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The New Old Hollywood

Carlos Amaya / Sipa USA / AP, Charles Sykes / Invision/ AP, Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,147 words)

Some people missed Jack Nicholson at the Oscars this year. They were expecting to see the octogenarian — shades on — where he always is: front row, leaning back, just about sucking on a cigar. They expected the stars on stage to shout across the room at him and him to shout back, like the Dolby Theatre is his own personal living room. Because that’s how it is when you’ve been in the industry since you were teenager and you’ve been nominated for countless Oscars and you’ve won three — it’s age that bestows the privilege, but also work. Oh, and race. And gender too. Also sexuality. So, yes, with all those things squared away — whiteness, maleness, heteroness — in an industry that privileges all three, after several decades you acquire the kind of legendary status where you don’t stand on ceremony because everyone else is standing for you.

So where was Jack? I don’t know; I didn’t notice he was gone. How do you notice when Spike Lee’s in his spot? This guy who won a Student Academy Award back in the eighties, leaning back, side-eyeing everyone, shouting back and forth at everyone too. Just like Jack except, like, more. In his grape suit and his grape hat and his grape glasses, Lee peacocked the hell out of the red carpet with his fists up, Love and Hate forged across his fingers — were those rings or brass knuckles? Oh, wait, I remember, they’re from Do the Right Thing. They’re both. And then there’s those gold Air Jordans commissioned by the man himself for the filmmaker himself because, like Jack, he is also one of those basketball guys who sits in the front row of every game. Of course, the look — designer Ozwald Boateng, who worked on Black Panther, did the suit — is a lot more of a statement than Jack would ever make. But, then, Spike Lee is a lot more of a statement.

This is the new old Hollywood. Where Jack Nicholson was well-ensconced, now the seats of note are no longer occupied solely by the old white men who once claimed all the accolades for building the industry. Instead you have the people who have worked just as hard for just as long who are no longer being overlooked — more than that, they are being recognized as essential to the future. While Meryl Streep briefly appeared to take Nicholson’s spot, the aggressively decorated actress served as a bridge to the rarer, and therefore more powerful, recognition of the legacy of black artists — Spike Lee, Oprah, Cicely Tyson — not only for their own achievements coming up within a much less diverse industry, but for how they, like so many older people of color in so many other industries, have set the stage for the younger (second?) generation facing a less hostile world, built on the work of their predecessors.

* * *

It started with Oprah, because what doesn’t? Back in 1995, David Letterman launched the Oscars by walking across the stage to where the queen of daytime was sitting, and saying, “Oprah?” From the audience, in her regal chocolate gown, sprinkled with diamonds, even her wave regal, she mouthed, “Hi,” because that’s all you have to really say when you’re Oprah. She proceeded to laugh good-naturedly as he introduced her to Uma, but no one wants to remember that terrible punchline, and anyway, the point was Oprah. Only 10 years after launching her syndicated talk show — in a field saturated with white men — Oprah was a big enough name to open Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. But she was only 41 then, so: big enough, but not old enough to be the kind of legacy that just sits and watches as everyone orbits around her. That came later.

In the interim, Oprah was named the most influential woman in the world multiple times over. She became so pervasive in the culture — her show, her magazine, her cable network — that she became less of a person and more of an emotion. Her fame transcended race and gender and sexuality, even body. So when she was seated at an awards ceremony, even if she was there for no real reason, the feeling was: obviously, this entire edifice would crumble if Oprah weren’t here. And when she wasn’t there, she still was. Because Oprah is everywhere. So when E! News joked in 2017 that she was “probably the most-thanked person in Emmy history” it seemed fitting. As John Oliver said when he accepted the award for writing in a variety series, “I’d like to thank Oprah, because she is sitting right there and it seems inappropriate not to.”

Oprah herself thanked Sidney Poitier last year when she became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes. “I remember his tie was white and of course, his skin was black. And I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that,” she said. “There are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given the same award.” Though she has been fully embraced by a white audience and industry, culminating in Globes host Seth Meyers joking of a possible Oprah presidential run in 2020 (it was less of a joke to the media, which covered the story incessantly) it is easy to overlook how she affected black artists. But two fellow giants of film and television — Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes — offered a reminder. Perry admitted that he started writing when Oprah said that it was a cathartic act on her talk show. And when Shonda Rhimes was honored at the Television Academy Hall of Fame ceremony in late 2017, her speech on Oprah mirrored Oprah’s on Poitier: “She was a black woman on television, and then she was a black woman taking over the world through television.”

With more young artists of color getting powerful faster, more older artists of color, many without Oprah’s platform (no one has that platform, to be honest), are lifted up along with them. As a guest editor for TIME’s second annual “Optimists” issue, filmmaker Ava Duvernay chose Cicely Tyson, who received an honorary Oscar in November, to be the cover star. “.@ava I have been asked multiple times what it feels like to be on the cover of @TIME?” the 94-year-old actress tweeted. “My humblest answer is, had u not been guest editor, I would probably never know.” Like dominoes, the inspiration tips down from one generation to another to another. Sidney Poitier inspires Oprah, Oprah inspires Shonda Rhimes, Shonda Rhimes inspires Issa Rae. And the recognition tips back up again.

Then there is the direct support provided by one generation to the next. In the interview accompanying his Rolling Stone cover last year, Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman revealed that Phylicia Rashad was once his acting teacher, but also helped him a whole lot more than that; she would feed him and drive him places and even got her friend Denzel to pay for him to attend a prestigious program in Oxford. And the support extends across ethnicities. Upon winning a SAG Award this year for her role in Killing Eve, Sandra Oh acknowledged three black actors for their encouragement throughout her career. “I want to thank Alfre Woodard. In 1997 — she’s never going to remember this — in 1997, she whispered in my ear, ‘I’m so proud of you out there. We fight the same fight,’” she said. “Jamie Foxx, in 2006, pulled me aside and he said, ‘Keep going,’ and in 2017, Lena Waithe, she just embraced me and said, ‘You already won. It’s in the work.’ So thank you to my fellow actors.” The fight is everyone’s, of course, and the solidarity across race, gender, sexuality, age — everything — is the real win.

* * *

“Spike Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” That’s how it sounds when one of your oldest friends announces that you’ve just won your first Oscar. Samuel L. Jackson was the one to read out the BlackkKlansman filmmaker’s name as the winner of best adapted screenplay. And Lee responded by jumping into his arms, wrapping his legs around Jackson so you couldn’t tell who was hugging whom. It was the celebration of a long-awaited formal welcome into the Hollywood family, the culmination of an almost 40-year career in which Lee had been trying to carve out a space as a commercial filmmaker. He always had the critical support (BAFTA, Palme d’Or, Cesar, Emmy, Peabody nods and wins) and the exposure (Malcolm X, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Inside Man) but the largely white establishment, symbolized by the Academy, had remained elusive until now.

Despite going from film school straight into the festival circuit, despite the popularity of his films — She’s Gotta Have It made about 70 times its budget — Lee had to hustle for himself because the industry wasn’t doing it for him. On the advent of his third film, Do the Right Thing, The New Yorker stated of Lee, “the most prominent black director in the American movie industry, he probably feels as if he were sprinting downcourt with no one to pass to and about five hundred towering white guys between him and the basket.” But some white gals were offering assists. Ahead of the Oscars, Kim Basinger’s off-script moment at the 1990 ceremony while presenting best-picture nominee Dead Poets Society went viral. In the clip she called out the Academy for “missing” Do the Right Thing, which she said told “the biggest truth of all.” Whether or not it was intentional, Barbra Streisand’s presentation of BlackKklansman as one of the best picture nominees this year echoed Basinger’s words. “It was so real, so funny and yet so horrifying because it was based on the truth,” Streisand said of the film. “And truth is especially precious these days.”

Even though BlackKklansman lost the Best Picture award to Green Book — “Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose,” Lee quipped (Driving Miss Daisy won in 1990, while Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated) — its director’s influence ricocheted across the ceremony. When Ruth E. Carter became the first black woman to win best costume design for Black Panther, she thanked Lee for her “start,” referring to her first gig on his second film, School Daze, in 1988. “I hope this makes you proud,” she said. The connection not only points to the limited opportunities for filmmakers of color — if Spike Lee didn’t hire you, likely no one did — but to Lee’s own ethos, to portray black society in all its complexity from within it. ‘‘A lot of black artists start off with a black base, and once they get big, they get co-opted and cut all ties to the black community,’’ he told The New York Times in 1986. He did not plan to do the same, nor has he. And a growing number of current artists of color — from Shonda Rhimes to Jordan Peele to Lena Waithe — are taking his cue and hiring as diversely. “Here’s the thing: Without April Reign, #OscarsSoWhite and the former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences … I wouldn’t be here tonight,” Lee said after his Oscar win. “It’s more diverse … That would not have happened without #OscarsSoWhite and Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Facts.”

Though the most popular films have not improved their representation over the past decade, television is seeing increased diversity and these Oscars were the most inclusive in recent memory. Three out of the four acting trophies went to people of color, while two black women — Black Panther’s Carter for costume and Hannah Beachler for production design — made history in their categories. As Lee alluded to, this is only possible through changing optics, the slow trickle of diversity into the establishment that builds, generation upon generation, toward a welcome deluge. The result is a new and improved Hollywood that reflects reality over antediluvian ideals, in a world that is moving in the same direction — from politics, to science, to tech, to everything. And while it’s rare to catch the actual changing of the guard, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn managed to freeze a symbolic moment after the Oscars in which Spike Lee, trophy in hand, asked Black Panther director Ryan Coogler how old he was — 32 to his 61 — before saying, “Man! I’m passing it to you.” It was Lee acknowledging his own legacy in the direct presence of its heir. As he had said during his speech earlier in the night: “We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Writing for the Movies: A Letter from Hollywood, 1962

AP Photo

Daniel Fuchs | The Golden West | Black Sparrow Books | May 2005 | 42 minutes (8,396 words)

 

Dear Editors:

Thank you for your kind letter and compliments. Yes, your hunch was right, I would like very much to tell about the problems and values I’ve encountered, writing for the movies all these years. I’m so slow in replying to you because I thought it would be a pleasant gesture—in return for your warm letter—to send you the completed essay. But it’s taken me longer than I thought it would. I’ve always been impressed by the sure, brimming conviction of people who attack Hollywood, and this even though they may never have been inside the business and so haven’t had the chance of knowing how really onerous and exacerbat­ing the conditions are. But for me the subject is more disturbing, or else it is that I like to let my mind wander and that I start from a different bias, or maybe I’ve just been here too long.

Read more…

Hollywood and the New Female Grotesque

Lionsgate / Element Pictures / PalmStar Media

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,206 words)

The Favourite does not take its women at face value. Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist tragicomedy has Olivia Colman starring as Queen Anne, a crumbling presence plagued by illness and an infantile disposition, neither of which stop her from playing magical beds with her two favorites, right hand woman Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and scheming servant Abigail (Emma Stone). This is not the stuff of the male gaze, though a male is gazing: it is over the top, tilting-into-farce, Grand Guignol panto. In one scene, Colman’s doleful Anne, secluded in her bedroom, morosely sticks a fork into a banquet-sized blue cake, shoves it into her mouth, vomits into a vase (everyone vomits into vases in this film) and then, wet bits of blue staining her mouth, acid-sweet bile in ours, takes another mouthful of that same cake. It’s gloriously grotesque.

The other two actresses are burlesque in a different way. Weisz is dragged so determinedly across the screen by a well-meaning horse that her beauty is deformed into a fulvous pulp. As for Stone, those cartoon-sized eyes are almost beside the point, which is her mouth contorting into various exclamations. They are united by the fact that their muddy, beaten, twisted faces always return to an alluring resting state (scars notwithstanding). Since Hollywood continues to celebrate beautiful women for transforming into ugly women — see Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, Patricia Arquette in Escape at Dannemora, Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots — these actresses can seduce us with their momentary lack of vanity while leaving us secure in the knowledge that they remain appealing.

But this year three actresses are cementing another tradition. Colman, Toni Collette in Hereditary, and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are rewarded not for mutating, but for being, and not just for being, but expanding the “ugly” space in which they dwell to encroach on the sprawling establishment. This is something of a dual subversion: Not only do these women fail to meet Hollywood’s standards, they are lauded for pushing their undesirability to the extreme. It is the new female grotesque, and it supplants our idea of what a woman should be with what she is.

* * *

Five years ago, Colman was passed over by America. In 2013, Fox announced the network was developing a remake of Broadchurch, the British series in which Colman and David Tennant play detectives investigating a child murder in a small coastal town. While Tennant reprised his role in the U.S. version, Colman wasn’t even asked. She was instead replaced by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, six years older but also blonder and with a face that wouldn’t be out of place behind a Fox News desk. Colman reportedly said in response, “if Hollywood calls, I’m going, but I can also see why they haven’t called. I eat a bit too much, my teeth aren’t perfect, I’ve got eye bags. I look like a normal 39-year-old woman — but in England no one minds that.”

It says something about Colman that despite this blatant rejection, she leaned further into normalcy. The now-44-year-old actress put on another 35 pounds to play the imperious, mercurial Queen Anne. “I much prefer these sorts of roles because there is no pressure to be something you are not, and I am obviously not glamorous,” she told the Independent. “For Anne, I wasn’t meant to look nice or be nice, and it was liberating and brilliant.” That her approach is now being praised by the same system that initially punished her for it, suggests that England is no longer the only place where normal can not only be acceptable, but preferable.

Straining to think of farcical performances equivalent to Colman’s in The Favourite, I could only come up with this: “You’re terrible, Muriel.” In the Australian film that made her famous, 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, Toni Collette played the homely titular anti-heroine in garish red lipstick, leopard print, and a side ponytail. In one scene, four of her friends, all of whom look like various Barbie collectibles, break up with her because she is “fat” and unstylish. “You bring us down, Muriel,” one of them says as Collette’s mouth slowly deforms into a grimace and she performs the nonpareil ugly cry: loud bawling, mouth open, teeth out, tongue out, lipstick smearing. “I’m not nothing,” she wails.

Her ascent was confirmation. The role won Collette a couple of awards and eventually landed her where she is today, in Hereditary, that same elastic face rewarded for its encapsulation of abject grief. In one scene, her son, sensing she is angry with him, asks that she release herself from her inner burden. And she does; after she yells wildly, we watch her searing hatred and anger slip into sadness, her face dragged down to hell.  As Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety, “She plays Annie as a woman who begins to wear her buried rage and guilt on the outside. It pours out of her, as if she were “possessed,” and indeed she is — but by what, or whom?” This spectacle of disfigurement helps to reframe the way in which women are allowed to express emotion, the preservation of allure  — “I don’t want to cry, my mascara will run” — shouted down into oblivion.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? yields a more quietly ugly performance. Melissa McCarthy plays serial forger Lee Israel as a dyspeptic alcoholic with a shapeless haircut, no makeup, and a perpetual frown — even her smile looks like a scowl. Though the Gilmore Girls alum is known for her jovial on-screen presence, her performance as Lee is a throwback to the role that made her famous, the oversexed, mannish Megan in Bridesmaids. There, she chewed the scenery. Here she just spreads out in it. “She cares about her intellect more than her appearance and doesn’t care about the things that we assign to women as what they’re supposed to be interested in,” director Marielle Heller has said of the character. In McCarthy’s hands, Lee is not particularly likable, but she is understandable. One wonders what she would have been in original star Julianne Moore’s — would the apartment riddled with cat shit have rung false?

Despite her toxicity, McCarthy’s Lee is not drawn asexual. She has a sweet flirtation with a woman who runs a bookstore (Dolly Wells), though her surprise at her interest and the fact that it never progresses past one date does paint her love life as unsuccessful. Still, we’ve come a long way since 1991, when Kathy Bates won the Oscar for best actress by playing a virginal psychopath in Misery. The pre-stan “number one fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), her character, Annie Wilkes, is a milk-fed matron who turns on a dime, refuses to swear, and wears her hair in a clip paired with pinafores. Her ability to juggle G-rated phrases like “dirty birdy” with X-rated torture makes her one of the top villains of all time, though there remains a superficiality to her ferocity. When Misery moved to Broadway three years ago, Julia Roberts was considered for the lead, but, according to Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, the author nixed the idea, describing Annie as simply “a brawny woman who can sling a guy around, not a pixie.” Still, Bates, who had been acting for decades, competed with Roberts and Pretty Woman for the best actress Oscar in 1991 — and won. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” she said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”

* * *

The same year Bates won for Misery, Whoopi Goldberg did for Ghost, heralding work by actresses of color which would in some ways be even more revolutionary. The only black woman nominated for best supporting actress that year, Goldberg took home the trophy for playing Oda Mae Brown, a snake-oil psychic who can actually commune with the dead. Though Goldberg was an established actress by that time and had already been nominated for an Oscar for The Color Purple, this was as rare a role for black women in general as it was for her. Instead of being straight drama or straight comedy, as Goldberg was used to, Oda Mae seamlessly threaded the absurd through the serious. Arriving 40 minutes in, she yanks Ghost out from under its beautiful white leads (“Wanna kiss my butt?”) with her voluminous hair, scene-stealing outfits, foul mouth, and resting wry face.

The quintessential Oda Mae moment comes when she is asked by ghost Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) to withdraw $4 million of blood money from the bank. She arrives in her Sunday best looking like a fuchsia peacock, complete with jaunty pillbox hat and matching clutch (white gloves included). Buoyed by the prospect of becoming a millionairess, she motors out of the bank high on adrenalin only to be told by Sam that she has to pass on the money. He points out a church stand — “I know you don’t think I’m giving this $4 million to a bunch’a nuns!” — and she hands the money over in bad grace before walking off in a huff. Sam watches her go with a beatific expression on his face. “I think you’re wonderful Oda Mae,” he calls. At that she turns around, in the middle of a busy road, her legs almost in gridiron hut stance, and spits in his general direction. Then she harumphs away, holding her purse like a dejected football player cradling his loss.

There are two kinds of performances by black actresses that tend to be lauded by the Academy. Since Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind, the preference has been for less Dorothy Dandridge-looking women in morally superior “Mammy” roles, such as Octavia Spencer’s turns in The Help and The Shape of Water. When black women are considered traditionally beautiful, they tend to be recognized by the Academy for being tortured, ravaged — Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Naomie Harris in Moonlight. It’s okay to be less appealing, as long as you’re a symbol of virtue or remain appealing out of costume. God help you if you’re a black woman who is deemed unattractive off screen and you have no redeeming qualities on screen either.

Mo’Nique became the rare exception in 2010 after playing the repellent abusive mother of the titular Precious. Having constructed her career on raunchy stand-up that had an enormous following in the black community (though, as the Netflix debacle suggests, that stature matters less to its white executives), Mo’Nique dropped her trademark hair and makeup to sweat through a camisole and snarl at Gabourey Sidibe. Despite her character’s almost unbelievable vileness, there was a palatability to the “poor black violent single mother” trope for a white audience (and Academy) more familiar with racial stereotypes than reality. But it didn’t come in a presentable package. Mo’Nique was too much — too loud, too assertive, too entitled. In the end her win was overshadowed by the frivolous controversy that ensued when she refused to campaign — “You want me to campaign for an award — and I say this with all the humility in the world — but you want me to campaign for an award that I didn’t ask for?” — which is why, seven years after her win, it made sense that she didn’t feel she owed much to Hollywood. “I think a big highlight for me was when they called me for the first time for the NAACP Image Awards,” she told Variety. “Because as a little girl, I didn’t see people like me receiving the Oscar.”

* * *

In her seminal 1994 book The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, Modernity, Mary Russo outlined the kind of women our culture embraces. “The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with ‘high’ or official culture,” she wrote. “The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture . . . and with social transformation.” But the transformation to the new female grotesque — that of the unacceptable woman pushing her unacceptability to its limits — is gaining traction. The conversation around gendered exploitation in Hollywood has helped to expand the definition of women’s roles. Lena Dunham, meanwhile, spent much of her ascent exposing her own body on screen to liberate those of regular women (as performance artist Carolee Schneeman once told me, “She’s the ideal of normal”). Women of color are also being recognized for their part in dismantling the white ideal. And the number of women behind the scenes has swelled. Toni Collette co-executive produced Hereditary, Marielle Heller directed Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which was co-written by Nicole Holofcener), and Deborah Davis co-executive produced and co-wrote The Favourite. Perhaps Davis is even responsible for The Favourite’s final scene in which Queen Anne, beset by stroke, barely able to walk, still manages to physically dominate Abigail, her hand on the younger, comelier woman’s head, possibly tearing Abigail’s hair out as she strokes the monarch’s leg. In Lady Sarah’s words: “Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Karina Longworth on the Women Caught in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood Web of Gossip

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in "Stage Door" (1937), Getty / Howard Hughes, Associated Press / Collage by Katie Kosma

Rae Nudson | Longreads | November 2018 | 13 minutes (3,545 words)

 

Listening to Karina Longworth’s conspiratorial drawl on her podcast “You Must Remember This” feels like you’re about to hear some really great gossip at a party. It’s my favorite podcast, partly because I love stories about old Hollywood, which she studiously researches and shares, featuring legendary figures like Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne. But mostly I love it because of the way Longworth critically views each of her sources and dissects old studio narratives to discover the story closest to the truth.

Her new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, takes that sharp critical thinking and applies it to pilot turned filmmaker turned hermit Howard Hughes and the women he groomed and abused during his lifetime. Step by step, Longworth illustrates how Hughes created and maintained his millionaire playboy image, often at the expense of the careers and well-being of the long line of women he used to prop up his lifestyle. Hughes’ actions are sometimes so horrifying it sounds like an urban legend, told to would-be starlets to warn them of the horrors of men and Hollywood.

Hughes basically held women hostage, stealing years of their lives and careers by keeping would-be actresses off the screen and in his debt. He kept a staff of people to spy on and manipulate young women, like Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, and countless others. He held meetings with censors where he calculated just how much of Jane Russell’s breasts he’d be able to show on screen in the film The Outlaw. One woman, a 19-year-old named Rene Rosseau, attempted suicide a few months after arriving in Hollywood, saying that Hughes keeping her from working was partly to blame. She survived, but her career didn’t. Read more…

Hollywood’s New Golden Age

Longreads Pick

A feature on Channel 22, the television station at Hollywood’s Motion Picture Country Home, which keeps retired and disabled residents who formerly worked in film and television occupied with making new shows and movies.

Source: Topic
Published: Sep 5, 2018
Length: 16 minutes (4,247 words)

How Reese Witherspoon is Flipping the Script on Hollywood

Longreads Pick

A profile of actor, director, producer, and literary taste-maker Reese Witherspoon, with a focus on her influential media company, Hello Sunshine, through which she’s creating roles and jobs for women, and changing the way movies and shows are made.

Source: Fast Company
Published: May 30, 2018
Length: 15 minutes (3,788 words)

Hollywood and ‘Disaster Feminism’

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 04: A view of the Hollywood Sign on December 04, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by PG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

According to a recent piece in The New Yorker by Dana Goodyear, Hollywood’s most powerful women are joining forces in a bit of “disaster feminism,” a riff on Naomi Klein’s notion of “disaster capitalism” — when governments seize a moment of vulnerability after a natural disaster or political or economic crisis to pass sweeping changes that the polity otherwise wouldn’t agree to.

Goodyear’s sprawling “Letter From California” asks as early as its headline the critical question: Can Hollywood change its ways?

She delves into the past, through an incredible, expansive interview with an unnamed nonagenarian, a former child actress who left the business at 16 horrified by the things men expected her to do.

And she talks to myriad current Hollywood-based sources, some named and others not, who recount anecdotes ranging from office conversations to overheard “come to Jesus” moments among men at a birthday party. The snapshots come together to form a picture of the reckoning ravaging that industry over the last few months.

One of the most striking anecdotes involves an unnamed man who, like many men and women right now, sees a difference between, in his words, “those who have done something really terrible” and, in Goodyear’s words, “the murky, in-between behavior — remarks or innuendos that at the time seemed fine, to the one initiating them.”

“I’ve never done anything like those guys,” he says, reminiscent of the way Weinstein said he was no Bill Cosby, and of the commenter on a story about Warner Bros. exec Andrew Kreisberg, who in Kreisberg’s name, wrote:

Nobody has accused me of rape like Weinstein.
Nobody has accused me of drugging them like Guillod.
Nobody has accused me of groping like Landesman.
Nobody has accused me of abusing minors like Spacey.
Nobody has accused me of exposing myself like Louis CK.
Nobody has accused me of asking for favors in exchange for work like Ratner.

“Men are living as Jews in Germany,” the unnamed man tells Goodyear. Listening to the audio version of this story, I blurted out an expletive at this line, accompanied by a sound like a dog laughing through torture. I had to pause it to give myself a chance to recover.

But then a few minutes later, Goodyear interviews “a Hollywood sexual-harassment investigator” who says that the new “zero tolerance” approach to harassment, in which names of abusive men are taken down off of buildings and other sites that once exalted them, is resulting in a “Soviet Union-style erasure.” Goodyear then writes: “Siberia, in this case, might be defined by what one fired agent told a former client: he was ‘pivoting away from representation’ and planning to reinvent himself in tech.”

Sure, tech might still, for a little while at least, be a good refuge for those who would prefer to continue protecting and even exalting abusive men.

There has been significant attention paid to the fear that we might be swinging the pendulum too far in one direction, that we might be catching innocents in our angry, raging nets of comeuppance. But less attention has been paid to a consequence of focusing so heavily on obvious monsters: What about the abusers we are letting off the hook because they’re just not vile enough? Or because their abuse wasn’t sexual?

Suki Kim’s exposé of public radio’s John Hockenberry was an exception to this: she gave equal weight to his racism and bullying as she did to his sexual overtures. But it’s much more common lately to hear people make excuses for workplace bullies whose behavior isn’t sexual, especially in “creative” industries like Hollywood and the media, which often glorify people with “passion” and “tempers” and “big personalities.” A friend told me about an effort to address harassment in radio and podcasting, and how when one person suggested the harassment include all workplace bullying, not only of a sexual nature, another person said that was impossible. “The whole industry will die,” we keep hearing, as if it is somehow physically impossible to do these jobs without abusing the people around you.

Even focusing on bullying excludes other behaviors that engender toxic work environments. An editor friend of mine, when this reckoning began, speculated that the fixation with monsters would allow some of his peers to not have to scrutinize their own behavior — actions that seem benign but are damaging, such as only mentoring young male reporters.

Much of Goodyear’s piece, especially the latter half, is devoted to questions like this. How can real change happen? She interviews Katherine Pope, a television executive who interviews women and people of color as a rule when hiring directors, who points out that even in companies that have women in senior positions, “there are layers of white men with veto power above them.”

Pope highlights the problem of “unconscious biases” as one element that prevents companies from taking chances on women the same way they do with charismatic men:

“The women have to be the most qualified, brilliant, perfect people in the world, and men get to grow into the job,” Pope said. “You hear code—‘You have to mature. You’re still learning.’ Or ‘I know she’s a great development executive, but does she know the business?’”

Goodyear notes that studios and networks haven’t done much beyond “applying reactive zero-tolerance policies and adding a few hotlines,” and quotes a former studio head who says he’s urged old colleagues “to implement some quick fixes —s ay, no more meetings in hotel rooms, on pain of firing — but they have ignored him.”

This is a rare bit of good news. Quick fixes are not the answer. Quick fixes allow problems to be swept under the rug; they allow people to move on and pretend that everything is okay when it very much is not. That’s what’s so heartening about some of the measures being pursued and proposed by powerful women in Hollywood, like the “inclusion clause” Women in Film is pitching studios and agencies to change the skewed ratio of women and men in writing, directing and producing positions “with an accompanying stamp to signify “gender parity in decision-making.'”

Goodyear also reveals how some of Hollywood’s most powerful women have been meeting for months “in secret,” resulting in an “action plan” detailed in a Jan. 1 New York Times story. The action plan includes the push for gender parity, but also reaches beyond Hollywood to “fight systemic sexual harassment… in blue-collar workplaces nationwide.” These scions of culture are promising “a legal defense fund, backed by $13 million in donations, to help less privileged women — like janitors, nurses and workers at farms, factories, restaurants and hotels — protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the fallout from reporting it.” This is especially poignant in light of the letter written in November, signed by approximately 700,000 women farmworkers, in support of the women of Hollywood coming forward to name and shame their abusers.

An unnamed attendee at those secret meetings told Goodyear that the Hollywood women were inspired by Naomi Klein’s concept of “disaster capitalism.” “We’re doing disaster feminism,” the attendee told Goodyear. “In the chaos that is ensuing, how can we create institutional, structural change, so if the moment passes those things will be in place?”

My Date with Hollywood

Longreads Pick
Source: Longreads
Published: Oct 18, 2017
Length: 14 minutes (3,538 words)

My Date with Hollywood

Illustration by Annelise Capossela

Monica Drake | Longreads | October 2017 | 14 minutes (3,538 words)

 

A hot Hollywood beauty optioned the film rights to my first novel, Clown Girl, then, months later, invited me out for dinner. Specifically, her people emailed my people — me.

Her agent asked if I’d be interested and available.

I was home alone when I got the message, and beyond interested. I was instantly dizzy, maybe sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated. I grabbed the back of a chair, knocking over a paper cup of cold coffee on our cluttered dining table. I teach English Composition at a small, private art school and I write. I’m a full-time mom with a full-time job and a full-time writing career on the side, wherever “the side” is. I live in a sea of student essays, department meetings, administrative work, my own pages of writing, submission, acceptance, rejection, my daughter’s projects and a lot of late nights at the computer. This Miss Hollywood, of course, is a movie star.

Now she’d reached out to me — she, this writer and actress, a woman said to have “single-handedly reinvented [the] romantic comedy formula,” hailed as a “comedic genius” by more than one publication.

Yowza!

I didn’t check my calendar. I’d make time. Morning, noon, night, I’d be in town. When opportunity knocks, right? “Yes,” I emailed back, tapping the single word into my phone. Coffee dripped to our worn floorboards.

Read more…

How Hollywood Remembers Steve Bannon

Longreads Pick

It was always hard to believe Steve Bannon found a certain kind of success in Hollywood—a success that wasn’t measured by the kind of art he produced, but the third or fourth tier deals he managed to push through, often with Hollywood hardly knowing he was even there.

Source: The New Yorker
Published: Apr 24, 2017
Length: 35 minutes (8,800 words)