Some 75 years earlier, McCall occupied a similar place in Hollywood. A prolific screenwriter whose credits included the 1935 film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and eight of the 10 films in the comedic Maisie series, she became president of the Screen Writers Guild in 1942. In that important position, she fought for pay increases for her members (writers worked under contracts with the big studios) and defended writers against attacks from the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Several movie studios blacklisted her for her pro-union stance, but she eventually managed to find work — writing for television.
McCall, Rhimes and their contemporaries are the subjects of two compelling new books about women in Hollywood, fortuitously landing as women are shining a light on sexual misconduct and inequity in the industry. In “Stealing the Show,” writer Joy Press profiles the women behind some of modern television’s most groundbreaking programming. “Nobody’s Girl Friday,” by J.E. Smyth, a professor of history at the University of Warwick, tells the story of prominent women, such as McCall, who were so important to Hollywood’s success in the 1930s and 1940s.
Smyth’s book is something of a revelation, even for readers who enjoy a steady diet of films on Turner Classic Movies. Scouring studio newsletters and company directories, she surfaces the names of women who held prominent positions in the film industry, including agents, writers and producers. Far from being a boy’s club, 1930s Hollywood was pretty inclusive; Smyth cites a 1934 report claiming that women made up 40 percent of the workforce at the large studios at the time — Columbia Studios in particular appointed women to run major departments. “Women owned Hollywood for twenty years,” actress Bette Davis once said of this earlier era. In 2017, by contrast, women made up just 18 percent of the directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers of the top-grossing 250 films, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
What happened? Smyth argues that several factors drove women from the business. Many women were put on blacklists like the one that kept McCall from working in film, though the author doesn’t provide much evidence that conservative groups disproportionately targeted women. She also suggests, somewhat provocatively, that the studio system — the business model in which each studio controlled every aspect of film production, from the setmakers to the screenwriters and actors to the movie theaters — worked in women’s favor. Unions for writers and actors gave women like McCall the chance to hone their leadership skills, and vertically integrated studios offered job security and upward mobility. It was a system that often favored efficiency over artistry — alas, it also violated federal antitrust laws. Forced to divest their theaters, studios changed their business models in the 1950s, leading to an independent production model that favored (mostly male) director-auteurs. The subsequent films of the 1960s and 1970s may have been more artistic, but the stories were told through the lens of heterosexual men, with women in passive roles.
Smyth makes a more compelling case that female executives simply have been written out of the lore of the golden age of Hollywood. Dalton Trumbo, not Mary McCall, came to emblematize the writers’ blacklist, and news and feature articles about Bette Davis and Mary Pickford focused on their acting and personal lives, playing down their role as industry power brokers. Even the criticism of 1970s auteur-oriented filmmaking “reproduced the assumption that women did not have any creative or administrative control in the studio system,” Smyth writes. In their zeal to call out sexism, feminists may have inadvertently helped erase women from the history books.
The studio system may have enabled equality in the golden age of Hollywood, as Smyth argues. But the decline of traditional network television (and the subsequent rise of cable and services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime) has created unprecedented opportunities for female creators and executive producers. In “Stealing the Show,” Press describes Jenji Kohan, a former writer for “Friends” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” as “battered by the network sitcom system.” Kohan went on to create “Weeds” for Showtime and “Orange Is the New Black” for Netflix. Jill Soloway’s cheeky dramedy “Transparent” found a home with Amazon Studios after other studios passed. “HBO just didn’t need it the way Amazon did,” she told Press.
Press takes the reader on a wide-ranging tour of female-driven TV, starting with late-1980s stalwarts “Murphy Brown” and “Roseanne.” She clearly loves television, and she writes about these shows with affection and clarity. I’ve never watched an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” but in Press’s skilled hands, I was able to follow the show’s twists and turns — and she persuaded me to look past the soapy plots and silly nicknames (see “McDreamy”) to appreciate the show’s sly cultural significance.
Press is less expert as a profile artist. She introduces us to Rhimes as a “shy and chubby” little girl who was often the only black kid in her classes, but quickly moves past these formative years to catalogue Rhimes’s professional accomplishments. She glosses over controversies, including tension between Rhimes and “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Katherine Heigl, who publicly complained about her storyline on the show. Press’s chapter on Kohan, too, makes only passing mention of conflict between Kohan and Mary-Louise Parker, the Tony Award-winning stage actress who gave a bravura performance as pot-dealing mom Nancy Botwin on “Weeds.” Press quotes both women extensively in the chapter, along with several of Kohan’s longtime collaborators, yet turns to remarks from a 2010 talk by Kohan to explain away the drama. (“There was a lot of push and pull.”) It’s as if Press doesn’t want to present material that may put her subjects in an unflattering light.
This is a bit ironic given that so many female showrunners have imbued their heroines with flaws: Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in “30 Rock,” Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath in “Girls,” and Kohan’s Botwin and Piper Chapman in “Orange Is the New Black” are unabashedly imperfect; their challenging personalities are part of what makes them so compelling to watch. In turn, perhaps their commanding personas are part of what enables Kohan, Rhimes and others to make such compelling television.
“Nobody’s Girl Friday” and “Stealing the Show” went to press before the #MeToo movement and the formation of the Time’s Up initiative. I’m not sure that matters if, as Smyth notes, the accomplishments and professional gains of women in the golden age of Hollywood went unrecognized because no one told their stories. “Stealing the Show” makes an important contribution as well, preserving the stories of the women behind the golden age of television.
Stealing the Show
How Women Are Revolutionizing Television
By Joy Press
Atria. 292 pp. $26
Nobody's Girl Friday
The Women Who Ran Hollywood
By J.E. Smyth
304 pp. $29.95