Interviews

How the 1970s Marked a Turning Point for Women Directors in Hollywood

Following the feminist and civil rights movements, Hollywood gradually began employing women as movie directors, though they still faced institutionalized sexism.

Jeff Goldblum in Between the Lines (1977), directed by Joan Micklin Silver (courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive)

LOS ANGELES — The feminist movement of the 1970s spurred massive societal upheavals, but some segments of the culture were slower to respond than others. During that decade, Hollywood gradually began employing women as movie directors. Gender disparities continue to persist in the film industry today, but that time marked a turning point. This is the subject of Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema, a new book by Maya Montañez Smukler, who heads the research and study center at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The Archive is also presenting a screening series, “Liberating Hollywood,” inspired by the book, beginning January 25. I sat down with Smukler to talk about both the book and accompanying film program.

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Dan Schindel: How did this series emerge from your book?

Maya Smukler: I proposed it to KJ [Relth, UCLA film programmer]. The book is the culmination of 20 years of my academic work. It really started to materialize when I was a doctoral student at UCLA in the last couple of years. My dissertation was on women directors and the intersection between second-wave feminism and 1970s Hollywood. It was obvious to me to try to see if the Archive would do something.

DS: What led to that focus for your dissertation?

Cover of Liberating Hollywood (via the Liberating Hollywood website)

MS: I’ve been a cinephile for forever, and I’ve been a feminist forever. The relationship between the two has always been a part of my identity. For a good 10 years before I got involved in academia, I worked in film and television in various ways, and I was always interested in women directors and working for them, at places like Women Make Movies and the American Film Institute’s directing workshop for women.

American cinema in the ’70s is a much-loved era, and there’s this mythology around Hollywood in that time. Journalists are into it, academics are into it. It’s this idea that anyone who was young and ambitious and loved movies could break into the system in the ’70s, because the industry was going through all these changes and was desperate to figure out how to make movies that appealed to the young contemporary audience. In some ways, that’s true. But it was true for white men, and not for anybody else. At the same time, all of these political movements were challenging and changing all levels of American political life and cultural beliefs. How come there weren’t more women breaking through at this moment?

I wanted to look up the ones who did, to find out who they were. Then I realized that many of them are still around, and even working. Oral history became a big part of my methodology, because so many of those women have faced sexism during their careers, which both presented them with a lot of challenges and impacted how their history was archived and preserved.

DS: What was the situation for women directors in Hollywood before this time?

MS: In the silent era, there were more women directing. Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché, Mary Pickford. The film industry wasn’t yet considered an industry, so there was this real fluidity between jobs. There was an opening for women, specifically white women. When the industry made its transition to sound and the studio system became established, women directors were out.

Then there are these singular eras. Dorothy Arzner was the only female feature film director in Hollywood from the late ’20s to 1943. Then Ida Lupino was the only one, independent but still working in and around the studio system, from 1949 to 1966.

DS: So what changes in the ’70s?

MS: Starting in the late ’60s into 1980, slowly, there starts to be more women. My argument is that the feminist movement and civil rights movement were breaking things open. That number of women is very small. I counted 16 who made commercial films. (That’s what my focus is. Not avant garde or documentary films, which are certainly vital production cultures, but I separated them from my study.) That’s a small number compared to the opportunities for young white men, but compared to the days of Arzner and Lupino, it’s significant.

And these 16 women run the gamut. Some of them were making arthouse films, like Barbara Loden with Wanda or Karen Arthur with Legacy. Folks who were figuring out financing on their own. Then there were folks like Barbara Peeters, Stephanie Rothman, Beverly Sebastian, who were making low-budget exploitation films. There were some who were able to make studio films, like Elaine May and Joan Darling.

But even with that opening up, those women still faced the institutionalized sexism of Hollywood, which was longstanding. It’s almost like that first generation of women directors that were molded by the feminist movement (whether they identified as feminists or not) were met with an even more hostile environment in Hollywood.

The idea of a woman having creative and financial power, having the budget to be able to really explore their artistic vision — male studio executives were so unfamiliar with this. They seemed to meet it with shock.

Lily Tomlin and John Travolta in Moment by Moment (1978), directed by Jane Wagner (courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive)

DS: What’s a notable example of that from your book?

MS: There’s the story of Joan Rivers, who in 1978 co-wrote and directed Rabbit Test, which stars Billy Crystal in his first movie role as the first-ever pregnant man. It’s very much a Joan Rivers comedy. In 1978, she was a household name. She was very successful as a standup, she was all over television, she was one of the leading headliners on the Vegas circuit. She had been trying for so many years to get into movies, but was having the hardest time. Here’s a performer who is well known and has proven herself to be successful, yet no studio would invest, not even a small budget.

Rivers ended up making Rabbit Test independently. There were all these stories about having to mortgage her house, having to edit it in her dressing room in Vegas. She was promoting it herself, using her celebrity brand. She talked in interviews and her many autobiographies about how the movie ended up having so many flaws because they made it on a shoestring. With some investment and a proper production company, it could have been so much more.

DS: Beyond the broader social forces at work, was there any specific feminist campaign leaning on Hollywood at this time?

MS: Some of the most important examples of feminist activism are within the guilds. In the early 1970s, the Writers Guild formed its Women’s Committee. Soon after, the Screen Actors Guild did the same. There’s a whole chapter in the book on this. Today, we’re very familiar with statistical reports about the demographics of the industry, like The Celluloid Ceiling, which has been publishing annually for 20 years now. The Writers Guild Women’s Committee was one of the first to do that kind of data drive. They went through popular television shows and recorded that “x” amount of episodes were written or directed by a woman. And then they leaked it to the press. It was shocking to people then. There were plenty of shows where there was not one woman, or there was a half credit because a woman co-wrote an episode.

Eventually, at the end of the ’70s, six women in the Directors Guild got together to say, “We are not getting hired and we are qualified. Where is our guild?” They formed a women’s committee and did a data drive. Women spoke to the press and called a big meeting with the heads of productions companies, studios, networks, and said, “Look at these terrible numbers. What are you going to do about it?”

Elaine May and Walther Matthau in A New Leaf (1971), directed by Elaine May (courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive)

DSWhat went into programming the screening series? How did you want to best exhibit films from this time?

MS: We wanted to be able to show a nice variety of the movies and different production cultures women were working in during the ’70s. We have some exploitation films, like Barbara Peeters’s biker movie Bury Me An Angel. That’s a fabulous film. The lead character is a woman, which is rare for the biker genre. Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island is a classic about inmates getting sent to an island and having to fend for themselves.

Then there are studio films. We’re going to show Jane Wagner’s Moment by Moment, starring Lily Tomlin and John Travolta, which was never released on home video. We have a double feature of Elaine May, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, which more people will be familiar with. We end on Joan Micklin Silver’s Crossing Delancey, which is actually from the ’80s. That’s part of the way I want to appreciate the ’70s, to use a movie from further on as a way to look forward.

DS: You mentioned that Moment by Moment never had a home video release. What other preservation and restoration issues do women-directed films from this period face?

MS: This is something we dealt with throughout. KJ worked so hard on this. We really wanted to show Joan Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends, which came out in 1979. There were prints of it, but they were very faded. It took months of work, but there’s going to be a new print made. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be ready in time for our screening. A new print of Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines has been made, and we’re going to be able to use that.

Part of the Archive’s mission is to understand the preservation politics of film. Can it be preserved? Where is it? Can we find the best print? What can we do to make sure not only that a filmmaker’s work is safe, but also present it in its best form? This question of preservation and restoration is a gender issue, because so many of the women who made films in the ’70s often struggled and were not able to do their best work. Maybe a movie got dumped or got a limited release, in which case there weren’t a lot of prints made, so now there’s one print that’s fading somewhere. Maybe a film didn’t get much attention, and we don’t know where the elements are to restore it. The legacy and life of these films in an archive, we see the effects of sexism there.

Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema is now out from Rutgers University Press. The accompanying screening series will run at the UCLA Film & Television Archive (10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles) January 25–February 23.

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