Author Takes Hollywood Women Out of Footnotes, Into Main Story


Women are making a comeback in Hollywood, with a few in top studio positions and others producing and directing regularly.

But men have largely run the film industry from the start, allowing little power or prestige to their female counterparts. Men have also dominated the film-history field, writing books that take male privilege in Hollywood for granted. "Women are always in the footnotes," as author Cari Beauchamp puts it.

Ms. Beauchamp decided to do something about this. A longtime collector of Hollywood lore, she knew that while men had always run the business, women had managed to contribute far more than conventional accounts indicate.

Seeking a focus for her interest, she found an ideal subject in Frances Marion, for decades the industry's most highly paid screenwriter. After years of research, she completed "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood," a Scribner book now getting rave reviews Ms. Marion herself would have envied.

Which is no mean achievement, given the amazing range of Marion's career. She scripted more than 200 movies between 1916 and 1946, from "Camille" and "Stella Dallas" to "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Dinner at Eight," picking up two Oscars along the way - which she used as doorstops and nutcrackers, earning a reprimand from studio chief Louis B. Mayer for not taking her profession seriously enough.

Stars speaking her dialogue included Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Lillian Gish, and members of the Barrymore clan. She also directed and produced 12 films of her own. Fluent in several languages, she was a World War I correspondent and the only female board member of the Writers Guild. With all this to her credit, why isn't Marion as famous as the stars she wrote for?

One reason is the "auteur" theory of film history, Beauchamp told me during the recent Cannes filmfest - familiar territory for her, since her previous book was "Hollywood on the Riviera: The Inside Story of the Cannes Film Festival," written with Cannes veteran Henri Behar.

According to auteur-minded critics, an artistically successful movie bears the stamp of a single artist, usually the director. This view tends to celebrate individual authorship at the expense of teamwork and collaboration. And collaboration, says Beauchamp, is what Marion and other Hollywood women excelled at. "Women are more experienced [than men] at working together," she observes.

Women also tend to be more accepting of human complexity, Beauchamp adds, which explains why female screenwriters often create multilayered characters. Marion had a gift for male characters, earning her Oscars for "The Big House," a prison drama, and "The Champ," a boxing picture. "Even her bad guys have sympathetic qualities that endear them in quirky, oddball ways," Beauchamp says. "Her characters are always whole, complete people."

If women possessed so much influence in Hollywood of old, what happened to change the situation so drastically?

The answers are complicated, Beauchamp found. Women entered the industry so early that no power structure existed to keep them out. "Hollywood in the teens was a magnet for misfits of all kinds," she says. "The business of making films was not taken seriously. When it finally was ... women had become seasoned professionals who knew every part of the process."

The change from silent cinema to "talkies" helped diminish women's power, though. "Rising costs shook things up," Beauchamp notes, giving business interests - overwhelmingly male - new power to call the shots. Social changes after World War II cemented such changes. "Rosie the Riveter went home, and so did women working in the studios."

In writing her book, Beauchamp wished to analyze the accomplishments of Marion and her associates "without putting these women through a feminist filter" that didn't exist in their own time. "The women's stories speak for themselves," she says. She also wanted to avoid "burdening women with moral superiority or greater depth of character," since this can result in "increased expectations" that are unfair to everyone.

In the end, Beauchamp believes the best moviemaking comes not from women or men alone, but from cooperation that brings out the best of both. This is borne out by the dedication of "Without Lying Down" to Teo and Jake, her young sons - "with the hope that they may know the joy of women as equal partners and the freedom that comes from learning from history."

* 'Frances Marion and Her Circle,' a film series inspired by 'Without Lying Down,' will be presented by New York's Museum of Modern Art. The first portion, comprising 28 sound films, begins June 23. A program of about 40 silent movies will follow this winter.

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