When Jennifer DeLia was doing post-production on her last feature, “Billy Bates,” she had a meeting in Toronto’s Lighbox movie theater. After the meeting, DeLia walked into an exhibit that explored the life of Mary Pickford, widely acknowledged as Hollywood’s first movie star. It was then that DeLia, who had only a passing knowledge of Pickford’s role in film history, decided that a film of her life needed to be made.
“I didn’t know that Pickford was the pioneer that she was and that she had the journey from childhood that she had,” DeLia says now. “I knew she was a silent screen legend and the first movie star. I didn’t realize that she had helped make Hollywood culture as a fierce businesswoman.”
The film, titled “The First” and based on Eileen Whitfield’s biography “Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood,” is currently in development. DeLia, her producer Julie Pacino and co-writer Josh Fagin are working closely with co-producer Dominick Fairbanks (great-grandson of Pickford’s second husband and business partner, Douglas Fairbanks) to look at primary sources from the couple’s relationship. “We’re looking at letters and family memorabilia that have never been donated to collections or archives,” DeLia says. “It’s been incredibly cool and informative for our research proccess. We’re looking at everything we can. The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] has been incredibly supportive.”
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The film will track Pickford’s life from childhood into her forties and focus on her journey from supporting her family as a vaudeville actress at the age of seven to her marriage to Fairbanks.
For the filmmakers, Pickford’s history in vaudeville made her a prime candidate for a transition to film. “At that point, acting in early films, ‘flickers,’ was unprestigious,” DeLia says. “Film actors weren’t real actors. The journey of going from the ‘unsophisticated’ world of vaudeville to working with D.W. Griffiths as he experimented with the language of cinema makes this a universal story. It’s more complicated than a simple profile of America’s Sweetheart. She was constantly ahead of the game.”
Remembering the women in early film history is a priority for DeLia and her collaborators. “It’s not what’s driving the film, but we’ll illuminate the importance of women in early film history. Mary was a female producer and occassionally a director. She also worked with Frances Marion, a very prominent screenwriter at the time.”
Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire”) is attached to the project as the actor Owen Moore, and Ryan Simpkins (“Revolutionary Road,” “Sherrybaby”) will play the young Pickford. But for the leading lady, DeLia has landed on Lily Rabe (“American Horror Story”).
“I had seen her in ‘Merchant of Venice’ in Shakespeare in the Park,” DeLia says. “I saw her three times and really took note of who she was. When I knew we were doing this, I couldn’t help but remember her, so I watched interviews with her and the films she has done. And so we met. She was so informed, and is so believable in both media, on stage and in front of the camera. When I saw her playing Rosalind in ‘As You Like It,’ it was uncanny how she reminded me of Pickford.”