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Daily Reads: The Story of Hollywood’s Forgotten Feminist Crusaders, Bette Davis and the Feminine Grotesque, and More

Daily Reads: The Story of Hollywood's Forgotten Feminist Crusaders, Bette Davis and the Feminine Grotesque, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Original Six: The Story of Hollywood’s Forgotten Feminist Crusaders.
Though it may seem like the fight against gender discrimination in Hollywood has only just begun, there have been crusaders in the past who have desperately tried to change the tide. For Private Standard, Rachel Syme profiles The Original Six, a group of six female directors who tried to challenge the Hollywood machine only for the industry to try to erase them.

Nell Cox lives on the Upper West Side in one of those kooky apartments you see only in Nora Ephron movies — quaint with a certain country flair (her living room furniture includes a daybed topped with a vintage quilt), filled with precarious stacks of books and papers and knicknacks and the odd glass trophy commemorating a long creative life, the kind of perfectly charming mess that indicates an artist is in residence. When I arrive, on a freezing afternoon in early February, her radiator is hissing like a threatened snake. Cox, who is in her “seventies and happy with my age,” doesn’t seem to mind; we have a mission to complete. I am at her apartment to talk about her experiences as part of “The Original Six,” a group of women directors who spoke out against gender discrimination in Hollywood in 1979, and who formed the Women’s Steering Committee, a branch of the Director’s Guild of America that advocates for female employment on film and television sets at the directing level. Cox and I are speaking on camera — her daughter, Rebecca, who is also a filmmaker and lives in Brooklyn, has never before heard her mother sit down and speak about her activism, and she wants to capture the interview for the family archives. “She never talks about this,” Rebecca says to me, handing me a glass of water and adjusting her camcorder (her father, who also works in the industry, handles a second camera nearby; no home movie made by a triad of filmmakers could ever just have one angle). “When we heard she was going to speak about this time in her life again, I knew I had to be here.” And so here we all are: me, Cox, who wears bookish glasses and speaks in a lilting Kentucky drawl, and two family documentarians, gathered to talk about how it was that Cox never got to direct a feature film, her one, big, glimmering dream. She came close — she came close so many times — but now she considers the dream to have been more of a mirage. Cox directed several episodes of TV (“M.A.S.H,” “The Waltons,” “Ghostwriter,” “L.A. Law”) and even a made-for-PBS “women’s western” called “Liza’s Pioneer Diary” in 1976, but no longform treatment she wrote for a big studio film ever made it past the development stage. At one point during our talk, Cox slides a sheet of paper across the table to me, filled with ideas for films that she had over the years. “Here are 10 full scripts I wrote,” she says, “and there are probably 25 more treatments. God, this is depressing. I have pages and pages and pages of these things.” Many of the ideas are solid: a buddy road-trip comedy called “Bad Girls,” a biopic of the revolutionary Emma Goldman, an adaptation of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” a Masterpiece Theater biography about the famous British actress and outspoken abolitionist Fanny Kemble. But, as Cox admits, they are all women’s films. They tell women’s stories. And in the 1970s and ’80s, when she lived and worked in Hollywood, those stories were not on most studios’ wish lists (they still aren’t, but more on that to come). “With the Emma Goldman film, Harold Ramis co-wrote it and wanted to produce it,” she says, sighing, looking a little misty and far-off. “He was at the height of his career! And we got Bette Midler, who would have been great. But…it was a period piece. And it would have been a big, expensive film. And I was attached to direct. Harold, to his credit, never said he should direct it, which would have gotten the thing made. No, he was wonderful that way. But we worked on that for years, and nothing came of it.”Cox’s vision, when she moved to Los Angeles from New York in the mid-’70s, was to make an entire series of genre films, all from a woman’s point of view: a gender-bending sci-fi, a war story with a female hero at the center. She only got as far as making the Western. “I thought, they’re making all the genre movies where the men are the heroes and I want to flip this concept on its ear,” she says. “Looking back, this seems naïve. What was I thinking? But the fact that this seems naïve perhaps says something important about our industry. At any rate, this vision was rejected.” At that point, Cox’s voice trails off and she decides that she needs to take a little break, that she is growing weary of talking about herself. But before I pause the tape, I ask why she thinks more people don’t come and find her, ask her to tell her true Hollywood war stories. “I just think our experience was so long ago, and it was kind of sad,” she says. “So younger women may think, ‘Let’s not talk to them. Let’s just move forward.'”

2. The Oscars: A Role of a Lifetime for Rehearsal Actors.
The 2016 Academy Awards aired last night, and the ceremony fulfilled its promise of featuring glamorous celebrities pat themselves on the back for their tireless efforts to make motion pictures. But awards shows aren’t just for A-list actors; they’re also for rehearsal actors, those who stand in for the nominees while producers plan the event. The L.A. Times’ Amy Kaufman explores the work of rehearsal actors during the Oscar season.

Growing up in South Central, Joanne Tomita often dreamed of being a star. As a young girl, she was once cast on “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” and a limousine came to whisk her away from the home she shared with six siblings to the glitzy CBS studio lot. The experience made her feel special, and she started imagining what it would be like to be famous. Four decades later, her fantasy has become reality — well, in a way. This week, Tomita will stand onstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and accept an Academy Award. Except the actress has never appeared in an Oscar-nominated film. For more than 20 years, she’s worked as a professional rehearsal actor, standing in for awards show presenters and nominees as the program’s producers plot out the telecast. “There’s no other situation where you could be this close to A-list actors. I feel so lucky to have this job,” said Tomita, who on Wednesday portrayed Kate Winslet, Jennifer Lawrence, a sound mixer on “The Martian” and a “Star Wars” android. Tomita is part of a community of a few dozen working actors who make their living as stand-ins, partaking in rehearsals for everything from the Emmys to the Grammy’s to “American Idol.” On Tuesday, she and four of her colleagues gathered at Hollywood & Highland — where Oscar preparations are well underway for Sunday’s big event — to share war stories and behind-the-scenes tidbits from their years in the business. Veteran stage managers and awards show producers like Debbie Williams, Gary Natoli and Louis J. Horvitz know which stand-ins they like, and they’ll give a list of names to a show’s script department for hiring purposes. Typically, awards show gigs last three days, except for the Oscars, which rehearse for five days. (And come Oscar night, the stand-ins watch just like the rest of us plebes: At home, on the couch, with a big bowl o’ popcorn).

3. The Oscars Before the Oscars: A History of the Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor.
The Oscars have frequently been criticized for awarding movies that many people don’t actually see, charged with favoriting movies that bait awards than actual crowd-pleasers. Well, ten years before the first Oscars, a magazine gave out awards for motion pictures as voted on by fans. Slate’s Aisha Harris examines the Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor, the Oscars before the Oscars.

From the contest’s inception in May 1921, the “Photoplay” Medal of Honor oozed lofty ambition: “PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE has determined to permanently establish an award of merit,” said one of the magazine’s earliest full-page announcements, “a figurative winning post comparable to the dignified and greatly coveted prizes of war and art.” The Medal of Honor would be crafted of solid gold by the illustrious Tiffany and Co., and presented only to the producer (not, to be clear, the director or the distributor) “whose vision, faith, and organization made the Best Photoplay a possibility.” At the bottom of the page, loyal readers were provided with a handy short list of suggested Best Pictures of 1920 — which included such frothy titles as “Suds” and “Remodeling a Husband” — and a ballot with which to cast their vote. And thus was born the precursor to the Academy Awards, a distinction that, “like Abraham Lincoln’s ideal government,” was “by, of, and for the people.” Such florid language was par for the course in the magazine, which was first published in 1911 and in its earliest days focused on story adaptations of popular movies. Starting in 1915, James R. Quirk became the editor and oversaw the magazine in its most influential period through 1932. The magazine featured full-page portraits of glamorous movie stars, such as Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Gilbert, interspersed with industry gossip; brief, to-the-point moving picture reviews; puffy interviews; and the occasional reader contest. As overblown and laughably self-serious as “Photoplay’s” award pronouncement may read now, its intensity and vigor is an oddly charming glimpse into movie fandom and criticism from when cinema was still in its relative infancy. Like the magazine overall, the Medal of Honor presented to readers a fascinating combination of populism and slight, subtle paternalism by ostensibly entrusting them with the power to choose the best of the best while nudging them to make the “right” choices. A typical Medal of Honor ad in the lead-up to the results would include something along the lines of this advice: “Choose your picture because of merits of theme, direction, action, continuity, setting, and photography, for these are the qualities which, in combined excellence, make great photoplays.” The very first award, for the year 1920, was awarded to William Randolph Hearst, the producer of “Humoresque.” The viewing public ultimately knew better than the critics, and even the studios themselves, what made cinema “art.” “Photoplay” made that clear in what appears to be a general press release sent out to newspapers across the country during that initial contest. (“Experts don’t always hold the same belief as the average motion picture theater goer,” it read. “This is attested by the great number of pictures adjudged ‘knockouts’ in the projection rooms, that result in flivvers in the theater, and vice versa.”) And with this coronation by the public, “Photoplay” envisioned its honor as contributing to the improvement of the moving picture as an art form, fostering a healthy competition among producers and filmmakers to create their best work. (The magazine claimed that the Medal of Honor made some producers excited to “overcome the purely mercenary side of the art of picture production.”) The Academy Awards, as they were conceived by MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer, were a decidedly more exclusive affair from the beginning, with an emphasis on self-preservation. As Jim Piazza and Gail Kinn recount in their “complete unofficial” history of the Academy Awards, the very first ceremony, held in 1929, was organized as a “public relations coup” to add some esteem to the industry and distract “concerned mothers and clergymen” who were beginning to call for on-screen censorship. The following year, at the second ceremony, scandal was afoot, as all of the winners that night were either on the Board of Judges or had close ties to it; Mary Pickford’s surprise win for her “stiff” role in “Coquette” in particular led many to believe that the whole affair was rigged. It’s safe to say that “artistry” wasn’t at the forefront of the Academy Awards in those early days.

4. How SyFy’s “The Expanse” Cast Its Multiracial Future.
Set in a colonized Solar System in the near-future, the SyFy original series “The Expanse” follows a detective, a ship captain, and a United Nations execute as they uncover a vast conspiracy that threatens to destabilize peace across the system. The Verge’s Tasha Robinson examines how the series presents its egalitarian future by having a multiracial cast.

There’s something’s visibly missing in the first season of Syfy’s space-opera series “The Expanse.” When a catastrophe strands a handful of working-class ice miners in a treacherous situation, most of them immediately look to their black female engineer for guidance, rather than to the ranking white male officer. When those miners are taken aboard an immense Martian warship, the captain is a no-nonsense Asian woman. One of the series’ primary protagonists is a septuagenarian Indian woman in a crucial executive role in the United Nations. There’s no glass ceiling in “The Expanse,” either for women or for characters of color. There’s also no reason to assume, sight unseen, that any given referenced characters, regardless of their position in the world, will be white men. The show, which wrapped its first season earlier this month (and which can be streamed in its entirety on SyFy’s website,) takes place in our universe, around 200 years from now, in a future in which humanity has spread throughout the solar system. It’s also a future where racism and sexism have become obsolete. Without fanfare, the creators behind the show have created one of the most egalitarian futures on television. “It was one of the things we talked about early on,” says executive producer Naren Shankar, one of three showrunners on “The Expanse.” He credits authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who write together under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey) with the show’s broad ethnic mix, because it’s such a significant part of their books. “They always said, ‘The people who make it out into space, it’s not just going to be Neil Armstrong, clean-cut, classically white Americans. It’s going to be Indian, Chinese, Russian [people], a mix of everybody, every ethnicity. And that’s just going to melt and mingle.’ We really wanted to reflect that, and retain that in the show, because it does say something about humanity, and that movement out into space.” Shankar has plenty of experience with science-fiction shows and diversity agendas. After getting a PhD in electrical engineering, he became a science consultant on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and a story editor on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He served as a writer on both shows, and as a producer on “Farscape” and “Almost Human.” But “The Expanse” has a take on multiculturalism that he hadn’t seen before. “I started my career on ‘Star Trek,’ and for its time, it was a diverse cast,” he says. “But it was very different. The knock against ‘Star Trek,’ rightly or wrongly, was that the cast felt very hand-picked, trying to have every color of the rainbow. It was the best of intentions, but it didn’t really deal with humanity. It was a cross-section of perfect humans on ships meeting aliens who had problems. ‘Star Trek’ did many, many good things, but this is pretty different. We’re trying to really represent human beings, and to extrapolate, to the extent it’s possible with this kind of drama, where humanity might go, how ethnicities might mix, how people might look.”

5. Elephants in the Auditorium: “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery,” or Slow Cinema Revisited.
Filipino independent filmmaker Lav Diaz has a new film entitled “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery,” which, among many things, is eight hours long. For BFI, Jonathan Romney examines the film, the concept of slow cinema, and what it means to watch an eight-hour movie.

Here’s the question it’s hard to get around when discussing Lav Diaz’s latest film “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery.” What does it actually mean to watch an eight-hour movie? In the context of any film festival, it means blocking out a stretch of time in the schedule, making a decision to watch this film rather than three or possibly four others, and reprogramming your receptivity – which in festivals, is attuned to a rhythm of high-intensity omnivorousness – to a different pitch and very different demands. It may be something to do with general fatigue at the end of the Berlinale (Diaz’s film played on the final Thursday), or it may be a side-effect of the dressing on the salad I grabbed in the hour-long halfway intermission; the fact is that, dozing off somewhere in the film’s fifth hour, I actually started to hallucinate, or at least to wildly misread the images on screen. And I can’t believe that the already hypnotic nature of the no doubt aptly named “Lullaby” doesn’t have something to do with that. The Filipino director himself commented at his Berlin press conference that it was misleading to dwell on the lengths of his films. “We’re labeled ‘the slow cinema.’ But it’s not slow cinema, it’s cinema. I don’t know why…every time we discourse on cinema we always focus on the length. It’s cinema, it’s just like poetry, just like music, just like painting where it’s free, whether it’s a small canvas or it’s a big canvas, it’s the same…So cinema shouldn’t be imposed on.” But not to talk about the length of Diaz’s films would be like pretending that the size of Anselm Kiefer’s paintings was of no consequence: when an artist chooses a canvas, whether it’s to be covered in paint or flickering shadows, its expanse is part of the means of expression. Besides, Diaz chooses to make very long films not as exceptions, but as his standard practice: duration, and his way of engaging the viewer’s floating attention over long stretches of often confusingly complex narrative, are central components of his artistic arsenal.

6. The Feminine Grotesque: On Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Over at Vague Visages, Angelica Jade Bastién pens a column entitled The Feminine Grotesque that focuses on female madness, how it’s framed in cinema, and its development from 1940’s women’s pictures to the present day. For her latest entry, Bastién examines Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Have you ever wondered what Medusa’s voice sounds like? Was it soft like a kitten’s purr? Did it buzz like pink champagne? Did it crackle like fresh fire? I have been thinking about Medusa a lot. Perhaps because she is the foremost story of female anger and madness told. You probably know the shape of her myth if not the particulars. The head of snakes. The ability to turn men into stone just by one look. Ovid complicates her further by introducing rape into her backstory before being turned into the monster we know her as. But I’m not interested in Perseus cutting her head, destroying her vocal cords, scrubbing out what humanity she could have had. I’m more interested in what Medusa has to say for herself and if there is a way to rewrite her story and those of her spiritual descendants. Cinema is full of Medusa figures. But it’s when I watch Bette Davis that I feel Medusa regains her voice. And that voice is never more frightening than in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) which pairs her with her longtime rival, Joan Crawford. Crawford and Davis were dramatically different actresses and women. Joan knew how to play the game and played it well. She was perhaps one of the most intelligent studio system actresses in terms of understanding the desires of the audience and the expectations that come with being a star of her magnitude. Which makes the fact that her legacy has been warped by “Mommie Dearest” such a tragedy. While Bette, in her active pursuit of artistry, would gladly lock horns with directors, producers and even Jack Warner himself (if she felt she could make the films she starred in better). Edmund Goulding, who directed her in “Dark Victory” (1939), warned Joseph L. Mankiewicz before he directed “All About Eve” (1950), “That woman will destroy you. She will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And she, not you, will direct. Mark my words.” Although both actresses shared an immense drive, passion for film and incredible work ethic, I doubt they’d admit they had anything in common. Despite these differences, they found themselves in the same space in 1962. As the 1960s rolled around, and the studio system was all but over, actresses that came up its ranks like Bette and Joan struggled to find footing. They were still dynamic, enchanting and powerhouse performers. But when has Hollywood ever been interested in the power of older women? Many of the grand dames of the studio system found a home in the horror films that traded on their legacies. In the minds of some viewers (and the system that was evolving around them), Bette and Joan became monsters, but they never played their madwomen as such. It’s easy to look at the late-era work of the mothers of this genre as camp punchlines. As the wounded and wounding sisters in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” it is also easy to pity them, and at times it feels the film does. Both actresses have different techniques and strengths and weaknesses and legacies. But my love for them is rooted in how they articulated the humanity in complicated women that society often doesn’t know what to do with.

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