Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end. - Margo Channing, ALL ABOUT EVE
Margo Channing, the central figure of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Academy Award-winning film All About Eve, is undoubtedly one of the greatest female characters in cinema history. But Bette Davis, the woman who made her screen-famous, is the woman behind the woman, so to speak. Bette Davis’ dominance and desired control over her roles and career in real life bled over into the majority of the fictional characters that she played. From the 1930s onwards, Davis sought her independence from the studio contract system. Beginning with a court case that she ultimately lost (WARNER BROS v NELSON, 1936) her desire was to free herself of her current ties and open up more possibilities for her to play parts in whatever films she wished, seeing as the roles she was receiving from Warner were (in her eyes) limiting her career. This small set-back did not stop Davis, however. Although she continued under the aegis of Warner Brothers and became quite successful, she reached out in other ways. To Warner, Davis may have simply been viewed as one of their more financially attractive properties. To Davis, her heightened position in Hollywood gave her power and leverage. And she was quick to take notice of this. In 1941, she became the very first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. However, she relinquished the position a few months later when her Academy cohorts refused to agree with her “radical” idea of supporting the troops and having a performance and nationwide broadcast for the war effort in lieu of the annual Academy Awards.
Bette was a smart woman. While most people are quite familiar with the unyielding and assertive figure she cut on-screen, the lesser-known facts about Davis are just as striking. When her contract with Warner Brothers was renewed in 1944 she made damn sure that she got something in return: she would be allowed to produce 5 films herself, in addition to starring in them. Out of the five, the only one that was ever actually made was A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), but she produced the hell outta that picture. Davis freed herself from the bonds of Warner Brothers in August of 1949, calling it her “professional divorce” and becoming a freelance actress for the remainder of her career. For a woman who existed and played within the “studio limits” she definitely pushed them, both within the films she made and through the life she led outside of the sound stage.
But let’s face facts here: the pure unadulterated truth is…there were a great deal more working women than Bette Davis in Hollywood at that time. Not only that, but many of them were women who had more control over their own careers, economic possibilities and personal situations than even Bette Davis. While not all of these women can say that they rocked the very foundations of the film industry by suggesting that they skip the Holy of Holies (the Academy Awards) in exchange for a war fundraiser, many of these women did other things in Hollywood that had a similar effect.
I engaged in a conversation a few weeks ago with a few people online about women’s roles in the film industry today versus what they used to be and when that changed. As a trained film scholar and media archivist who specializes in women in film culture/film history, I realized that we were missing some vital information. As a woman in the film community, I am thrilled that we have established a vital and dynamic interest in getting women the recognition, equality and positioning that we deserve. The heightened enthusiasm for positive female representation in media that certain groups like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at The Party have shown is nothing short of brilliant as far as I’m concerned.
But we have a problem. We seem to be reinventing the wheel in certain circumstances. There is a disconnect and it is a big one. That disconnect is called history. Didn’t we have women doing some pretty awesome stuff and being excellent role models a while back? Is our cultural memory that short?
Admittedly, back in the earlier days of cinema, women did not have certain advantages that we have now. For example, pants. In the film noir, Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) Peggy Cummins’ character, Annie Laurie Starr, is reprimanded for wearing pants to work. This is probably not a scene we would see in a film today. However, much like this sartorial issue, it is also sadly unlikely that we would see such an exciting and elegantly laid out character like Annie in a film of today.
I believe we have either forgotten where we come from or we did not know in the first place. Either way, it is important to be reminded. What I have noticed is that a certain percentage of the modern film community is just that: modern. And that is an unhealthy thing. If we are sitting around tweeting, blogging and posting about the place of women in film today but forget to mention that women in film have a very distinct timeline of their own, I can only think that there is a problem and it needs adjustment.
I don’t think one can think about the women who helped to create our moving image culture too much. Thus I have decided to write one profile a week about a woman in film culture who has significantly changed the face of moving images as you and I know them. Some of them you will be familiar with (like Bette Davis) and some of them you may have no clue about. But all of them are important. And all of them have had a hand in developing the world that is now woefully lacking in positive female representation and female employment.
I have decided to title this weekly column Common Careers based upon the quote from All About Eve. I am doing this not simply because all of the individuals do, indeed, share that “common career” of being a woman, but they also share the problematic nature that that quote itself possesses. I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, pretend that Margo Channing’s statement is one of perfection; it is not. But then again, sometimes the best way to explore our hero(ine)s is through their flaws. I find that quote as fascinating for its dependence on heteronormativity as I do for its search for identity.
So join me won’t you? Each week we will look at a different woman and explore the females of the past and their impact on the future.
Welcome to Common Careers. I look forward to your company and hope you enjoy!