In our exclusive Darling interview, we caught up with author, Helen O’Hara, on her ground breaking book Women vs Hollywood.
We loved Women Vs Hollywood. Where did your love of films begin?
I’ve loved film as far back as I can remember. Some of my favourite childhood memories include movies: going to the cinema for the first time ever to see a re-issue of Snow White and being terrified by the Wicked Witch; seeing Return Of The Jedi on the big screen; sneaking a look at 15-rated videos with my friends when we were far too young! I love storytelling and imagination, and cinema’s ability to take us out of our own heads for a couple of hours.
What got you interested in women’s place in the film industry?
I’ve been interested in the strange disparities that exist in film for a long time, just as a film fan and film journalist. Why are almost all directors male? Why are most leading characters male? Why did Hollywood experts call Mamma Mia’s success a surprise, when any woman could have predicted it? The situation is not natural, because we’re half the population. So I started looking into what was happening, and the book grew out of that. There’s a bit of anger in there at some of the injustices that have held women back, but I do have hope as well. I believe things are changing for the better.
Can you name a few female filmmakers and actresses who changed film through the decades and how they influenced audiences?
There have been so many, and even in film school you’re taught about very few. Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the first filmmakers anywhere and made literally hundreds of short films, starting in 1896, but was written out of film history – literally. The company where she worked, French studio Gaumont, left her out of its first official history book. Lois Weber was one of the most important directors in Hollywood in the mid-1910s, but was demoted to doing screen tests by the end of her career. Mae West became one of the highest paid people, in any profession, in the US in the 1930s. However her career was squashed by censorship – which also stopped Black actresses like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge from having the careers they deserved, because Black stars were not allowed to play romantic scenes with white actors. Stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford shaped fashions and inspired generations; others like Olivia de Havilland and Marilyn Monroe fought the studio system to ensure better deals for actors.
In Women Vs Hollywood you researched so much. What was the pivotal turning point in the 1910s and 20s from women having a place in the industry to being sidelined?
By the late 1910s, big investors realised that there was huge money to be made in movies, and the studios became almost like factories, signing stars and filmmakers to contracts and then shuffling them from one film to the next to keep them busy, a human production line. The small, female-run studios that Guy-Blaché and Weber had established couldn’t compete, and they were no longer given opportunities at the big studios. So gradually almost all women in senior roles were phased out and were replaced by men.
In your book Women Vs Hollywood you talk about gender disparity. How did men get to control the money and therefore investment in films?
In the beginning, you could make films on a shoestring budget, in a studio space not much bigger than a family home, and people made them not just in Hollywood but all over the world. As films got longer – going from 30 seconds to over an hour during Guy- Blaché’s career – they became much more expensive and required larger spaces, most on huge studio backlots around Los Angeles. The growing studios therefore needed money, and that meant Wall Street investors. Those were all men, of course, and at a time when women couldn’t even vote in the US it would have seemed strange to them to see women in senior roles in the studios where they invested. So they hired men like themselves, and men kept doing that ever since.
Why have only two women – Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao this year – ever won best director at the Oscars in nearly 100 years?
I think it’s the nature of directing. A director has to be decisive and authoritative, someone in control of a film’s whole look and feel, and a lot of men are very uncomfortable with putting women in power like that. We might end up giving them orders! Nightmare. So women only comprise perhaps 12% of Hollywood directors in a given year – despite the fact that women go to film school in about equal numbers to men and have done for years. Consciously or not, studios have not historically hired female directors much. Women don’t get the same opportunities to follow up a promising debut with a studio movie, and they don’t get to make follow-up films and develop their craft.
What can women do to encourage men to appreciate the subject of women in films and how has the unconscious bias towards the needs of men been skewed?
Men are pretty used to seeing themselves as the leads in films, and watching stories all about how daring and capable they are and how heroic they can be. Some of them kind of struggle to identify with female leads and stories about women as a result, because they’ve never had to learn to lose themselves in those stories about the other sex (though women have been used to it for ages). But encouraging men to take stories about women seriously might actually increase their empathy for women in real life; if they learn to identify with female characters onscreen, maybe they can do the same every day. So the new generation of films about women that are not romantic comedies or “chick flicks”, films that are often directed or produced by female filmmakers – films about action hero women, and professional women, and sometimes really awful women – might appeal to men more than they expect, and might end up changing the world.
How has the #metoo movement helped reduce the gender and racial gaps in the industry recently?
There’s still a lot of work to do, but #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have fundamentally changed the conversation in Hollywood. Many female stars who saw their peers as competitors started talking frankly as a result of #MeToo have realised that they have all faced the same barriers, and have started to work together to tear those barriers down. It used to be that actresses all scrambled for the same good roles because there were so few of them; now they’re working to change the picture so there will be more opportunity, and no predators like Harvey Weinstein to hold them back.
Who do you admire as independent female producers making popular series and films more and more?
Reese Witherspoon is doing great work – maybe as you’d expect from the star of Legally Blonde. She’s spent the last decade finding female-led stories to develop for the screen, creating nuanced roles not just for herself but other women as well: think Gone Girl, Little Fires Everwhere and Big Little Lies. Margot Robbie is doing something similar with Promising Young Woman and Birds Of Prey, as are Charlize Theron and Jessica Chastain.
What’s the progress/effect on balancing more women on the Oscar panels/BFI panels?
This is one of those things that sounds pretty dull, but could have a major effect! It used to be that most Oscar voters were old white men, as were most people choosing films for big film festivals, and most film critics. But in recent years the big festivals, and awards bodies like the Oscars and BAFTAs, have made an effort to diversify their selectors, and that has allowed a far wider range of films to make an impact at awards shows and Cannes or Sundance. Films like Nomadland, Moonlight or Parasite might not have been so warmly received in the past.
How has your book Women Vs Hollywood been received? Has there been any negative fallout as it’s quite revealing!
Everyone’s been very kind so far! Honestly, I just hope that people enjoy it, and maybe that all the stories in it help them win a few pub quizzes (once we’re all allowed back indoors). I haven’t had any pushback so far, but that’s probably because I tried to speak to people in the industry and be guided by them, so I hope I’ve painted a fair picture of the good as well as the bad in Hollywood.
Is there a follow up or have you said all there is to say for now?
I did so much research for this book that I swore I’d never do it again – but then I had an idea last week for another book that I think might be interesting for people, so now I’m not so sure. Watch this space!
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