For Women, Maybe Hol­ly­wood Was Bet­ter Back Then

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Ju­lia M. Klein


By J. E. Smyth


By Nell Scov­ell

Dey Street Books, 336 pages, $27.99

It’s even worse than you sus­pected. But it was once bet­ter than you thought.

So might one con­clude from two new books on women in Hol­ly­wood, past and present: J.E. Smyth’s some­what plod­ding film his­tory, “No­body’s Girl Fri­day,” and tele­vi­sion writer Nell Scov­ell’s en­ter­tain­ing, episodic, oc­ca­sion­ally shock­ing me­moir, “Just the Funny Parts.”

Smyth, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of War­wick and the au­thor or ed­i­tor of sev­eral pre­vi­ous books on film, has an in­ter­est­ing story to tell about the un­der­re­ported con­tri­bu­tions of women dur­ing the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem’s hey­day. Es­pe­cially im­por­tant were fe­male screen­writ­ers (at their zenith, about a quar­ter of the to­tal) and film edi­tors (hardly any of whom man­aged to make the leap to di­rect­ing). Other women were agents, pub­li­cists, cos­tume de­sign­ers, story edi­tors and pro­duc­ers.

“No­body’s Girl Fri­day” tar­gets the pe­riod from 1925 to 1960, when Hol­ly­wood was run mostly by Jewish men known for their out­sized per­son­al­i­ties, chau­vin­ism and (in some cases) cast­ing-couch pig­gish­ness. The de­ter­minedly op­ti­mistic Smyth doesn’t in­ves­ti­gate any of those sor­did episodes. She notes in­stead that some of the stu­dio moguls — above all, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pic­tures and Dar­ryl F. Zanuck at Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tury Fox — wel­comed talented women. True, these women still had to strug­gle for fair pay, credit and pro­mo­tions; their gifts of­ten came at a bar­gain price, no doubt part of the at­trac­tion.

But Smyth’s view is that the much maligned stu­dio era, rather than be­ing (mainly) a time of en­forced servi­tude and gen­der in­equities, was some­thing of a Golden Age for women’s op­por­tu­ni­ties — es­pe­cially in com­par­i­son with the con­ser­va­tive decades that fol­lowed, when fe­male em­ploy­ment in the in­dus­try

de­clined. One rea­son for the sub­se­quent re­treat, she ar­gues, is that a sys­tem based on col­lab­o­ra­tion “was elim­i­nated and was re­placed in the 1960s and 1970s… by male-dom­i­nated, di­rec­tor based au­teurism.”

Smyth’s in­quiry par­al­lels other his­to­ri­ans’ re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the sup­pos­edly qui­es­cent pe­riod be­tween first and sec­ond wave fem­i­nism — be­tween the tri­umph of women’s suf­frage in 1920 and the 1963 pub­li­ca­tion of Betty Friedan’s “The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique.” In “Fem­i­nism Un­fin­ished” (2014), for ex­am­ple, au­thors Dorothy Sue Cob­ble, Linda Gor­don and Astrid Henry made the case that fem­i­nism did not dis­ap­pear, but in­stead took the form of women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the la­bor and civil rights move­ments and other pro­gres­sive causes.

Smyth makes a sim­i­lar point. Women such as the film icon Bette Davis and the screen­writer Mary C. McCall Jr. were in­flu­en­tial and po­lit­i­cally ac­tive, cham­pi­oning the Equal Rights Amend- ment and other lib­eral is­sues while dodg­ing the anti-Com­mu­nist black­list­ing of the McCarthy era. (The all-male Hol­ly­wood Ten, per­son­i­fied by the screen­writer Dal­ton Trumbo, got much of the at­ten­tion, but plenty of women were both black listed and gray-listed, Smyth writes.)

Smyth de­votes a chap­ter each to Davis, who be­came the first woman pres­i­dent of the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences, and McCall, the widely re­spected three-term pres­i­dent of what was then known as the Screen Writ­ers Guild.

In fact, Smyth does best when she moves in for a close-up (a re­quest, she notes, that edi­tors of­ten made of their direc­tors). Davis ad­vo­cated for re­al­ism in her roles at the ex­pense of glam­our, and her box of­fice clout al­lowed her to serve as a de facto pro­ducer of many of her films. McCall, all but un­known today, emerges as a pas­sion­ate la­bor or­ga­nizer and a po­lit­i­cal mod­er­ate dur­ing the an­tiCom­mu­nist frenzy. Her idio­syn­cratic use of the suf­fix “Jr.,” gen­er­ally re­served for men, sug­gests her fem­i­nist in­cli­na­tions.

By con­trast, Smyth is at best am­biva­lent about Katharine Hep­burn, of­ten re­garded as a fem­i­nist icon for her life choices, ca­sual sar­to­rial style and feisty film per­son­al­ity. Smyth deals only in pass­ing with images of women in Hol­ly­wood films. But she em­pha­sizes that one of Hep­burn’s most cel­e­brated movies, “The Philadel­phia Story,” is a mod­ern re­work­ing of Shake­speare’s “The Tam­ing of the Shrew,” about the sham­ing of an up­pity woman. In Smyth’s view, Hep­burn was of­ten an­tifem­i­nist, out for her­self and un­in­ter­ested in friend­ship with fe­male peers.

To the detri­ment of “No­body’s Girl Fri­day,” Smyth is not a par­tic­u­larly skilled sto­ry­teller. Too of­ten, in lieu of color and anec­dote, she prof­fers long lists of now ob­scure women who pop­u­lated the stu­dios’ pro­duc­tion ranks. Nor is her sub­ti­tle — “The Women Who Ran Hol­ly­wood” — ex­actly on point. Most of the women Smyth high­lights, in­clud­ing cos­tume de­signer Edith Head and di­rec­tor Ida Lupino, as well as Ida “Kay” Kover­man, the in­flu­en­tial ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary at Metro-Gold­wyn-Mayer, were de­pen­dent on even more pow­er­ful men. When, in the 1950s, the cul­ture — in Hol­ly­wood and else­where — turned in­creas­ingly hos­tile to­ward women, many de­camped to the­ater, tele­vi­sion or other ca­reers.

Not that tele­vi­sion, as Nell Scov­ell de­scribed, has ex­actly been a bas­tion of gen­der eq­uity. In “Just the Funny Parts,” the Har­vard-ed­u­cated Scov­ell, a one­time sportswriter and mag­a­zine satirist, dis­plays the wounds ac­quired dur­ing her at­tempts to break the prover­bial glass ceil­ing (re­ally made of “Ter­mi­na­tor metal,” she writes, “that shat­ters then re­con­sti­tutes and re­forms”).

Nev­er­the­less, she makes clear, she’s achieved suc­cess, if not quite celebrity. “My plan was sly: stay out of the spotlight but near the ac­tion,” she writes.

In the 950's, Hol­ly­wood turned in­creas­ingly hos­tile to­ward women

She tells of how she dined with War­ren Beatty, be­friended Penn Gil­lette and Tom Smoth­ers, and wrote for Candice Bergen, Mark Har­mon and David Let­ter­man. Af­ter two quick mar­riages and di­vorces, she mar­ried an ar­chi­tect, and it stuck. Scov­ell’s early jobs in­clude writ­ing for Spy mag­a­zine and Van­ity Fair. With the help of a Har­vard con­tact, she man­aged to find a TV agent. Af­ter two un­pro­duced scripts for “It’s Garry Shan­dling’s Show,” Scov­ell landed gigs writ­ing for a va­ri­ety of se­ries, in­clud­ing “The Simp­sons,” “Ne­whart,” and “Mur­phy Brown.” At the height of her TV ca­reer, she be­came the cre­ator and showrun­ner for “Sab­rina, the Teenage Witch” (1996–2003), a comic book-based se­ries about a teenager learn­ing to con­trol her magic pow­ers. She also di­rected movies for premium ca­ble, and wrote jokes for Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg and for Pres­i­dent Obama.

In 2009, feel­ing her own power, Scov­ell pub­lished a piece in Van­ity Fair at­tack­ing the lack of di­ver­sity and sex­ism in writ­ers’ rooms at the late-night talk shows. It de­tailed her ex­pe­ri­ences at “Late Night With David Let­ter­man,” a dream job whose “cul­ture of palace intrigue” was un­pleas­ant enough that she left un­der her own steam. The ar­ti­cle helped pro­voke a con­ver­sa­tion about the prob­lem, but has not, as of yet, pro­voked mas­sive change.

Through a cir­cuitous route, it also led to her col­lab­o­ra­tion with Face­book’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Sheryl Sand­berg, on the best-sell­ing “Lean In” (2013), a work­ing woman’s guide to con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nism — and to this me­moir, for which Sand­berg supplied the foreword.

“Just the Funny Parts” is some­thing of a hodge­podge: It jux­ta­poses au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal episodes and gos­sip, tips on sit­com writ­ing and more gen­eral ad­vice on be­ing a woman in a still male-dom­i­nated pro­fes­sion.

There is also one truly jaw-drop­ping anec­dote, rep­re­sent­ing Scov­ell’s own #MeToo mo­ment, which came early in her ca­reer. The story she tells im­pli­cates Jim Stafford, the for­mer hus­band of Bob­bie (“Ode to Bil­lie Joe”) Gen­try and the head writer of the re­booted late-1980s ver­sion of “The Smoth­ers Broth­ers Com­edy Hour.” Scov­ell had been work­ing on the show but was un­sure whether she’d be in­vited back for the next set of episodes. It was at that junc­ture that Stafford, on the pre­text of of­fer­ing a tour of his house dur­ing a pool party, took her to his bed­room.

The two had never been close; in fact, he made her un­com­fort­able. Still, she writes, “[w]hen Stafford started kiss­ing me, I worried that if I re­jected him, he’d re­tal­i­ate by not hir­ing me.” She agreed to per­form the sex­ual act he re­quested. And, de­spite that or be­cause of that, or for some other rea­son en­tirely, she wasn’t hired back. “Vul­ner­a­ble and in shock, I’d made a de­ci­sion out of fear and con­fu­sion,” she writes — and then buried the in­ci­dent, till now.

The sub­ti­tle of Scov­ell’s me­moir — “And a Few Hard Truths About Sneak­ing Into the Hol­ly­wood Boys’ Club” — turns out to be more ac­cu­rate than the ti­tle it qual­i­fies. And it makes the book worth read­ing. The truth is, there is noth­ing funny about the level of dis­crim­i­na­tion and misog­yny that Scov­ell un­veils. It turns out that it helps not only to lean in, but also to be smart, tough and re­silient. As an in­tro­duc­tory epi­graph, Scov­ell of­fers this motto: “That which doesn’t kill me… al­lows me to re­group and re­tal­i­ate.” With this me­moir, she has done it.


TRAIL­BLAZER: Ida Lupino fea­tures promi­nently as one of J.E. Smyth’s ‘women who ran Hol­ly­wood.’

HEAD OF THE CLASS: Born Edith Claire Posener, Edith Head won eight Academy Awards for cos­tume de­sign.

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