Friday, January 8, 2016

Hollywood's Forgotten Legacy of Female Agency

Some may assume that top actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie who also produce and direct have attained a level of control only possible in the modern era. Film scholar Emily Carman reminds us of the early Hollywood actresses whose sharp business acumen and near total ownership of their creative output laid the groundwork for female agency in Hollywood today. Carman's new book Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System is out now.

Hollywood's Forgotten Legacy of Female Agency
By Emily Carman

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With the Golden Globes this weekend, it is officially awards season in Hollywood. While it is true that 2015 was a banner year for female performances in film, this string of impressive films headlined by female stars harkens back to 
the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s—a forgotten age of the American film industry when strong women were the norm for Hollywood cinema. Female stars, in a range of genres (ranging from the woman’s film, musicals, and romantic comedies), dominated the American box office largely because studio executives and movie producers presumed that in order for their films to profitable, they had to appeal to women audiences. Thus, contra today, Hollywood films were designed, produced, and marketed with women in mind. 

In my new book Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System I argue that this presumed audience demographic created a demand for female talent that in turn enabled some business savvy actresses to bargain for lucrative contracts with the studios and to freelance and work independently in Hollywood, foreshadowing the current system for movie talent. I have complied a list of the top ten most innovative moments for female agency in Hollywood – what I call independent stardom – that resonate with contemporary industry practices and with women in Hollywood today. The actresses listed below are not in any particular order as all of the contributions are equally important, but I will start with the woman who graces the cover of my book, Carole Lombard, because, in my opinion, she was the vanguard of female independent stardom in Hollywood.

Carole Lombard

You might remember her as Clark Gable’s famous wife, or for her screwball comedies of the 1930s (in fact, the term "Screwball" comedy was coined for her after her Oscar-nominated performance in My Man Godfrey in 1936). But by 1937, Lombard was Hollywood’s most visible freelancer and Hollywood's highest paid actor, working concurrently at Paramount, Warner Bros. and for producer David O. Selznick. She chose her own roles, co-stars, directors, and even her own cinematographer to make her films. Moreover, she was a savvy businesswoman who negotiated for a cut of her films’ box office gross to supplement her salary and for the right to approve and create her publicity campaigns (which she often used to showcase her independent career). She also had plans to form an independent production company with her ex-husband and fellow actor William Powell, her agent Myron Selznick, and auteur director Ernst Lubitsch, prefiguring the now ubiquitous trend of movie stars who have their own companies to produce films. Her trendsetting career was cut short in 1942 after her death in a plane crash returning to California from a WWII bond tour.

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Mary Pickford

Any discussion about women in Hollywood forging independent careers merits a mentioning of Pickford, a film pioneer in a myriad of ways. By 1916, she had the right to choose her own projects, the talent she worked with, and was the first film star to found her own production company. In 1919 she went further, co-founding the studio United Artists with fellow actors Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith in order to have total creative and financial control over the production and distribution of their films. In fact, Chaplin asserted that it was Pickford’s business acumen that kept the fledging company afloat in the 1920s.

Constance Bennett publicity copy
Constance Bennett

Daughter of stage actor Richard Bennett and sister of actress Joan Bennett, Constance Bennett was one of Hollywood's hardest bargainers. So much so that in 1931 Warner Bros. paid her $30,000 a week on her vacation time away from RKO to make a film for them. She also had her own corporation established in 1934 to earn a cut of her films' box office profits. And in the 1940s, when leading roles dwindled from the studios, she formed her own Constance Bennett Pictures and produced two films, Paris Underground (1945) and Smart Woman (1948). Her entrepreneurship expanded beyond Hollywood as well; the actress created her own make-up and clothing lines. Her cutthroat contract negotiations earned her the sole female spot among Hollywood’s poker-playing elite comprised of top movie moguls Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn, and more.

Barbara Stanwyck

Freelancer from the beginning to the end of her five decade career in Hollywood, Stanwyck parlayed her freelance status to develop a broad acting range that spanned from serious drama to screwball comedy, westerns, and film noir. This in turn bolstered her cultural capital in the film industry (think of her as a forerunner to Meryl Streep or Cate Blachett), as she delivered a string of well-reviewed performances (Meet John Doe, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, etc.) made by some of Hollywood’s best directors including Frank Capra, Cecil B. Demille, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. By 1943, Stanwyck’s freelance work made her the highest paid woman in the United States. 

Irene Dunne

Wooed to Hollywood from the Broadway stage after Hollywood's transition to talkies, Irene Dunne worked independently for a number of studios including RKO, Universal, Columbia, and United Artists in the 1930s and played romantic leads well into her forties. Dunne’s independent stardom benefited significantly from her agent, Charles Feldman, who not only negotiated impressive deals for the actress at these studios, but encouraged her to expand her screen persona by making films in new genres, in particular screwball comedy. Dunne credited her agent in remaking her into a top comedienne after sealing the deal for Theodora Goes Wild, which garnered her an Oscar Nomination for Best Actress, and many more leading roles in this staple genre of the studio era.

Miriam Hopkins

Favorite actress of renowned European-émigré autuers Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian, Hopkins headlined Hollywood's first live action three-color Technicolor feature Becky Sharp as a freelance artists. It might be hard to believe from our contemporary perspective, however, Hopkins and her agent Myron Selznick successfully argued that color film could pose a risk for her career (what if audiences did not accept color cinema?). In response, the producers agreed to give the actress a cut of the films’ box office earnings. Afterwards, she worked for Samuel Goldwyn, RKO, and Warner Bros.

Dolores del Río

The Mexican-born actress circumvented Hollywood's exotic Latina typecasting in the 1930s by bargaining for story approval in her contract with Warner Bros. after a bad experience playing such a role in Bird of Paradise. For her first role in her non-exclusive three picture deal at Warners, del Río used her casting agency to make Madame Du Barry in which she appeared in the title role. When viable roles dried up for the actress in Hollywood, she returned to Mexico and became an icon of the “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema in films with director Emilio Fernández and cinematographer Gabríel Figueroa. 

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Olivia de Havilland

The only living actress from this list, de Havilland is best remembered as the docile yet compassionate Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. But off screen this actress was more similar to Scarlet O’Hara in her defiant struggle at her home studio Warner Bros. to play more challenging roles that she felt reflected her acting talent. In 1944, the actress made legal history when she won her suit against Warner Bros., attaining the right to be a free agent. The California Supreme Court sided with the actress and effectively nullified the studio’s oppressive suspension policy (Warners attempted to extend the actress’s original seven-year contract by nine months, the total time she had been suspended for rejecting film assignments). De Havilland emerged as a top freelance actress in postwar Hollywood, winning two Best Actress Oscars for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1950).

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Clara Bow

The “It” girl icon of 1920s Hollywood is perhaps my personal favorite on this list. Her vivacious screen personality first captivated me over twenty years ago after seeing her most famous flapper films of the 1920s (Man Trap, It, and The Wild Party, which was her first sound film directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in Classic Hollywood). Bow is remembered as a silent film actress, nevertheless, she made the transition to sound film and negotiated a brilliant comeback in 1933 in a lucrative deal with Fox studios. Like de Havilland, Bow felt that her former studio Paramount misused her talents and damaged her career by ruthless typecasting in sub-par films. In a two-picture Fox deal, Bow bargained for costar, director, and story approval, as well as a closed set during filming. The two films that she made, Call Her Savage and Hoop-la, finally enabled her to take ownership of her career and star persona by showcasing her acting talent alongside her sex appeal.

Ida Lupino

Lupino’s foray into independent stardom expanded to multiple roles behind the camera as the actress turned to directing, screenwriting, and producing after the conclusion of a long-term contract with Warner Bros. in the late 1940s. At Warners, the actress proclaimed that she was “a poor man’s Bette Davis,” as the studio’s best parts went to their top actress, Davis. Undaunted, Lupino negotiated for the right to do outside pictures in her contract at rival studios in the 1940s, and she even sold some screenplays on the side. In 1949, however, the actress followed the precedent established by Pickford and formed her own production company, The Filmmakers, with ex-husband producer Collier Young and writer Malvin Wald. Their mission was to produce high quality but low-cost films on unorthodox and provocative subject matter without being “preachy,” as well as to provide opportunities to cast new acting and technical talent. Between 1949 and 1954, Lupino’s company produced twelve films that tackled subjects ranging from rape and polio to unplanned pregnancy, bigamy, and more. Of these, the actress directed six, wrote four, and starred in three. Among my favorite films that she directed are Hard, Fast, and Beautiful and The Bigamist.

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