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.' ''

Bibb introduced her to a group of ambitious young New York filmmakers, and Hochman selected four women as her camera and sound crew. Three were in their early twenties, a decade younger than Hochman, and just starting out in the business. Today, though, Martha Coolidge ("Valley Girl," "Rambling Rose"), Claudia Weill ("Girlfriends") and Barbara Kopple, winner of Academy Awards for "Harlan County, U.S.A." and "American Dream" and director of the 1997 Woody Allen jazz documentary "Wild Man Blues," are among the most powerful female directors in Hollywood.

Bibb gave Hochman $15,000, and she and the crew checked into a fleabag hotel on the wrong side of town to make the film. There was only problem: No one would talk to them. "I'd never made a film before," Hochman says. "People thought we were this silly bunch of girls with cameras, so they ignored us. Then my assistant said: 'You know Warren Beatty, don't you? He's staying at the Fontainebleau hotel. Maybe he'll be in it.' ''

Hochman had interviewed Beatty a year earlier in Beverly Hills for an article for the New York Times, and they had gotten on famously. "He was the most sophisticated man I met in Hollywood. We spoke about the Russian poet Yevtushenko." She called Beatty in his suite and was grateful when he agreed to be interviewed. The rest is a little bit of lost film history. "I interviewed him spontaneously," Hochman recalls. "I didn't mean to put him down, but he sounded like such a fool that he comes across as a fool. And this was true of all of the men we interviewed. They wanted to look like they knew what they were talking about, but every time they opened their traps they made total [expletive] of themselves." With Beatty on board, however, Hochman had a film. "When word got out that the biggest star in Hollywood was in our movie, suddenly everyone wanted to be in it. People were calling us!"

Hochman was not just out to confront male sexism. She also wanted to challenge stereotypes. In several scenes she is shown trying on masks and makeup in the changing room of Miami stripper Liz Renay, who had written a best-selling book -- My Face for the World to See -- about going to jail for taking the rap for her gangster boyfriend. Renay was hardly a natural candidate for radical feminism, but Hochman adored her. "She was so smart and funny. I wanted to show that strippers and whores were intelligent women," Hochman says. "And, of course, she was visually stunning. My film had to look beautiful -- like a Fellini movie."

Seen today, their sashay into the packed convention hall is more like a 1990s post-feminist "grrrl power" moment. But the film also shows sexual politics were far more complex than the angry, bra-burning stereotype many people have of the '70s feminist movement. "We disguised ourselves as men to get in," recalls Hochman. "Then Liz took off her overclothes and appeared in that dress. The convention should have been concentrating on politics, but they couldn't take their eyes off her. We were eventually chased away by the police . . . It was a radical act."

IT WAS NOT THE MOST RADICAL ACT in the film. The presence at the convention of black feminist Rep. Shirley Chisholm as only the third major female presidential candidate since Victoria Woodhull in 1872 was an extraordinary leap forward for women, and Chisholm is filmed talking about their progress. "Much of our agenda is accomplished just by being here," she says. Yet the three news networks barely covered Chisholm in Miami, and Hochman and Florynce Kennedy are shown leading a group of women into a near-empty convention hall, where male broadcasting legends Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and others are putting finishing touches on their reports about the Democrats' nomination of George McGovern. The women sabotage the reporters' TV power cable and demand to know why they ignored Chisholm. Kennedy, with her distinctive sunglasses, jangling jewelry and staccato voice, is mesmerizing: "Get your hands off me . . .," she screams at a news crew extra trying to escort her away. Wallace and Cronkite look on nervously; Rather ducks out. The women climb a podium and throw dollar bills at the men. "We finance your whores; we finance your hustle; you better watch out," booms Kennedy, sounding like a radical Missy Elliott. "Money for the whores of the media!" the women all chant. Then Hochman puts on a papier-mache crocodile mask. "I've been crying crocodile tears long enough," she says, reducing the moment to farce.

"Which is what it was," she says now. "The media completely ignored Chisholm, so we turned ourselves into the freaks they thought we were. I wanted to show the absurdity of it all." But, then, both Hochman's charm and her weakness in the film is that she is constantly looking to make cheap jokes. "A belly laugh is as potent as a tommy gun," she explains. "How do you convert people to a cause unless you can make them laugh?"

She is sometimes contradictory, though. She interviews Norman Mailer at the convention and gives him a free ride, because he is a fan of her poetry. "I want you to know, in my book, you're a sister," she tells Mailer.

"I'm a sister, huh?" Mailer says with a chuckle. "You're a [expletive]."

Mailer, who stabbed his wife in 1960, had just been in a famous public spat with Germaine Greer, seen in the documentary "Town Bloody Hall," partly over his critique of the feminist movement, "The Prisoner of Sex," published in 1971 in Harper's magazine. Hochman, though, sticks by her man. "This was my film," she snaps. "And he was very supportive of my poetry." But she also happened to be a friend of his from Manhattan parties, and one suspects she has always been more taken with great writers than famous feminists.

Nothing in the film, though, is as bizarre or brilliant as the ad-libbed scenes between Hochman and Art Buchwald. Buchwald, 46 at the time, is shown in a pool hall at the beginning of the film lamenting the passing of the days when women were at conventions just "to entertain men in the bar . . . Although I could probably still find them at a Republican convention," he quips.

Hochman found him so funny that she asked him to play a male chauvinist pig in a feminist revolutionary fantasy she created. They are filmed on an imaginary planet, 100 years in the future, looking down on Earth. "What's it like?" Hochman smiles at him. "All the men are being herded to Minneapolis," laments Buchwald. "Things are a real mess." What does he miss about Earth? "Mostly negligees, bras and silk stockings," he says. "You can see them in the museums," Hochman tells him. "Yes, but they arrest you for looking at them," Buchwald responds. The scene continues for several minutes and is entirely ad-libbed, and neither of them misses a beat -- or a joke. Eventually though, Buchwald consents to Hochman's dream of seeing a female president in the White House. "Can you see the first man arranging flowers?" she asks him.

When I call Buchwald in Washington to ask him about the film, he can barely remember it. Then it slowly comes back to him. "She made me do it! She made me do it!" croaks Buchwald, now 78 and still a syndicated humor columnist. I remind him that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. compared Hochman and him to Hepburn and Tracy: "That's very good of him," he says with a chuckle.

WHEN HOCHMAN RETURNED TO NEW YORK, she had 12 hours of uncut footage and no idea what to do with it. It was Porter Bibb who got ahold of Pat Powell, a respected documentary film editor who worked closely with D.A. Pennebaker, one of the masters of cinema verite, and Powell set to work. She rented an editing suite from Pennebaker, added Hochman's poetry, some animation, a scene of Hochman tap-dancing in front of the White House, and the score of Brazilian classical opera. Today Powell, 70, says that, apart from being a little long at 80 minutes, the film is "one of the classics." She also says she is still owed $1,500 by Bibb for the work she did on it and could use the money.

Editing the documentary was one thing; getting it shown was much harder. For months Bibb and Hochman tried to sell it to film companies, but none bit. Eventually, they took it to the owner of the Fifth Avenue Cinema, who agreed to show it. "He was a notorious misogynist," recalls Hochman. "He said he would only show it on condition he didn't have to watch it."

And it was there, during its sensational sold-out, five-day run, that Jill Quasha, the 23-year-old daughter of the Philippine lawyer, saw it.

"It was this incredible combination of documentary and art," Quasha says. "People only have two reactions: They think it's offensive . . . or a masterpiece. I fall into the latter category." Quasha bought it with her brothers, certain they could get a deal. "We took it to New Line Cinema back in '73 or '74, and they found it too shocking. It was so ahead of its time no one realized its worth. But we always felt it would become more valuable over time, because there's nothing else like it." Thirty years later, though, the investment has become a burden. She says she has spent tens of thousands of dollars preserving the documentary and trying to get it shown, without luck. "There's only so much time you can spend on one film. Some films get lost, and this could be one." A well-known private photography dealer in Manhattan, Quasha would gladly give it to a university or a film school. But out of respect for Hochman, who believes it could be a massive artistic and commercial hit, Quasha is prepared to wait and see if it can get a distributor this year.

The Sarasota Festival screening took place on a Sunday in January. The theater was packed, and Hochman got a rousing ovation afterward from a crowd of mostly nostalgic baby boomers. There were no distributors present. In the audience, though, was Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, an organization formed in 1972. Zimmerman, who had never heard of the film, walked out stunned.

"I expected something serious and pedantic, but it was more like a radical documentary from the 1990s," she says. "You can compare her to Michael Moore." Zimmerman says the media-confrontation scene was just as relevant today and should be a wake-up call. "The media made the women's movement out to be ugly, but you can see that it was sexy, sensual and fun. The frightening thing is, 32 years later, these same . . . white men like Dan Rather and Mike Wallace are still on our screens and in such positions of power." She was astonished to see Hochman's crew included Coolidge, Kopple and Weill, women she has worked with for years, who never mentioned the film to her.

Perhaps this is not so surprising. When I call Weill in Los Angeles to ask her about the film, she is dumbfounded. "I've never seen it. What's it like? Can you send me a copy?" She barely recalls working on it, but she does remember Hochman. "She was the wild one -- such a fertile mind and active imagination. I was only 24, and she had just had her first child at 34, which was radical in itself."

HOCHMAN SAYS THE WORLD IS NOW A DIFFERENT PLACE FOR WOMEN, and she is proud she helped change it. "We still have a long way to go, but when I started out, there were so few women in art or politics. Walk into a Barnes & Noble now, though, and women writers are everywhere." Her own daughter is a successful magazine journalist in London. "Just think of that. When I started, I used to write in the 'he'." There is still no woman in the White House, but Hochman hopes Hillary Clinton will run in 2008. And, despite being a Democrat herself, she admires Condoleezza Rice. "Now there's a woman with power. Which is what we were fighting for."

Twice divorced, Hochman very much wants to meet a compatible man. She goes on blind dates and is still getting over the end three years ago of a decade-long relationship with the guitarist Rob Stoner, Bob Dylan's bandleader in the 1970s. She never made another film after "Year of the Woman," but she works constantly. She teaches writing classes and is raising money to stage a musical based on a children's book she co-wrote called King Timmy the Great. "It's for adults, children and revolutionaries," she says. "It's going to be as big as 'Rent.' Invest in it, and you'll be sailing on your own yacht in a few years."

She is no longer a member of any feminist organizations, but, more than ever, she is a troublemaker. The Sunday screening was not the only showing of "Year of the Woman" in Sarasota. It played again on the following Tuesday afternoon, and I stayed on with Hochman to see it. She was 10 minutes late for the screening, and the 130-seat theater was nearly full. The only seats were in the front row, and we took places on the end. Hochman immediately asked the woman sitting next to her to move over. The woman scowled at her -- then did as she was told. Hochman then began to chew gum so loudly that it was hard to concentrate. And then, during the media-confrontation scene, a couple three rows behind us started arguing loudly. The man was saying: "This is [expletive]. These women are idiots!" His wife was telling him: "Shut up, you might learn something." Hochman heard it all and let out a triumphant cackle: "You hear that? Some people are fighting! Isn't this brilliant?!"

Douglas Rogers is a freelance writer based in New York. Portions of this article first appeared in the Guardian newspaper in Britain.