Sunday, February 28, 2016

When Women Ruled Hollywood

Actress Patricia Arquette has said that her mother served as inspiration for her Oscar-winning role in Boyhood. In an essay for Boyhood: Twelve Years on FilmArquette pays beautiful homage to how hard her mother worked for the chance to do meaningful work. (You can read an excerpt of Arquette's essay on our website.) When she addressed the gender wage gap in her Academy Award acceptance speech in 2014, Arquette fueled conversation about female power in Hollywood. We asked Emily Carman to comment on how Hollywood could return to producing films for women and crafted by women who are properly compensated. 
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Carman will be doing a book signing April 16th and 17th at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater, as part of the film series Independent Stardom running April 16 to May 26. She will introduce many of the films screened in the series.

When Women Ruled Hollywood
By Emily Carman

2015 has been a landmark year for the plethora of strong female performances in film, ranging from respected acting veterans such as Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years and Cate Blanchett in Carol to Charlize Theron re-branding herself as an action star in Mad Max: Fury Road, to newcomers Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan delivering stand-out performances in the independent films Room and Brooklyn. The previous year also garnered headlines condemning Hollywood sexism in the film industry, with an increasing number of actresses speaking out, including Geena Davis’s criticism of the disparity between female and male lead characters in Hollywood films while thirty-something actresses Anne Hathaway and Maggie Gyllenhaal decried ageism in the business. The Sony Hack revealed how Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence earned considerably less than costars Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper for American Hustle. Likewise, actress Patricia Arquette highlighted wage equality for women (in the film business and beyond) in her 2014 Oscar win acceptance speech.

One might assume that this grim scenario has always been the case. However, when looking back on the classic Hollywood era, a very different picture emerges that challenges the current status quo. Yes, the industry was still dominated by men, but the male studio chiefs and producers adhered to a common formula: to be profitable, Hollywood films needed to appeal to women. That meant developing and marketing films to and for women audiences that in turn were headlined by female stars.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, women ruled Hollywood on and off-screen, when the star system privileged women as its most important currency (in stark contrast to the contemporary film industry). Mary Pickford emerged as Hollywood’s most important international star by the end of the 1910s, commanding a million dollar salary, earning a percentage of her film’s profits, and co-founding United Artists in 1919, which became a haven for artistically-minded talent and independent producers. With the arrival of sound cinema, new female stars emerged in the 1930s and they commanded high salaries as well as creative provisions that rival those of top stars today. Take Ruth Chatterton. Wooed to Hollywood from Broadway, the actress earned a salary of $975,000 (approximately $13 million in today’s dollars) for three films in one year that included costar, director, and story approval. Chatterton also defied Hollywood ageism and played romantic leads well into her forties. And she was not alone—Ann Harding, Irene Dunne, and Miriam Hopkins all migrated to the screen from the stage and maintained vibrant careers as leading ladies well into their thirties. 

ette Davis is often cited as an exemplar victim of Hollywood patriarchy who was “silenced” into submission because of her legal battles with Jack Warner, and consequently, actresses thereafter avoided talking to the press. However, Davis remained far from quiet at Warner Bros. True, she lost her legal battle with the studio in 1936 when she attempted to break her contract and make a film in England, but she remained the studio’s top actress, earning her second Best Actress Oscar in 1938 for Jezebel (six more Oscar nominations followed in the next decade). Furthermore, fellow Warners contract star, Olivia de Havilland, made legal history when she won her suit against Warner Bros. in 1944 in which the California Supreme Court declared the oppressive suspension policies of the studio system illegal, thereby upholding the right for movie talent to be free agents in Hollywood (Section 2855 of the California Labor Code is still known as the “De Havilland Law”). De Havilland went on to win two Best Actress Oscars after her legal victory and her case contributed to the break down of the studio long-term contract system.

Moreover, women pioneered trendsetting off-screen contract negotiations that are now standard practice in the film industry. A number of classic Hollywood’s best-known actresses worked on a freelance basis in the 1930s, whereby they eschewed signing binding contracts and instead prioritized creative control over their projects and earned a cut of their films’ box office profits. For instance, Barbara Stanwyck, a top freelancer for her entire five-decade career, worked independently and chose her own roles. Screwball comedienne Carole Lombard was the highest paid Hollywood star—male or female—in 1937. She had plans to co-found an independent production company with actor William Powell, talent agent Myron Selznick, and director Ernst Lubitsch. Constance Bennett formed her own corporation to earn a cut of her films’ box office profits and became a producer in the 1940s, releasing two films in which she also starred. Far from passive victims, female stars were creative artists, sophisticated businesswomen, and active players in the then (as now) male-dominated Hollywood film industry.

So considering this forgotten legacy of female agency in Hollywood, 2015 no longer looks like an anomaly year. Just as they did eighty-five years ago, women flourished onscreen, voiced their opinions, and cultivated an equal playing field in the industry. The crucial question is why has this history been forgotten, and why the contemporary press elides the precedent of female agency in Hollywood? Yes, the industry must progress, but given its dynamic history, perhaps Hollywood should also reinvigorate its past to frame the current narrative for female stars.

Emily Carman is an assistant professor of film studies at Chapman University and author of the new book, Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System.

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