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.