The struggle for recognition of women in Hollywood may not be more acute than in, say, the trucking industry, but the aspirants to power and position are more visible and (one guesses) more articulate, not to say dishier. Certainly Sherry Lansing, Paula Weinstein, Anthea Sylbert, Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron and the other smart, aggressive and (mostly) self-aware Hollywood women in Rachel Abramowitz‘s Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? have a lot to say, and say it at great length.
A Yale graduate and writer for Premiere (a 1992 article in which suggested this book), Abramowitz sets out ”to puncture the mythology and circumvent the silence“ about what her subtitle calls ”women’s experience of power in Hollywood.“ There‘s a neat ambiguity there, depending on what you make of ”of.“ It suggests, on the one hand, a narrative of female head-butting against the industry’s glass ceiling and its testosterone-pulsing power structure. Abramowitz duly details anecdotes about the kinds of sexual harassment we have heard about since little Gladys Smith changed her name to Mary Pickford and had to fight off D.W. Griffith for a lousy $10 a week.
On the other, fresher side of the ”of“ ambiguity, the book details women‘s experiences not confronting power, but wielding it once they’ve won it. It‘s ”what we had to go through to get here“ seguing to ”what now?“
We hear testimony from many, including those already noted, as well as agent Sue Mengers; directors Elaine May, Martha Coolidge and Jane Campion; writers Carrie Fisher and Callie Khouri; star producer-directors Jodie Foster and Barbra Streisand; and multitalented professionals like Polly Platt. Abramowitz elicits ”the kinds of intimacies women discuss with one another, usually when men aren’t around,“ and her storytellers are voluble, varied and entertainingly self-dramatizing.
The path to power is charted as a stylistic and strategic continuum, from the ”Geisha,“ personified by everyone from Paramount‘s efficiently seductive production head, Sherry Lansing, to the machete-wielding ”Ball Buster,“ in the form of the late producer and Columbia Pictures chairwoman Dawn Steel. Everyone else, presumably, falls somewhere in between, envying the Geisha’s looks, millions and husband while hoping they‘re not turning into the Ball Buster.
There’s dish aplenty, but discussing sexual harassment in Hollywood, the author warns, is ”a little like discussing the fact that the sea [is] blue.“ The old canard about Lansing‘s having ”slept her way to the middle“ is trotted out. So is Sue Mengers’ crotch-grabbing announcement to CMA that ”I‘m a man doing a man’s job, and I want to be paid like a man.“ There‘s Steel’s ”chick with balls,“ whose ”vituperative mouth“ made many view her funeral as no more than a ”chaos junkie“ (Ephron‘s term) deserved.
Abramowitz’s tape recorder captures the ”intimacies“ she hoped for, but many may feel (as I did) like hitting the fast-forward button when approaching the 400-page mark. Her fact checkers let mistakes by various insiders slip, such as confusing executives Jay Kantor (of 20th Century Fox) with Jay Emmett (of Warner) and calling producer-screenwriter David Giler ”David Gale.“ These are quibbles, but the slavishly quoted verbatim remarks, sometimes revealing, can also be confusing.
Producer Lynda Obst, for example, admits to having ”entitlement problems,“ blames women‘s struggles in the industry on a male ”divide-and-conquer sensibility,“ claiming that ”if one woman succeeds, all women fail is the game that they set up.“ (I don’t get it either.) But the consensus here is that conspiracy was superfluous in the ”hellish competition“ (in Weinstein‘s words) these women inflicted on each other.
”There was a natural enmity,“ producer Weinstein admits. ”In the beginning, we had our eyes on each other instead of on the job.“ Coolidge calls it ”every woman for herself“ in the self-defeating belief that ”you only got your chances through men.“
Steel’s rationalization for her Terminator ethic was that ”The pie was not big enough for all of us,“ while Mengers trumpets, ”The reason women haven‘t really achieved power in our industry is they’re scared shitless.“ In her view, all the female power players have accomplished is that ”There are now as many mediocre women working in our industry as there are men.“
Abramowitz serves up dismayed epiphanies: Power, once won, ain‘t what it’s cracked up to be — or is more nuanced and arbitrary than it looked at first ambitious glance. There are sympathetic and intelligent passages here that nevertheless confuse power and gender issues, as if the corporate climate were not so inherently unpredictable and pathologically competitive that no Geisha or Ball Buster — or man, for that matter — can cope without honest self-doubt, conscience or near-paralyzing fear of failure. As Willy Loman recognized before most of these women were born, ”It comes with the territory.“
Weinstein shucks self-delusion, and disarmingly admits to using both chic and high-minded politics as tools in her ”arsenal of seduction“ for becoming a successful executive and producer. Now, as a widow and mother with a whopping big hit in The Perfect Storm, she can afford to drop the feminist cant and concede with self-amusement to having ”huge rescue fantasies“ about ”some fabulous guy who is going to sweep me off my feet and all the problems are going to be solved.“
Khouri, screenwriter of Thelma & Louise, confuses gender and creative issues. She is frank about her willingness to ”brandish the woman card“ in renegotiating a contract (with women producers, no less), but her frustration at having ”no control, other than what I was able to exert through sheer force of will“ is just an echo of every screenwriter of any sex in over a century of celluloid.
In any case, control apparently isn‘t what it’s cracked up to be either. Unlimited power is as discomfiting as no power, according to director Marshall. ”I don‘t know what the fuck I want to do,“ she declares. ”’Whatever you want‘ is not what I want to hear.“
Uneasiness with power and freedom is nowhere as plaintively emphatic as from producer, writer — and former wife of Peter Bogdanovich — Platt, whose many psychodramas are set out with such raw honesty they’re painful to read. She served as right hand to Bogdanovich and later to others, including Garry Marshall and James L. Brooks. Her inertia in these male-sheltered environments is determined not by the annual $600,000 she thinks is beneath her worth as a development executive, but by the less tangible ”What if I fail? That is more terrifying than death.“
Maybe not more than death, exactly, but it‘s not a unique fear, and certainly not a gender-specific one. Fear of failure is an equal-opportunity terror, and not just in Hollywood.
Foster, who has grasped power (and Oscars) in both hands, articulates the larger dilemma as well as anyone in these pages, or just about anyone anywhere. ”We realize there was somebody that we used to be that will never be again,“ she says, ”and we have to be accepting enough to say goodbye to who that was.“
And smart enough to say hello. Welcome to the club.
Steven Bach is the author of Final Cut and Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. His biography of Moss Hart, Dazzler, will be published in April by Knopf, for whom he is now writing a biography of Leni Riefenstahl.