on Esther Williams movies, among other things. Lansing hated being an actress, so she went on to reading scripts and became an indie producer and the first female president of a major studio. When the New York Times reported her news, the headline called her a former model. “Thelma and Louise” star Geena Davis describes how few opportunities there are for women to feel empowered by the women characters they see. Jane Fonda saw the light that having some say was better than being a good girl with “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” She went on to produce such films as Oscar-winner “Coming Home,” and feminist comedy “Nine to Five,” “the first film to come out of a movement,” she says.
The women’s movement broke barriers, and so did the professional single women in “That Girl,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “Julia,” the precursors to advertising-free cable and “Sex and the City.” In the movies, Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow and up-and-comer Ava DuVernay are among the women directors taking us into the future, where indie funding and multiple release platforms make anything possible.
Check it out.