Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Power Women in Hollywood
by Rachel Abramowitz, Random House, 2000

Review by Sasha Stone

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? is not just a story of the rise of women in power positions, it's another dimension to Hollywood's history, missing stories of production shoots that ought to be remembered alongside their male counterparts - Ovitz, Eisner, Geffen, Spielberg and Scorsese. It is time for women to step out from behind the shadow, to claim the legends that are rightfully theirs: yes, they've sobbed when they've lost jobs, yes, they were shut out of production meetings, yes, they were undervalued, underpaid, hit on, overlooked, betrayed - not just by the men who run Hollywood, but by women. With this collection of portraits, Abramowitz has declared women have a rightful place in Hollywood, so they can stop hiding what sets them apart from men.

In the Hollywood Abramowitz describes, ranging from the 1970s, when Polly Platt and Sue Mengers were just getting their feet in the door, all the way up the current crop of females successfully working in Hollywood, women worked mainly as script readers who had the power to say no, but never yes. This is the story of a handful that managed to defy expectations and gain the right, and power, to say yes.

Why did it take so long for women to gain power in Hollywood? For one thing, the obstacles were endless - you were either too pretty, not pretty enough, too bitchy, not bitchy enough. The ones that did succeed seemed to have luck on their side, having been treated kindly by one or two powerful men who allowed them access. The ones who shunned male protection were often exiled for good.

Juxtaposed against the behind-the-scenes conflicts are the films themselves, films we all remember, like Taxi Driver, The Last Picture Show, and of course, Fatal Attraction. Each film has a life of its own, and is the product of much blood, sweat and tears. When, for example, Elaine May lost total artistic control of A New Leaf, but the film went on to be made, she famously said, "I went way over budget and I went over schedule and became a very hot director as a result." When Barbra Striesand demanded final cut on A Star is Born, she got it. Who knows whether or not the film would have been a hit otherwise. The book seems to prove writer William Goldman's claim that "nobody knows anything."

But ultimately, the appeal of this book is, without doubt, the dish. While women will probably turn the pages with more anticipation than men, there is enough insider information to set the book apart from the recent rash of tell-alls. For one thing, Abramowitz has extraordinary access to some of the more private icons, like Jodie Foster and Sherry Lansing. Not only does she have access, but she has drawn out and asked questions of women no one would have - Callie Khouri's conflicts with Julia Roberts, Barbra Streisand's repeated and failed efforts to get Yentl made, even by Sherry Lansing, and the scandals that have dogged Jodie Foster throughout her career, not to mention why Polly Platt hasn't become as famous a director as the men she's backed all these years.

Equally fascinating is how Abramowitz casually tosses in the names of men who are given such a comparatively easy road compared to their female counterparts, men who, at times, kept the women down with their romantic intentions, and perhaps, their fear. While one story finished with a negative story on Martin Brest, his name is picked up in the next chapter as a director who is literally handed a project on a silver platter. The women, on the other hand, particularly women directors, have to fight for control every step of the way, often disappearing after expressing their honest opinions.

Many of the women who succeeded were the ones who didn't try too hard to wrestle control, but rather "knew their place." Sherry Lansing, in particular, whom Abramowitz calls "the girliest of girls" seemed to know what was expected of her and never tried to blow up the comfortable stereotype. She gained power by appealing to the men who controlled the movie business, by soothing egos, and by choosing her projects well. Beauty and charm were both a blessing and a curse, as women hated her and distrusted her while men felt unthreatened.

Even with the success of women in Hollywood today, one can't help but feel deeply for those who lost the battle back in the 1970s. One of the more moving tales follows the much speculated-upon love triangle on The Last Picture Show. It's Hollywood legend that Bogdanovich dumped his good wife, Polly Platt, for the bombshell, Cybill Shepard. But what you probably didn't know was that Platt had much to do with Bogdanovich taking the project in the first place, as well as directorial input that would not be acknowledged until now. Bogdanovich's career would never be the same once Platt left his life, which happened for good when Bogdanovich endangered their two children, Antonia and Sashy, with his obsessive relationship with Dorothy Stratten.

That Abramowitz tells the Stratten story amid all these other stories is, perhaps, what gives the book its dishy appeal. But, of course, the rise and fall of Hollywood icons are equally dishy, but with collective feminine guilt attached, like Elaine May's story, which paints the picture of one of the earliest women to attempt directing in the post-studio era. May's behavior, according to one source, set women directors back ten years. That those ten years would be gained back by more successful women, like Penny Marshall, Jodie Foster and Nora Ephron, doesn't seem to matter. In that one moment, it was as if, indeed, women are too sensitive, too neurotic, too distracted, too out of control to ever really make it in Hollywood.

Perhaps that is what is so fascinating about these women who forged ahead despite the self-doubt, self-hatred and desire to tear one another down. It goes without saying that it's a meaningless world of illusion, and one that has always been run by men. While we study and appreciate other arenas in which women have broken through, there hasn't been a solid look at Hollywood until now.

Abramowitz does a fair job telling the stories without drawing too many conclusions of her own, choosing instead to the let the reader decide. There are some descriptions the subjects themselves might object to, in particular Job Peters' infantile tirades, or Peter Bogdanovich's probable sexual relationship with the adolescent younger sister of Dorothy Stratten. But, of course, without those tidbits, Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? wouldn't be the ultimate summer read, now would it?

Whether they sacrificed time with their kids, or the serenity of not having to prove their self-worth, one thing's for certain - after reading Abramowitz' book, you'll never watch a Hollywood movie the same way again, not without carefully reading the credits and wondering who got screwed out of what along the way.


CineScene, 2000

 

 

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