"How are you going to weave all this together -- John Huston in Mexico, first-generation women college graduates at Hull House and Chief Red Cloud and Crazy Horse?"
Midge Mackenzie paused in mid-interview to pose the question. Somehow, she herself is managing all these things now as documentary filmmaker and social historian.
Her green velour fedora perched at a raffish angle, Mackenzie was talking about her balancing act of projects while on a visit to Washington for the local premiere of "Women in Courage" sponsored by the Washington branch of American Women in Radio and Television at the National Archives recently.
It brings together clips from earlier Mackenzie films: "Shoulder to Shoulder," the "Masterpiece Theater" series on the English suffragettes; "Jane," a 1973 portrait of Jane Fonda; "R. Snapper Meets Texas Nightingale," with rock 'n' roller Bonnie Raitt and blues singer Sippie Wallace, and "I Stand Here Ironing," a dramatization of a Tillie Olsen short story.
Mackenzie, who recently was in Mexico to interview John Huston for a film about documentary filmmakers, now is back to write story and scene outlines for two 90-minute screenplays for regional history projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. One will be a portrait of Jane Addams and the radical women reformers of the 1890s in Chicago. The other will recreate the times of Chief Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and the massacre at Wounded Knee.
"When I was in Mexico doing the filming with John Huston, he asked, 'Why aren't there more women directors?' "
And Mackenzie now regrets she missed the chance to reply: "It's because you won't play poker with women."
"Actually, Huston has a history of collaboration with women," Mackenzie is quick to point out. "For 'Annie,' which he has been filming, his film editor is the marvelous 83-year-old Margaret Booth. Two days after shooting she had a fine cut, not a rough cut. She cut Garbo--that's how long she has been in the business. Huston said she would have been a brilliant director if she had had the chance."
Mackenzie, whose own achievements have helped the cause, is active in groups seeking to give that chance to today's young women filmmakers.
"There was a study of hiring practices by the Los Angeles branch of Women in Film that showed only .003 percent of the directing jobs in film and TV went to women," Mackenzie points out.
"How can you loom your craft if you can't get a job?" she asks indignantly. "If you're a young man out of film school in Los Angeles, you'll get a shot at something--episodic television like the 'Lou Grant' show. A young woman can't find an opportunity. So we've brought a class-action suit."
But Mackenzie also recognizes that women can demonstrate different kinds of courage in all walks of life. The Tillie Olsen short story "I Stand Here Ironing" is an example.
"It's about nurturing and raising children. That takes a quiet, invisible courage. I made it while teaching at Harvard. I probably would not have included it a few years earlier. That's growth in myself," Mackenzie said.
Her first job in the film industry was as a temporary secretary at the age of 19. And she can't understand young men and women who want to start off as movie directors.
"Where is the sense of craft? Craft doesn't make you inspired or brilliant. But it does make you competent. You should know what the whole studio crew does.
"Wanting to begin as a director is like wanting to start as president of the bank."