Lights, Camera, Sexism!
At the 1972 Democratic convention, an avant-garde group of feminist filmmakers set out to show America how chauvinist it was
By Douglas Rogers
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page W18
In 1972, at the height of his fame, sometime between his appearances in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "The Parallax View," Warren Beatty made a cameo in a lost documentary about the women's movement. He is interviewed in the lobby of Miami Beach's glamorous Fontainebleau hotel by a beautiful blonde who has the sensuous looks of a '60s Hollywood screen star. At one point, the woman says, "I think men could go to rehabilitation centers and be oriented toward their new role in society" -- clearly catching Beatty off guard, and he tries to sound smooth. "You think you've really licked it?" he asks. And then his legendary charm totally evaporates.
"You've changed," he sputters, as the cameras close in. "When you came and talked to me at the Beverly Wilshire, I liked you very much, but I don't think you were very direct and very firm the way you are now."
The blonde deadpans straight back: "Well, I was talking about something I didn't feel very firmly about. Which was you."
The woman was poet, author and first-time filmmaker Sandra Hochman. It was an election year, and the interview was the opening salvo in Hochman's astonishing documentary, "Year of the Woman." The good news for Beatty and other men skewered in the film, though, is that relatively few people ever got to see it. It was recently screened at the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida but has spent most of the past 30 years locked in a Manhattan film vault -- too radical, too weird and too far ahead of its time for any distributor to touch.
Shot with hand-held 16mm cameras by an all-female documentary crew, the film takes place at the Democratic National Convention in Miami -- scene, too, of the first major meeting of the National Women's Political Caucus. The cameras follow Hochman as she provokes male politicians, delegates and celebrities into sharing their views about women and the feminist movement. The film features an extraordinary cross section of American cultural icons, among them Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Shirley Chisholm and electrifying black feminist Florynce Kennedy. Like Beatty, most of the men hang themselves. Future disgraced Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart says that no woman is "up to standard" to be president; a delegate from Alabama is bemused when Hochman calls him sexist for saying women should never be truck drivers. In one extraordinary scene, Hochman sneaks into a packed convention hall with a curvy blond stripper dressed in a revealing gold sequined dress. The convention virtually stops as the men ogle the stripper like dogs in heat.
"All because she had breasts!" Hochman reflects onscreen afterward from a deck chair on South Beach. "But if a man walked into a convention with a huge [penis], would women rush up and ask, 'Who is he, where is he, what's his name?' ''
Interspersed with Hochman's poetry, fantasy-dream sequences and some hilarious ad-lib repartee with humorist Art Buchwald, the film caused a sensation when it opened for five nights at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in Manhattan in October 1973. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in a promotion for the movie that it was "the greatest combination of sex and politics ever seen in a film. Hochman and Buchwald are the best new comedy team since Hepburn and Tracy."
It sold out each night, and women lined up around the block to see it. And then: It disappeared. It was bought as a tax shelter for $150,000 by the 23-year-old daughter of a lawyer from the Philippines and her two brothers, convinced it was a masterpiece. Yet no film company would touch it. Since then, until Sarasota, it had been shown in public only once, at a gala screening at Lincoln Center in 1985 to raise funds for the Schlesinger Library at Harvard's Radcliffe College. Today it is not on video or DVD, and few people have even heard of it.
"I guess in 1973 the world wasn't ready for a group of beautiful women talking about [penises]," Hochman said recently.
That may be about to change. Hochman was at the screening in Sarasota and hopes other festivals will pick up the film, leading to a distribution deal. The time is ripe: This is an election year, and the Democratic National Convention takes place later this month in Boston. Hochman believes she is sitting on a vital historic document. "It's as if you had a documentary made during the Civil War. It's a masterpiece," she says with typically blunt self-assurance.
SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS OLD, Hochman lives alone in an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. In many ways she has gathered as much dust as her film. Her dozen novels and books of poetry are out of print, and she has not found a publisher for her memoirs. Her hair is graying, and her once-sensual voice now rasps from too many Benson & Hedges. But she has lost none of the wit and in-your-face attitude she had in 1972.
Back then she was the It Girl of American literature. A voluptuous woman with the angelic looks of a young Barbra Streisand, she was the toast of New York society: winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award; a friend of Truman Capote, Pablo Neruda and Arthur Miller; a columnist for Harper's Bazaar. In 1968, before she became a feminist, she made that magazine's "100 Most Beautiful Women of America" list and its "100 Outstanding Women of America" list. She was turned on to the women's movement by another friend, Gloria Steinem, and after Hochman's acclaimed 1971 novel Walking Papers, about the grueling breakup of a marriage (Philip Roth compared her heroine to "a prisoner escaped from Kafka's penal colony"), she became the movement's unofficial poet laureate.
"I realized this movement was going to change the world -- and I wanted to be part of it. The Vietnam War was on, and everyone was protesting against it, but they didn't realize that the most important revolution in history was happening right under their noses."
She vividly recalls the night in 1972 when Porter Bibb, the associate producer of the classic Rolling Stones documentary "Gimme Shelter," which had shocked audiences with its Hell's Angels death scene only two years earlier, came to her luxury Manhattan apartment with a proposition: He wanted her to go to the Democratic convention to make the first film about the women's movement. Women from around the world were going to be meeting at the first National Women's Political Caucus, and few men knew what the women's movement was. "I said to him, 'Why me? I'm a poet, not a filmmaker.' He said: 'You're a poet and a troublemaker. Go cause some trouble.' ''
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Hochman, now 67 and living on Manhattan's Upper East Side, is as militant as ever.
(Photograph by Susan Rubin)
Year of the Woman: Excerpts from the documentary film by Sandra Hochman made in 1972 at the Democratic Political Convention in Miami.