No. Equality for women does not exist in the wonderland of Hollywood. Women producers, directors and writers are vastly underrepresented. The industry and those in it will agree is run by money, for money and at its core is about money. How can more women make inroads in the major areas of creativity and production? A recent opinion article in the New York Times, “How Can Women Gain Influence in Hollywood?” discussed several points of view with interesting ideas to challenge the industry to create more opportunities for women. To read article, click here.
The consensus is that women must be resolute and continue to fight for increased representation in all facets of the entertainment business. This may not be an especially creative solution, but not giving up is the only solution. The history of Hollywood has many examples of women who have been remarkably successful. They achieved success by being strategic, tenacious, and applying their talent and brains. Primarily, they did not walk away from the challenges and discrimination they faced daily. And yes, there is progress, but unfortunately, inequality is alive and well in Hollywood and the struggle continues.
Today I would like to introduce you to an extraordinary trailblazer who made it possible for other women to work their way through the maze of Hollywood’s “good ole boy network.” I learned about this “forgotten” Hollywood hero while I was writing Women Trailblazers in California: Pioneers to the Present. Please meet Dorothy Arzner.
Arzner, born in 1897, was a noted film director during Hollywood’s’ Golden Age. Sexism was a dominate feature in the film industry when Dorothy Arnzer decided to embark upon a career in editing and script writing in the early 1920s. In spite of this environment, she became the only female director during the post silent boom of Hollywood filmmaking and the first female member of the Directors Guild of America. Her exceptional talent was quickly recognized by the leaders of the industry, and Arnzer moved from typing, editing, and writing scripts, to directing for Paramount studios. She made history by directing Paramount’s first sound movie and then transformed film sound technology by essentially creating the first boom mike. During her career as a director from 1928 to 1943, Arzner was able to make a smooth transition from directing three silent movies to fourteen “talkies.”Between the years 1927-1932, Arzner directed eleven feature films for Paramount and then left to work on her own. RKO hired her to direct Katharine Hepburn, their new star, in Christopher Strong.
Arzner was not a typical Hollywood luminary; she did not fit whatever that illusion was. Her life, her persona, and her films were not the expected norm for that era. It was no secret that Arzner was a lesbian and lived for more than four decades with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan who appeared in some of her movies. Dressed in suits, ties, and short hair combed tightly back, she emitted an authoritarian demeanor. This may have been her way to portray herself as “the man in charge” and to fit into the Hollywood boy’s club.
Although she established the largest oeuvre by a woman director, her work had been practically excluded in accounts of film history. Not until the 1970’s and the rediscovery of her work in a project of feminist film studies, did she finally receive the critical acclaim she deserved. During the rise of the feminist movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, when Arzner’s career and works were “rediscovered,” the younger feminist film scholars described her films as challenging the dominant, male oriented society of the times. Arzner, however, did not want to be boxed in and labeled as a gay or woman director. She was, above all, a director. For women who wanted a career in film, she became a role model. For feminist film scholars, she was the subject of much debate. These younger women wanted to give Arzner the recognition that eluded her and believed she deserved from her generation.
The Directors Guild in 1975 honored her with a “Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” Katharine Hepburn sent a telegram which read: Is it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all.” Arzner’s noted quote is “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.” This quote perfectly described Arzner and how she became an acclaimed director in a predominantly male industry.
Women like Arzner had to continuously struggle for the status they deserved. It may be distressing that several generations later, talented, creative and exceptional women are still on an uphill road to “make it” it Hollywood. However, Arzner and some of the brilliant young directors of today are exemplary of the success that is within reach.
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