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Women in Film

Continued from Part One.

The 1950s: A Brain of Solid Popcorn

The 1950s were supposedly the era of the Hollywood melodrama and "women's films." Just about anything starring Bette Davis would fit into this category. All About Eve (1950) also featured Anne Baxter as a conniving young actress, Celeste Holm and Marilyn Monroe. Davis, as the fading (read: menopausal) star of the stage Margo Channing, delivered her bitchy, smart-aleck advice: "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

Dorothy Dandridge

More than any other decade, I like to see the 1950s in terms of the female roles in front of the camera. There were some choice parts for A-list screen goddesses like Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, and yet there was just one major role for a black woman: 1954 was the first time an African-American woman received an Oscar nomination for best actress - Dorothy Dandridge, who played the hot-headed siren Carmen Jones. Decades later, to redress the historic significance of a black woman in Hollywood in those days, Martha Coolidge directed Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1990) for HBO. Starring Halle Berry as Dandridge, the film depicts 1950's Hollywood racism and sexism run amok.

Many of the best roles for women in the 50s came from playwright Ruth Gordon. Gordon was known as a novelist, a playwright, an award-winning screenwriter and one hell of an actor - she won two acting Golden Globes in the 1960s for Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968), and was nominated again in 1972 for what is easily her most well-known role in Harold and Maude.

In Gordon's comic play Over Twenty One, successful writer Polly Wharton lives with her husband who is having difficulty in getting through his Army studies. Polly helps him pass his tests and, in spite of all his bad luck and trouble, she sticks with him. In one scene, Joe says to Polly, "The truth's no good to me, Polly! History's unbelievable! And it's up to us to make it seem real." Polly replies, "Honest to God, Joe, you must have a brain of solid popcorn."

Women could relate to the way a gal thinks differently from a man, and nobody knew that better than Ruth Gordon. She formed a writing team with her husband Garson Kanin, 16 years her junior, and the two of them enjoyed a solid working relationship with director George Cukor, starting with 1947's A Double Life.

Still, nothing was quite as impressive as the movies Gordon wrote in the 50s: Adam's Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), The Marrying Kind (1952), and The Actress (1953). In Adam's Rib, perhaps their best work, off-screen lovers Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy act out a battle of the sexes, but more importantly, the snappy dialogue between the couple depict them shoulder to shoulder, equally accomplished, equally competent.

A Woman's World (1954), directed by Jean Negulesco, was yet another comedy showcasing a pack of clever women's interplay with men. Lauren Bacall, Arlene Dahl, and June Allyson star as three wives whose husbands compete for an executive job. All the candidates are so equally matched that the employer decides to use their wives as a tie-breaker: the woman who outclasses the others wins their man a job.

Many have claimed that pictures in the 1950s reaffirmed male dominance and female subservience, that women's roles were confined to sex role stereotypes of pretty, amusing or child-like. One glance at the film roles in the era, though, and this doesn't completely hold up. We have Bette Davis as a smart aleck sociopath in a whole slew of melodramas, Katharine Hepburn playing an intellectual equal, and Bacall - the list goes on.

The 60s and the Avant Garde: Films That Cost "What Hollywood Spends on Lipstick"

The era of free love was a lot more liberating to the art world than to Hollywood. Women's progress took a big old backtrack in the Hollywood of the 1960s (although it wasthe decade where Cleopatra's (1963) Elizabeth Taylor became the first actress to receive a million dollars), so let's focus on an avant-garde maverick. New York City's conceptual arts scene flaunted a wealth of young talent. Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol started playing with the medium of film during the 1960s. With nothing but an anonymous array of buttocks in No. 4 (or Bottoms [1966], Ono depersonalized sexuality and upended the convention of narrative context in 1966.

Behind this creative flurry was a remarkable Russian New Yorker named Maya Deren. The undisputed mother of the avant-garde film movement, Deren used to say that her films cost what Hollywood spends on lipstick. Art buffs say Deren had more impact on the avant-garde than anyone; an influence seen in works by later filmmakers like Willard Maas, Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger. In addition to making films, she wrote about them, organized touring screenings of work and founded the Creative Film Foundation to promote experimental film practice.

Maya Deren died suddenly in 1961, long before the dawning of Aquarius, but she left major creative waves in her wake. Deren's most famous film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), is celebrated as one of the great works of experimental cinema and was awarded the "Grand Prix International for 16mm Film, Experimental Class" at the Cannes Film Festival. That year's award marked both the first time it was bestowed to a woman and to an American. She was also the first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim for creative work in motion pictures (1947).

In films like At Land and Study in Choreography for Camera, Deren's experiments in film editing included jump cuts and double exposure; she experimented with the concept of linear time in much of her work. Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) also illustrates Deren's technical experiments with negative film.

Between 1951 and 1952, Deren shot over 20,000 feet of film in Haiti. Although she was attempting to make a film about Vodoun rituals, her footage remained unedited; Deren felt it was not possible to alter the forms of the rituals. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, a 54-minute sound film edited after her death (and which was also accompanied by a book), is considered one of the more accurate depictions of this religion. Her last film, The Very Eye of Night (1959), also focused on this misunderstood world. Deren's other film projects - planned but never finished - include a film with dance, children's games and Balinese trance; Witch's Cradle (1944, with Marcel Duchamp and Pajorita Matta); and Medusa (1949). Maya Deren: Experimental Films (1943-58), a DVD released last year, contains examples of this unfinished work.

In 1985, the American Film Institute established the Maya Deren Award for artistic contributions to experimental film work. No doubt about it, Deren was a mother of invention. In the understatement of the year, Utne Reader in 2003 named her one of "40 Past Masters Who Still Matter."

1970s: Housewives in Bondage

During the era of the "battle of the sexes," the 1970s, Americans saw the debate over equality reflected in its films. That decade spawned the blockbuster, starting with the runaway hit Jaws (1977). Director Steven Spielberg has said the work by editor Verna Fields (Paper Moon [1973], American Graffitti [1973]) was the major reason for the movie's huge success. And yet few women were "allowed" to produce or direct blockbusters. They were thought of as untrustworthy with the management of colossal budgets. As usual, women had to create their own scenes. The Women's Directing Workshop at the American Film Institute was founded in this restrictive social climate and benefited from the involvement of such luminous actresses as Anne Bancroft, Lee Grant and Lynne Wittman.

A vital independent scene broadened in the 1970s. Joan Micklin Silver wrote and directed Hester Street in 1975, a black-and-white period piece about immigrants which failed to secure distribution but, in a humble triumph, earned more than five million dollars at the box office and an Oscar Nomination (for actress Carol Kane). Silver is now most known for the delightful romance Crossing Delancey. One male indie filmmaker who contributed to "women's pictures" (read: "emotionally sophisticated") was John Cassavetes, known for his infamous insistence on unpeeling the emotional core of things. Cassavetes's wife Gena Rowlands played Mabel, A Woman Under the Influence (1974), in perhaps the single most excruciating film about emotional anguish. Rowlands brilliantly plays a young wife with no creative or emotional life outside of her relationships with her husband and son, a "housewife in bondage," who completely freaks out. To this day, Rowlands's performance is still one of the most talked about ever.

Shut out of blockbusters, female directors and producers flourished when it came to documentaries. Mai Zetterling was one of the directors on Visions of Eight (1973), a documentary about the 1972 Olympics, edited by Dede Allen. Barbara Kopple made the Oscar-winning Harlan County U.S.A in 1979 - none of her later work was as daring or raw as this story of coal miners and their union.

Women's achievements in the documentary influenced the formidable careers of quite a few, including the Oscar-winning documentary producer Sheila Nevins. Nevins says her first exposure to documentaries included Kopple's film as well as docs by the Maysles brothers. In the late 1990s, as executive VP of Programming for HBO, Nevins guided several stories by and about women, including The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000) and Southern Comfort (2001), by veteran filmmaker Kate Davis.

In the 1970s, women also made features about real-life dilemmas in friendship. The Waiting Room (1973) was shot by Nancy Schreiber and directed by Claudia Weill; Girlfriends (1979), directed by talented Aussie filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (whose more recent work is all we have to enjoy on DVD), addressed the relationship between two friends who choose different paths - career and homemaker. Tamara Asseyev and Alexandra Rose co-produced Norma Rae (1979), about a working class hero played by Sally Field. (Asseyev had earlier worked on drive-in pictures like Big Wednesday [1978]).

The conventional Hollywood job for women at the time was, at best, screenwriting and editing. The prevailing myth was that in editing there was equity. But a few women had no patience for conventional pink-collar gigs and set their sights much higher. Julia Phillips, who is unfortunately more famous for her tell-all book You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, mastered the producer's game of making the Hollywood blockbuster and became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Picture when she produced The Sting in 1979. Phillips also produced Taxi Driver (1976) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Other women producers who enjoyed at least a modicum of success included Elaine May, an early hyphenate (comedian-writer-producer-director) whose The Heartbreak Kid enjoyed some success in 1972, but May then lost whatever power she may have had with the colossal bomb Ishtar.

1980s: The Incredible Shrinking Woman

In the 1980s, women did hold positions of power in Hollywood, but there was a backlash going on, constricting both the job market and any sense of camaraderie. The numbers of women in the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild at the time are scant, and the women who did make it up the ladder of success often failed to hold out their hands for other women to grab onto.

Documentarians continued their work into the 80s and a few broke new ground. Penelope Spheeris, a newcomer with roots in comedy, started her career producing short subjects for Albert Brooks. With her first feature, she looked to the outsiders she related to, the punk rockers in The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). Spheeris next did the punk drama and 80s time capsule Suburbia (1983) and then returned to comedy with the first Wayne's World movie in 1992, which, needless to say, did fairly well at the box office.

Another woman with roots in comedy, Lily Tomlin did find work in the 80s, beginning with her role as a hen-pecked secretary in the hit comedy 9 to 5 (1980). She followed this with The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), written by Tomlin's frequent collaborator Jane Wagner, a social satire about a woman's station in too many aspects of American culture. Critically, the movie was a flop, but with respect to women and the backlash, it can actually be seen as an allegory. Tomlin took on more comical roles in the 1990s, like the paranoid, drug-dealing hippie-mom in Flirting with Disaster (1996).

Teen comedy was Hollywood's big cash cow in the 1980s. In a surprising career move, Martha Coolidge, a former theater director, made her niche here. Teen comedy is not something one would have predicted for Coolidge based on the seriousness of her first feature film, Not a Pretty Picture (1975), the story of a date rape. But Coolidge adapted to the demand for funny movies and made a name for herself with the underrated Valley Girl (1983). She then directed three more teen flicks: National Lampoon's Joy of Sex (1984 and best forgotten now), Real Genius (1985, a good little quirky comedy), and Plain Clothes (1988). In 1991, Coolidge won Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards for the period piece Rambling Rose, and a year later made the TNT movie Crazy in Love with a fiercely independent trio of actresses: Holly Hunter, Gena Rowlands and Frances McDormand. A longtime associate of the Director's Guild, Coolidge became the group's first woman president in 2002.

Marleen Gorris, a Dutch lesbian writer and filmmaker, is like an inversion of Martha Coolidge. This director's filmography shows a militant commitment to feminist themes. Gorris is best known for her film Antonia's Line (1995), a quirky comical story about a few generations of a family of independent women; the film won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Unlike Coolidge, however, comedy was never her niche. Gorris's first feature was the feminist thriller A Question of Silence (1983), the story of three women who murder a man. The film's ambiguity leaves open the possibility that they assassinate him for political reasons. Two years later, she confronted similar themes about the damaging effects of patriarchy and sexual threats to women. In 1997, Gorris's fine adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway (1997), starring Vanessa Redgrave, also received critical acclaim.

Continue to Part Three and our recommendations...

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