A Woman's Place Is Behind the Camera
As male-oriented Hollywood slowly gets used to more women in decisionmaking roles, a subtle shift may be in the works
LOS ANGELES — Director Amy Holden Jones sits in the center of an elegant, cavernous hallway cluttered with cameras, klieg lights, and a crew of sound engineers, production assistants, and stand-in actors.
Ms. Jones's head is cocked sideways as she intently watches actress Halle Berry say good night and close the huge oak door on the policeman who had escorted her home.
The scene, from Jones's upcoming film "Rich Man's Wife," appears stiff and flat through the video monitor in front of her.
"Can you raise the camera up a couple of inches to give it more of an angle?" she asks cinematographer Haskell Wexler. "This time I want you to put your hand on the door to try to keep it open as Halle is closing it," she then tells actor Frankie Faison who plays the policeman.
Jones sits back, waits a moment, then says, "Action!"
The scene is repeated, and with those two simple directions, Jones gives the scene depth, tension, and emotion.
Jones has written and/or directed such hits as "Maid to Order," "Indecent Proposal," and "Beethoven." She is part of what is still an exclusive club in Hollywood: women who've risen to the top. But while the number of female executives and high-salaried actresses remains fairly small, overall, women in Hollywood have made great strides.
"The first feature I worked on, I was 21 years old. I was Martin Scorsese's assistant on 'Taxi Driver,' " Jones says. "Then the only women on the crew were script, hair, makeup, and costume."
On Jones's set today, all the department heads are women except two. That's unusual, but it's not entirely out of the ordinary. Women now make up an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the employees in the film and television industry, according to the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) and the Director's Guild of America (DGA). Production crews are probably the most egalitarian, with film producers coming in second.
Some industry analysts contend there are now almost as many female producers as men with the power and prestige to get films made.
While a few highly visible women, such as Sherry Lansing, chairman of Paramount Pictures, do head major studios and their own production units, women at the top levels of studio bureaucracies are still rare.
"Rather than there being one or two, there are now six or seven," says Donna Shu, the interim executive director of Women in Film, a 23-year-old advocacy organization.
There are also still wide inequities in pay and compensation. For instance, male stars like John Travolta can demand $20 million a film, while female counterparts like Michelle Pfeiffer command only $10 to $12 million.
"I still think the bottom line is dollar- driven, and it's the male stars who bring in the big grosses," says a woman studio executive.
The majority of Hollywood's women work in low and mid-level jobs. For instance, by extrapolating from DGA figures, it appears that in 1994 women made up roughly 40 percent of the second assistant directors, 16 percent of the first assistant directors, 13 percent of the production managers, and only 9 percent of the directors.
"The statistics are not terrific," says Jennifer Reed, co-chair of DGA's steering committee on women. "However, I'm an optimist. Things are getting incrementally better."
Ms. Reed also says women have already begun to change the nature of the workplace in Hollywood. Instead of the more traditional, hierarchical management style, Reed contends women have brought a more cooperative and nurturing environment. "That doesn't mean they're not also tough and professional," she says.
This summer Reed worked on six episodes of a sitcom called "Bringing Up Jack," which starred actor Jack Gallagher. It was the first time she worked on an all-female directorial team (made up of director, assistant director, stage manager, script supervisor).
"It was a very relaxed, professional, efficient, cooperative stage," Reed says. "Jack Gallagher stopped one day and said, 'You know, there's something different here.... I feel so comfortable.' That was just a thrill for all of us."
But a set like Jones's is still a rarity. In fact, many contend the bias against having too many women in executive positions, whether it be in the studio or on the set, is still extremely strong.
Kool Marder, a feature-production executive at Universal Pictures, says many studio executives consider it "overburdening" a production to have too many women in executive positions.
"They say things like, 'Well, there's already a female assistant director, we don't want to have too many women,' " says Ms. Marder, who oversees 10 to 15 pictures a year. "You'd never hear them say that about a man; they'd never say, 'There's already a male producer, so....' "
But Marder, who is also a co-chair of the DGA women's steering committee, says she has seen progress since she started at the studio seven years ago.
"Then I could count on one hand the women producers and production managers," she says. "Now I think I've gone beyond two hands. I do see it getting better."
But many women contend that that progress, while important, has still failed to change the predominantly male orientation of the entertainment industry, and as a result, the kind of pictures it makes.
Even though there are exceptions like "Waiting to Exhale" and "Sense and Sensibility," Hollywood still puts a premium on the more violent action thrillers.
"Even though there are more women in positions of power, the content is still male[-oriented]," says writer and publicist Erica Diamond.
That's in part, several analysts contend, because the few top women executives still have to work within clearly defined male parameters. And as such, even with their hard-won power, they are limited in what they can do.
"I think they continue to make movies that misunderstand what women want to see," says Jones, who says a Hollywood version of a "female picture" is a bunch of women sitting around talking about how they feel.
Such films "Waiting to Exhale" often don't turn out to be blockbuster hits. As a result, there is a prevailing view that "women's films" don't do well.
"But what about 'Terms of Endearment' or 'Fried Green Tomatoes'?" she asks. "It's not that 'women's pictures' fail, it's that women aren't interested in watching people sit around talking about emotions anymore than men are. They want to have fun at the movies, they want to see interesting, complicated, attractive characters whether male or female."
Jones also believes that male superstars, in general, don't want to play next to females who are portrayed as equally strong and complicated. As a result, women end up as "arm pieces" for stars like Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy.
That desire for male screen prominence is not a new phenomenon. Back when producer David O. Selznick was casting "Gone With the Wind," Jones says neither Clark Gable nor Leslie Howard wanted to do it. It was perceived to be Vivien Leigh's film.
"In the old days, the studios would say, you're doing it, and that's it," says Jones. "They can't say that now, so the male stars jockey to be more prominent."
In "Rich Man's Wife," the film Jones is now shooting, she tries to overcome what she considers both the stereotypical concept of a "woman's film" and the control of male egos. The film is a thriller and the lead character is a strikingly beautiful woman who is dissatisfied with her marriage. She confesses it to a stranger, then finds her husband dead and herself the chief suspect in his murder.
"There aren't many good movies with female protagonists that are interesting and complicated," says executive producer Julie Bergman Sender. "This is about a woman who realizes she has let men tell her what to do for most of her life, then, through extraordinary circumstances, realizes she has only herself to rely on."
The film is slated to be released in September. And as for having a predominantly female executive staff, both Jones and Ms. Bergman Sender say the filming has been a pleasure. "I don't think there's that much of a difference between men and women in that many ways," Bergman Sender says. "I just think women are more nurturing than men, and that does change things, in a good way."