The last time we paused to recount the efforts of one of Hollywood’s most unsung tribes – that of the women screenwriter – we stopped just as silent cinema led into the talkies and a new era arrived in Hollywood…
To gloss very quickly over the following few decades, women did continue to write in Hollywood with WW2 ensuring a lack of men, a new societal role for women and a need for upbeat entertainment. But as the advent of sound gave studios new headaches, staff jobs were replaced by project-by-project contracts and women were pushed to write from a ‘woman’s angle’, their status as movie-making stalwarts diminishing ever further. At the time, Lenore Coffee reported her suspicions that the studios hated women, though conversely later claimed in 1986 that women faltered during the ‘30s and ‘40s because “a silent film was like writing a novel and a script was like writing a play. That’s why women dropped out […] You can’t tell me the name of one good [female] dramatist”. A sentiment many at the time in Hollywood are likely to have shared across the latter half of the 20th century.
But in 1963, a movement launched by Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, came crashing across the beaches of Los Angeles’ golden coast: second wave feminism. Bolstered by feminist film theory pioneered in Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape – The Treatment of Women in the Movies a decade later, second wave feminism brought the world’s attention to a range of more insidious gender equality issues at home and at work: Hollywood could hardly avoid being unaffected. The next four decades saw Hollywood explore the female experience as it never had done before.
The legendary Elaine Mary’s exemplary 1971 screenplay Such Good Friends took a frank and insightful look at life from a housewife’s perspective. An adaptation of Lois Gold’s noel of the same name, May’s script follows Julie Messenger who discovers her husband’s many affairs as he slips into a coma. With a complex heroine who is allowed a rich emotional journey, it stands up. The longtime comedy partner of Mike Nichols, May allowed her many female characters to be fully realised and capable; a sadly notable trait in a Hollywood that previously consigned women to being wives and girlfriends, both believing that female stories could never be blockbusters while also simply not having the women there to assign them otherwise.
Stephanie Rothman was a fellow success, being the first woman to be awarded a Director’s Guild Fellowship and have a particular instinct for rerouting Hollywood’s misogynistic inclinations. After being offered a sexy beach movie as her first directing gig in 1965, with the only condition being that there should be lots of attractive nude people, Rothman went ahead with a plot that had the nerdy guys triumph over the buff beach bums for the girl’s affections. Often working within Hollywood’s ‘exploitation genre’ – one that looked to make cheap movies off the back of current trends – Rothman continued her trend of subverting the crude specifications of Hollywood execs. Sadly she found herself shut out of the industry in the late ‘70s and, unable to understand why she’d been abandoned by the institution that had previously championed her, left directing and screenwriting behind for good.
As movies plowed on into the ’90s, Nora Ephron came to the fore. Much like Stephanie Rothman’s tactic in turning exploitative misogynistic movies on their heads, Nora Ephron revitalised romantic comedies by infusing them with clever quips and recognisable, human characters. Her trio of When Harry Met Sally (1989), followed by Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and, finally, You’ve Got Mail (1998) saw Meg Ryan tackle one exemplary female part after another. Many may contend with a declaration of their feminist virtues and there’s plenty else Ephron wrote that could be equally lauded, but in them, Ephron was able to take control of the genre that Hollywood had spent decades forcing women to write for.
Before Ephron had redefined the typically female rom-com genre, Callie Khouri was busy taking on a typically male one: the buddy comedy. Her 1991 film, Thelma and Louise, saw two women, wearing headscarves and red lipstick, tear up the well-worn roads of Hollywood’s studio system like none before. Khouri came up with the idea for Thelma and Louise as she parked her car outside her house in December 1987, struck by the thought of two women going it alone on a crime-spree across America. As the twosome took on chauvinism, societal expectations and cliff tops together, they provided a doctrine of female reckless abandon and enduring friendship that has never lost its edge. It’s likely no coincidence that one of its stars, Geena Davis, has since become one of the go-to voices on gender equality, establishing the renowned Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
In spite of a development in the on-screen portrayal of women, unlike the multitude of highly conspicuous women screenwriters in the silent era, women screenwriters remained thin on the ground and largely unrecognised throughout the latter half of the 20th century: when researching her fantastic book The Women Who Write The Movies in the early nineties, Marsha McCreadie reported that, after asking around about women screenwriters, one agent replied: “What? All two of them?” Only 11 women were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay across the ‘60s and ‘70s: only one, Nancy O’Dowd, won. Furthermore, while films like Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) told stories that championed female empowerment, there was a different story running off-screen. For all of feminism’s influence on films like Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Robert Altman’s Three Women, both were written and directed by men; it seemed as if only on-screen did women hold court.
Though sound did give voice to new generations of women and feminist film may have gained steam, and this is most definitely a good thing, women screenwriters were being left behind. Even worse, the women that did get to speak were overwhelmingly white, straight and middle class. As we bring our recap of women scribblers for the screen up to the modern day, let’s shift our approach from simply celebrating the presence of any women screenwriters to questioning which women weren’t allowed up there at all.