Hollywood’s lost women

There was a time, much less than even a year ago now, when the words ‘post-Weinstein’ spoke specifically to shifts and changes in film distribution during the 1990s and the economics behind garnering certain names and films positive attention during awards season. But with exposés running almost concurrently in The New York Times and The New Yorker soon behind it last October, the name Harvey Weinstein has since become synonymous with horrendous, highly publicised, predatory workplace behaviour, and a pattern of sexual abuse based on decades-long allegations, that are as shocking in their consistency as they are their sheer volume.

At stake are broader issues about power. From Terry Crews’ allegations of sexual assault by Adam Venit (a powerful executive at the William Morris Endeavor talent agency) to the entire #OscarsSoWhite movement that underscores the ongoing colour-blindness of Academy voters (supposedly representative of the industry as a whole), the ugliness of Hollywood’s white male industrial dominance might be personified by Harvey Weinstein, but stretches well beyond one man. When Emma Stone sassily presented the Best Director award at the recent Oscars by referencing ‘four men and Greta Gerwig’, ignoring the uniqueness of Jordan Peele’s nomination in particular, she only continued to solidify this intersectionality-blindness so typical of the world’s most dominant national film industry. As has been noted, Weinstein’s backlashes against Salma Hayek’s and Lupita Nyong’o’s claims of harassment were faster and more aggressive than those against his white accusers; this power dynamic is more insidious, more ugly, and more institutionalised than simply boys versus girls.

But this is not to undermine the long, long history not only of women’s abuse in Hollywood, but their systematic eradication if they dare step out of line. As numerous commentators have noted since the Weinstein allegations surfaced, this behaviour is hardly new. Like we’ve seen with women including Ashley Judd, Sean Young and Rose McGowan, part of the rhetoric used to displace women who speak out is to label them ‘difficult to work with’, effectively blacklisting them: if not ending their careers, these rumours certainly halted what otherwise should have been far more successful ones.

This is an old Hollywood trick. Think here of French actor Simone Simon, renowned for her performance in Jacques Tourneur’s exquisite dark fairy tale Cat People (1942). Hand-picked by powerful and notoriously lecherous studio head Darry F Zanuck (one of the founders of 20th Century Pictures, later to become 20th Century Fox), Simon was meant to be his Next Big Thing. But despite the hype, rumours of ‘temperamental behaviour’ and illness plagued her attempt to break into America within only weeks of her arrival in the country. Her sudden ‘illness’ and the claims of her being ‘difficult to work with’ – when combined with Michael Cieply’s observation last year that ‘Zanuck … abused women in a way that makes Harvey Weinstein … look like a piker’ – make it difficult not to at least speculate about what may have derailed her American career so suddenly.

The word ‘lost’ has almost mythic aspects to it when applied to Hollywood. As seen in Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić’s 1928 film The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra, while Hollywood’s dehumanising aspects are not specific to women, their stories carry particular potency. From Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) with Gloria Swanson, to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the dark side of celebrity (and the horrors of becoming a ‘no one’) has been an enduring subject of fascination within many of Hollywood’s greatest films themselves.

Women get lost in Hollywood for a range of other reasons. There are the suicides, the murders, the accidents, the ‘mysterious deaths’ including (but not limited to) Marilyn Monroe, Jean Seberg, Carole Landis, Brittany Murphy, Joyce Jameson, Marvel Rea, Virginia Rappe, Gwili Andre and Natalie Wood.  Jayne Mansfield – who died in a car crash in New Orleans in 1967 at the age of thirty-four – opens up another avenue for thinking through this idea of loss. As outlined in the documentary Mansfield 66/67whose Australian premiere will be at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on 23 March, there is something eternally fascinating in a tabloid way about Mansfield – the (supposedly) ‘dumb blonde’ who dabbled in Satanism.

While a panel after this screening by the Cinemaniacs film society focuses on the latter, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treasure in Mansfield 66/67 is the passing observation that Mansfield not only had an impressively high IQ, but also spoke five languages. Although some reports peg her IQ at 149, Mansfield herself has said it was 163 – but even at the lower end of that scale, she was clearly a highly intelligent woman.  This results in her somewhat jokingly being described in the documentary as Hollywood’s ‘smartest dumb blonde’, the actor herself famously surmising the irrelevance of her intellect to her public image: ‘they’re more interested in 40–21–35.’

Currently on limited release in Melbourne cinemas, the 2017 documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story tracks the career of another iconic face of Classical Hollywood cinema. Tracing her origins in Austria and rise to fame with films Algiers (1938) and Samson and Delilah (1949), Lamarr was also an avid inventor on the side. Her ‘hobby’ saw her collaborate with avant-garde composer George Antheil on developing frequency-hopping technology that would create the foundations of – amongst other things – WiFi and Bluetooth.

Although later formally celebrated for these achievements (in 2014, she and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame), as Bombshell illustrates, at the time, Lamarr’s intellect and scientific achievements were seen as somehow unfitting or inappropriate for a glamourous Hollywood movie star. Although inspired by wanting to assist in the development of the Allies’ radio-guided torpedoes during World War II, she was told her ‘talents’ were better spent selling war bonds. Which, the documentary highlights, she did in a similarly successful fashion.

Like so many women before and after her, Lamarr struggled with powerful men in her industry in a variety of ways (most notably Louis B Mayer and Cecil B DeMille). But as Bombshell emphasises, her legacy is an important one that transcends the movie business: it’s a tale about the tragedy of undermining women’s talents. But even within that industry alone, as Rosanna Arquette’s 2002 documentary Searching for Debra Winger painstakingly reveals, there are a range of factors that challenge women in Hollywood both personally and professionally. Whether it’s outright sexual assault, abuse and harassment at one end of the scale or the very real pressure to dumb-it-down at the other, women – and others who fall outside the dominant paradigm of who traditionally holds power in that industry – can fall through a whole spectrum of cracks and booby traps strategically designed to keep in line those whose only crime is to not be a white man in a position of power.


Image: Jayne Mansfield

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is the author of five books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She is currently working on a range of projects that intersect with women’s filmmaking, including co-editing an essay collection on Elaine May and writing the book 1000 Women in Horror.

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