Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema

Maya Montañez Smukler,
Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019
ISBN 9780813587479
US$46.80 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Rutgers University Press)

In October 2019, it was announced in the trade press that Elaine May was, at 86 years old, making her first film in more than three decades, Crackpot, starring Dakota Johnson. May, the former partner of Mike Nichols, belonged to the first generation of Hollywood women film directors, influenced by 1970s feminism. Elaine May is one of the subjects in Maya Montañez Smukler’s book, Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema (2019), based on her dissertation at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The book has just won the Richard Wall Book Award of the Theatre Library Association. Last January, Maya curated a film series at UCLA Film & Television Archive, based on her book. Previously, she was my student, worked on several Archive projects as a grad student, including the “L.A. Rebellion” project, and became head of the Archive’s Research and Study Centre. I mention the latter in the spirit of truth in advertising.

While American fiction filmmaking in the silent era featured literally dozens of women as writers, directors, and producers, the consolidation of the industry in 1920s Hollywood into a monopolistic system of production, distribution, and exhibition transformed filmmaking into a bastion of male privilege. While a small cadre of women survived as scriptwriters into the 1930s and 40’s, only two women directors are known to have had modest careers between 1930 and 1970: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. With the rise of feminism, women began pushing for more responsibility behind the camera, and Smukler’s book analyses for the first time the success or lack thereof of the sixteen women who directed their first features in this period. It is a fascinating tale of small victories and major frustrations, involving gender issues that have yet to be resolved even now, exemplified by Elaine May’s banishment for 32 years after the mega-flop, Ishtar (1987), a film which has enjoyed a steadily rehabilitation in the last decade.

Before discussing the first attempts of women to reform Hollywood in the 1970s, Smukler offers a brief prologue that pays homage to independent women filmmakers who worked out of New York in the 1960s, making fiction features, including Shirley Clarke and Juleen Compton. Clarke’s The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963) and Portrait of Jason (1967) were art houses successes, before she moved to Los Angeles, taught at UCLA in the late 1970s, and made an unsuccessful run at Hollywood. Compton’s films, Stranded (1964) and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966) were produced independently and then promptly forgotten after very limited runs. They were recently rediscovered by art cinema audiences, after having been preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive and will hopefully be available on DVD in the near future.

In Chapter 1, Smukler sets the stage by noting that in 1970 the country’s two film schools most closely tied to Hollywood, UCLA and the University of Southern California (USC), matriculated only fifty women but 850 men. Clearly, this stepping stone to Hollywood – mythologized by the “movie brat generation” of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – was for men only, so women had to organize. Smukler therefore discusses various political attempts to influence Hollywood. In March 1969, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) conducted hearings in Los Angeles, revealing gender and racial discrimination in the film industry’s hiring practices, but enforcement proved impossible in the face of indifference and intransience. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was also brought into play, but the equally guilty studios and craft unions blamed each other, so nothing changed; meanwhile African-American directors demanded they were first in line for change. Finally, the Writer’s Guild Women’s Committee, founded in 1972, began aggregating employment information to prove gender bias, but their repeated meetings with studio executives also ran aground. The studios argued that the marketplace and the industry’s self-regulation would lead to change, not government intervention.

In Chapter 2, Smukler differentiates between studio, art house and exploitation films as production cultures where a limited number of the women found initial success. Elaine May is represented as the sole woman working in a mainstream studio environment, when she directed A New Leaf (1971). Directors Barbara Loden (Wanda, 1971), Karen Arthur (Legacy, 1974), Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, 1975), and Penny Allen (Property, 1979) all directed independent features which succeeded on the art house circuit. Stefanie Rothman was a Roger Corman protégé, directing It’s a Bikini World in 1967, before producing the box office exploitation smash, The Student Nurses (1970). Also working in the (s)exploitation field were Beverly Sebastian (The Love Clinic, 1968) and Barbara Peeters (Just the Two of Us, 1970). Not surprisingly, these female exploitation directors had to temper their feminist themes with nods to male fantasies. The Student Nurses, for example, featured strong and independent women who nevertheless had to expose their breasts like clockwork throughout the narrative.

Some, like Rothman, Silver, and Sebastian were helped by their producer husbands, but Smukler demonstrates that other male mentors, like Roger Corman, “rarely… created the stepping-stones for career progression that for their male colleagues were typical…” (p. 45). Other husband-wife partnerships included Joan Rivers/Edgar Rosenberg (Rabbit Test, 1978), Anne Bancroft/Mel Brooks (Fatso, 1980), and Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin (Moment by Moment, 1978), all of whom directed their first and only films for mainstream distributors.

Smukler notes at the beginning of chapter 3:”While Hollywood seemed occasionally willing to appropriate feminism to boost its revenues and reputation, its unwillingness to hire women – both in front of and behind the camera – illustrated how the film business was determined to contain its female employees’ success – and with it their power – even if doing so meant losing money that these directors and actresses could have made for their studios”.(p. 163). That is the essence of the story of women in Hollywood throughout this book. Smukler next discusses the directorial careers of Joan Darling (First Love, 1977), Jane Wagner, Joan Tewkesbury (Old Boyfriends, 1979), Joan Rivers, and Claudia Weill (Girlfriends, 1978), all of whom directed their first films in the late 1970s. Almost all the women named here enjoyed only very brief careers as feature film directors, but some of them were able to sustain themselves with television work, which was geared more towards female audiences. As Joan Tewkesbury noted: TV movies “were cheap to make and women watched them… The men watched sports and the women watched these TV movies.” (p. 186)

In the remaining pages of the chapter, Smukler discusses the history of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, founded in 1974, which had been set up after persistent complaints that the AFI program privileged men: Only three of the AFI’s first 65 filmmaking grants were given to women. The workshop initially trained, among others, Anne Bancroft, Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle, 1980), Nancy Walker (Can’t Stop the Music, 1980), and Maya Angelou (Down on the Delta, 1998). The first three had of course major careers as actresses. Yet for all the propaganda value the AFI has culled from the workshop – I recently attended the 50th Anniversary of the AFI Conservatory, where the workshop was highlighted – none of the women in the early cohorts transitioned to mainstream Hollywood film careers, although Grant would produce a sizable body of work in documentary and television movies..

Smukler’s final chapter analyses the tortured relationship of the Director’s Guild with women, and the efforts of a group of feminists to push the DGA to accept more women through its Women’s Steering Committee – founded in 1979 – making a direct appeal to the film companies, and finally through an EEOC legal case which ultimately failed. DGA resistance came not only from a significant number of males in the DGA, but, more surprisingly, from DGA members of colour, who expected their grievances to be resolved before women stepped up to the plate.

In her epilogue, Smukler points to women directors who produced their first films in the 1980s and in contrast to 1970s women, were often able to sustain much longer careers, in part, thanks to the spade work of their older sisters. Today, hundreds of women are directing films, but, nevertheless, in 2018 only 4% of the 100 top grossing Hollywood films were directed by women ( Be that as it may, by presenting the creative biographies of the first modern generation of women directors in tandem with their political struggles for employment equality, Maya Smukler has written an incredibly important contribution to the history of women behind the camera in Hollywood; it should be required reading for everyone in the film industry.

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →