"The movie Femme Fatale," wrote Colette in 1918, is "one (1) . . . always in de'collete', two (2) . . . is often armed with a hypodermic or a flacon, three (3) she sinuously turns her serpent neck toward the spectator; and more rarely four (4) having first revealed enormously wide eyes, she slowly veils them with soft lids, and before disappearing in the midst of a fadeout risks the most daring gesture that can be shown on the screen . . . she slowly and guiltily bites her lower lip."
She uses the weapon -- "the dagger, the revolver, the anonymous letter and finally, elegance," -- and her activities consist of smoking a cigarette, lying on a divan or reading letters.
In the end, "she dies. preferably on three steps, covered by a rug."
Colette, who wrote movie scenarios and dialogue, as well as the novel she is famous for, was a devoted movie fan. But she wrote this after a male director insisted on imposing his conception of feminine behavior and psychology on the script she wrote of her novel "La Vagabonde," according to Stanley Hochman in his critical anthology, "Women and the Cinema."
Women have always had a love/hate relationship with movies -- more love on balance. Women were the first movie stars, exposing them to greater heights of fame and cultural influence than they had previously been allowed, but by the same token creating a new set of restricting role models for both male and female viewers. But if movie heroines gave you cliche'd ideas of what you should grow up to be, at least a variety of cliche's has been provided. A femme fatale, cheery virgin and earth mother, an adventuress -- the only common denominator being the current notion of beauty.
But while women have always had their place on the screen, they have rarely succeeded behind it; the mirror of our society that movies have provided for generations has been almost totally conceived and shaped by men.
The role of women behind the camera is the focus of a new series starting tonight at the American Film Institute. Sponsored by the Washington chapter of Women in Film and Video Inc., the 35 films to be shown in the festival, "Women in Film II," between now and Oct. 14 provide a sample of everything from current documentaries like Penelope Spheeris' examination of the Los Angeles punk rock scene, "The Decline (of Western civilization)," to a 1914 feature by Lois Weber to a 1974 comic short about menstruation.
From the pert, gum-chewing secretary to the humorless cutthroat in a shoulder-padded suit, the stereotypes Hollywood has given the public of women behind the scenes have done little to enhance their image. Even actresses are usually portrayed as either neurotic, dumb prima donnas, hustling starlets on the make or occasionally as victimized artists with little control over their destiny. While men can justifiably complain about their own stereotypes as either macho adventurers or stupid schnooks, in general the range of men portrayed in movies is far broader than that of women.
The film industry, like any other, has been the object of feminist attack. Last February, for example, the Directors Guild (which in 1949 had one woman member -- Ida Lupino) filed charges of sex discrimination against six movie studios, 11 independent TV companies and the three major TV networks. The statistics the guild had compiled were startling:
Of the 7,332 movies made by major studios in the 30-year period ending in 1979, only 14 were directed by women.
Of an estimated 65,500 hours of prime-time dramatic television during the same period, only 115 hours were directed by women, and 35 of those were directed by Ida Lupino.
In the last year for which statistics were available, 1978-79, no women directed feature films at Universal, Columbia or Paramount studios, compared to a collective total of 37 men. Four women directed TV episodes compared to a collective total 730 men. In another study by film historian Richard Henshaw only 150 women were found to have directed in the history of women, and of these only 45 are Americans. Nor do these statistics seem to improve with time. Marjorie Rosen notes in "Popcorn Venus" that in 1928 there were 52 women scenarists out of 239, and in 1940 there were 64 out of 608.
"The reason, aside from union prejudice, is obvious," wrote Molly Haskell in "From Reverence to Rape." "Direction -- giving orders, mastering not only people but machinery -- is a typically masculine, even militaristic, activity."
Nonetheless, for the first time more than one woman director areconsidered hot property today. Directors such as Claudia Weill, Joan Micklin Silver, Joan Tewkesbury, Nancy Dowd and Joan Darling have been involved with medium to big budget movies, and actresses like Lee Grant, Ellen Burstyn, Liv Ullmann, Barbra Streisand, Dyan Cannon, Anne Bancroft and Jane Fonda are using their box-office clout to develop as directors or producers through their own independent companies.
The number of women executives in studios appears to be on the rise with Claire Townsend and Sherry Lansing at 20th Century-Fox, Verna Fields (an Academy Award-winning film editor for "Jaws") at Universal and Lucy Fisher at Warner Bros. A few women are producers, editors and screenwriters. There are many women in the role of casting, and there have always been women behind the scenes in the decorative design fields -- makeup, hair, costumes and sets. Almost none are cinematographers or technicians.
Historically, women have made some important as well as minor contributions to film, however, and not just with their physical appearances and acting talents:
Alice Guy Blache, a French woman who began as a secretary, is considered by some to have directed the first-ever story film in this country. She ran her own studio, the Solax, between 1910 and 1914 and produced as many as 270 films, of which only a few survive.
Maya Beren, a Russian-born dancer, made in 1943 a film that is now considered to have inaugurated the avant-garde in American filmmaking.
Dorothy Arzner invented the movable microphone by having a stationary one tied to a fishing pole.
Films by all three women are included in the festival as well as one by Lois Weber, a onetime Salvation Army evangelist, who was the most important director at Universal in 1916 and is considered to be the first major female director. Weber, who at one point had a private, Universal-financed studio complete with landscaped garden, couldn't find work as a director after 1927 when her moralistic films failed at the box office.
Indeed, most film historians write, few women found work behind the camera after 1927, Arzner excepted. By that time movies had changed from the cheap, easily produced shorts that were cranked out by the hundreds every year, to expensive, full-length, talking productions. And women, aside from a few screen writers and editors, were screened out. "It was excision which would occur with startling rapidity," wrote Rosen.
Several of the women who made it in earlier eras when they were virtually alone in their fields made few complaints of discrimination. Dorothy Arzner, who was the only women directing consistently in Hollywood between 1927 and 1943, when she abruptly retired, said in an interview with Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary before her death in 1979 that "no one gave me trouble because I was a woman. Men were more helpful than women." And Lupino, who had been acting in films for 18 years before directing "Not Wanted" in 1949, said she got into directing only because the small film company she and her then-husband had formed was "too poor" to hire another director when the initial one got sick.
While women today may be more assertive and persistent about breaking into the movie business, the stakes are higher and the places fewer -- for everyone. Studios are producing fewer films and are more inclined to risk $25 million on a blockbuster with enormous profit potential than $6 million on a smaller film. And when the stakes are so high, the jobs, not surprisingly, go to the people with more experience, and these tend to be males because women have not had access to the lower rungs of training.
"Some women get discouraged and don't hang in tough enough," said Fay Kanin, screenwriter, producer and currently president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "It gets tougher every year to get a film made."
Most of the films in the festival are short and independently produced. "The decline" was financed by two businessmen sought out by Spheeris; "The Dozens," a feature filmed in Boston about an ex-convict's efforts to start a new life for herself, was financed in part by a grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
Some of the films are intended to be humorous, like Lisa Gottlieb's spoof on detective films, "Murder in a Mist," in which the private eye is a woman. Some are documentaries, like two offerings by Washington filmmakers -- Victoria Costello's story about the Equal Rights Amendment battle in North Carolina and Michelle E. Parkerson's film about singer Betty Carter.
It is never clear, of course, whether women make a substantive difference in the film industry, or whether their artistic or managerial sensibilities offer any visible alternative to that of males. "Women tend to deal with personal stories, stories about relationships," said Kanin, pointing to "Kramer vs. Kramer," which was nurtured by executive Sherry Lansing, as an example. "But I hate the thought that women are limited to that. I hate the label 'women's pictures.' "