7 Women of Hollywood History Who Never Gave A F*ck
By Alex Cranz
There are some pretty amazing women working in Hollywood today. Filmmakers like Katherine Bigelow, Kimberly Pierce and Lynne Ramsay. Actors/producers like Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Writers like the super contentious Diablo Cody.
But before these women there were the trailblazers the women of Hollywood that made it acceptable for those directors to wear pants on set and those actresses to take a part in the business as well as the art.
Here for your reading enjoyment are seven of the most badass women of Hollywood history. These women blazed those aforementioned trails and they did it while not giving a fuck what anyone thought. They were too busy making great movies and living fascinating lives. While some are still remembered today others have been forgotten to history. NOT ANY MORE.
Bergman is considered one of the greatest film actresses to ever live. Her name is synonymous with Swedish grace. Her work in Casablanca will be remembered when we’re all dust (barring an alien apocalypse that destroys all means of transferring electricity). She’s the rare actress that worked with nearly all the greats of 30s and 40s cinema and some of the greats of modern cinema. Have you seen Autumn Sonata directed by Ingmar Bergman? No? You should. How about Notorious or the Oscar-winning Cactus Flower or the early Swedish film, A Woman’s Face? Bergman tackled interesting characters that weren’t the same old Hollywood starlets. The characters she played were strong and intelligent and sometimes even unlikable.
In a bizarre instance of life and art mirroring one another in 1950 she took the role of Karin in the film Stromboli. The film was about a foreign woman struggling to fit in the isolationist and judgmental homogenous society of late 40s Italy. The people of the town despise her for being a foreigner and for marrying one of the last available men of the town. They consider her a slut and creepy foreigner and they pressure her until she’s left weeping like a child at the end of the film.
Stromboli was directed by Roberto Rossellini. He was married at the time of filming. As was Ingrid Bergman. When the actress and director fell in love, left their spouses and got married it was a scandal. Bigger than Errol Flynn’s statutory rape charges or any of the other affairs that had plagued Hollywood since its inception. The affair saw Bergman blacklisted from work in the US and rejected by her fans. It was like the whole Jennifer and Brangelina affair only instead of teams there was simply Ingrid Bergman, a horrible slutty Swedish witch who stole a woman’s husband and broke her own husband’s heart.
Bergman shrugged it off, moved to Europe and made a new family (including her twin daughters Isabella and Isotta Rossellini). She drank wine and had fun and made weird little independent European films. Some might have accused her of slumming for leaving Hollywood for the less glamorous European film scene but her work with Roberto Rossellini and Jean Renoir highlight the free spiritedness and cool experimentalism of the European New Wave.
Finally in 1956, after she’d separated from Rossellini, she found a way back into Hollywood with the overblown epic Anastasia. Playing a 50 something princess thought killed in Russia in the first part of the century she won her second Oscar and was happily returned to the bosom of the Hollywood machine. Few actresses have ever fallen so far in the eyes of the public and returned so triumphantly. Bergman fought the Hollywood Gossip machine and won.
You’ve seen Leigh Brackett’s work. You probably don’t know you have because no one pays attention to the screenwriter but you have. Did you see Empire Strikes Back? You did? Told you. While what part of her work remains in the final film is up for debate it’s pretty easy to say that she’s one of the reasons the film is considered the best of the Star Wars series. And she wrote it while dying of cancer. And it was the first science fiction screenplay she ever wrote.
Though Brackett actually got her start writing science fiction. In the 40s and 59s she helped define the scifi pulp genre with her work. Working with editors like Ray Bradbury she crafted countless “planetary romances” and developed a super descriptive analogue to our solar system now referred to as the Leigh Brackett Solar System.
But her first full length novel was actually a hardboiled detective story and it was so good Howard Hawks hired her, sight unseen, to help William Faulkner write The Big Sleep. When she was hired no one actually knew she was a woman, so imagine their surprise when this striking, kind of nerdy woman waltzed up to one of the greatest novelists to ever live and introduced herself as his co-writer. While Big Sleep is now remembered for all the smoldering glances between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart it’s a rare example of great novelists collaborating on the adaptations of one of the most important novels of the 20th century.
After Big Sleep Brackett took a break from screenwriting but she returned in the 50s to write Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Robert Altman’s deconstruction of the pulp mystery genre, The Long Goodbye. Her final work was the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back. Despite a relatively short cv for a thirty year history Brackett’s few films are nearly all screenwriting gems.
Arzner was there at the dawn of cinema and was one of only a handful of women directors. She started off as a writer and film editor and became so valuable in the late twenties that she told the studio, Paramount, that if they didn’t start letting her direct films she’d move to another studio that would. Paramount agreed and Arzner started churning out exceptional films.
She was notable to her co-workers for her dress. Arzner believed that to be taken seriously a woman ought to dress more like a man so she came to work every day in pants and coats.
In 1929 while filming the early talkie The Wild Party she had need of a microphone that could follow the action but stay out of sight of the camera. So she attached a microphone to a fishing pole and invented the boom mic.
Through the thirties she cast some of the biggest women in film and television before they were stars. Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell were all first noticed by Arzner.
This may be due to her having fabulous taste in attractive and talented women…and yes I mean she was gay. While never officially “out” Arzner was quite open about her sapphic proclivities and more than one star made note of it (or engaged in an affair with her–1930s Hollywood was basically a hotbed of gorgeous people having all kinds of sex and not caring about gender).
In 1936 she was the first women admitted to the Director’s Guild of America and in 1943 she abruptly retired from filmmaking and spent the rest of her years with her dancer partner Marion Morgan. Despite a relatively short career as a director to this day she has the largest body of work for any female director in history.
In some places Marion might just be a footnote. An asterisk. “First Woman To Win An Oscar For Screenwriting.” She wasn’t the first woman nominated (Bess Meredyth and Josephine Lovett were nominated the year before), but her script for The Big House won the little gold man. Before winning Oscars (the second would be for The Champ) she worked as a reporter. In Europe. During World War I. If you’ve watched either War Horse or Downton Abbey lately you realize how intense that must have been especially in a time when it was still socially unacceptable for women to wear pants.
After getting a reputation as a damn fine reporter she moved to the States to work for the next woman on this list, Lois Weber. Her writing was good enough to get her a number of jobs writing for the grand poobah of Hollywood, Mary Pickford. Writing turned into producing and directing and even appearing in films. By the time she retired from Hollywood in the early 40s she had over 300 film credits to her name and had written for cinema gold like Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Shirley Temple, Myrna Loy and Marlene Dietrich.
Yes, Olivia de Havilland is on this list. Melanie herself.
Because she is a stone cold badass.
Remember the retching noises Scarlett makes while scarfing on ground turnips in Gone With the Wind? That was de Havilland who stepped in, as she did frequently on that film, to get scenes done so people could go home. Without her there the film likely would have never reached completion. Vivan Leigh and Clark Gable hated one another and the rotating door of directors weren’t much better. De Havilland was the set’s peacemaker. When George Cukor was fired as director de Havilland marched across the lot to let David O. Selznick know he was an idiot. And she did it in costume. And dragged a similarly costumed Leigh with her.
She was also the rare actress to maintain a working relationship with Errol Flynn. To say she had the playboy wrapped around her finger is an understatement. His first film, Captain Blood was also his first film with de Havilland. They appeared in ten films together and those were the rare occasions where he only had one orange injected with vodka instead of four or five. The two never actually got together off-screen but both nursed major crushes for nearly ten years.
Despite winning two Oscars, nursing a 50+ year feud with sister Joan Fontaine and being one of the last surviving cast members of Gone With the Wind it’s de Havilland’s legal troubles that put her on this list as like many others here she changed the way Hollywood does business.
Back in the days when studios reigned a young actor was signed to a contract and effectively treated like a child. If they enraged their studio they were suspended as punishment. The studio suspension period would not count towards the actor’s studio contractual time period and the studio would often loan out suspended actors to other studios for a fee. So a studio could get away with loaning actors out and maintaining their contracts indefinitely.
They compounded the problem with fuzzy math. An actress might be signed to a 7 year contract. That actress would assume that meant from 1931-1938. The studios counted differently. They read that as 365 business days times 7–more than 35,000 business days. As actresses and actors clearly worked less than 365 days a year their 7 year contracts could suddenly become 10, 15 and even 20 year contracts if the math was bad enough.
De Havilland, with the blessing of the Screen Actor’s Guild, took the studios to court and won. The De Havilland Law was created and to this day is used in contract disputes in California. Historians agree it was the first major nail in the studios’ coffin.
De Havilland is still alive, by the way. She’s living it up in France drinking wine, thinking about the good ol’ days and telling her sister Joan Fontaine to go fuck herself. Bad ass spitfire known for playing simpering ladies in the 30s? We salute you.
While Dorothy Arzner was the first woman admitted to the DGA Lois Weber was the first female director to embody the modern concept of film director. Her only rival for the title of first “auteur” of cinema would be your favorite “accidental” racist and mine, D.W. Griffith. Like Griffith Weber often wrote and directed her own films, and like Griffith she had some problematic politics for a dyed in the wool liberal like myself. Chiefly she was very, very pro-life. Her film Where Are My Children? is notable for its use of locations, lighting and non-actors in small roles. Also for tackling the issue of eugenics and abortion. IN 1916. Unfortunately for a pro-choicer like myself Weber was very much against abortion. According to Wikipedia some asshat has called the film “the Pro-Life Cider House Rules.” Still. Weber was tackling the issue in a full length film when most films were still only thirty minutes long and light on plot.
And the film was actually her reaction to the legal troubles of Margaret Sanger. Yes THAT Sanger. The one who founded Planned Parenthood. Weber was a major advocate for birth control and themes of sex education and proper birth control are explored in Where Are My Children? and it’s pseudo-sequel, Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Weber’s other films explored things like mixed-faith marriages, poverty and my personal favorite: hypocrisy in organized religion.
While Weber was deeply devout and had once lived as a homeless evangelist in her teen she was also very big on pointing out the hypocrisies of other Christian evangelists. Her biggest jab at them was in Hypocrites where a naked statue traipses through town revealing the hypocrisies of a church congregation. The nudity, sensuality and themes for the film were so riotous the movie actually caused riots in New York, was banned in Ohio and heavily censored in Boston.
And if you’re worried about it being just a salacious piece of T&A don’t be. Weber was a brilliant director and her work, like Griffith’s and later Leni Riefenstahl’s and Orson Welles’s, fundamentally changed the way films were shot and edited. She did things with a camera and spools of film that most could not conceive of in the 1910s. While Griffith may remain the memorable director it was Weber who was the more successful financially. She was a more prolific filmmaker and didn’t do things like build the city of Babylon on an abandoned lot in Los Angeles.
With the inception of the Hayes Code Weber found herself losing work. Things were made worse when Universal approached her to make a comedy adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At some point in filming she realized that whole concept was racist as hell and backed out of the picture. She sporadically made pictures up until 1934 due to being careful to only work with producers, studios and actors who wouldn’t mollycoddle her. Her last film, White Heat, was another Hayes Code toe liner and, like most of her films, has since been lost to history.
She passed away in 1939 and Frances Marion, a good friend for more than 20 years, paid for her funeral.
There is no way anyone other than Mary Pickford could be number one on this list. Few women deserve the praise heaped on them quite like Pickford. She was the first big movie star, was one half of the first major “supercouple,” is still one of the most financially successful stars to have ever lived and with three other actors created the first film studio developed by actors for actors, and as a founder of United Artists she’s the very first female studio executive in history.
Remembered today for her long-term relationship with fellow superstar Douglas Fairbanks in the 1910s and 20s she was the most famous actress in the world. The only other actor who could compete was friend Charlie Chaplin. Even Pickford’s husband wasn’t as well-known or as well-regarded. She was also the person who all but single-handedly transformed how Hollywood worked. When she appeared in her first film in 1909 cinema was in its infancy and no one quite knew how to turn it into a lucrative business. Most thought that film would just be an extension of Broadway and that they’d use it to film Broadway shows. Pickford’s films (many produced by her herself) were wild successes without an attachment to Broadway. Her success proved that films could be more than adaptations of the same old shows.
Pickford remained the dominating box office force until the late twenties and the dawn of talkies. Her fall from fame was two-part. She initially rejected “talkies” as a fad and she pulled a Felicity and cut off her famous curls. For years she was known as “the girl with the curls” so her fans were understandably livid when she waltzed into Coquette with a fashionable bob. It was a one two punch that devastated her career as an actress.
But as already mentioned, Pickford was a savvy as hell business woman and the head of one of the most successful studios in Hollywood. Though she stopped making films she remained a dominating force on the Hollywood scene for decades afterwards.