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