• Ben Keightley

Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema - Book Review

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

The 1970's was a hugely creative, artistic and revolutionary period for Hollywood cinema. A new brand of filmmaker arose and the studio system was taken over by young, ambitious cineastes who made their own rules and, after an initial period of brilliance, ran riot, letting their creative impulses nearly derail cinema. This story was most famously depicted in Peter Biskand's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs an Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

The book tells the story of Spielberg, Scorsese, Altman, Cimino, Friedkin, Coppola and other legends of American cinema. How they brought a breathe of fresh air, reinventing cinema through unconventional artistic styles and subject matter uncommon to the Hollywood studio system. The book mythologises these characters, reveling first in their genius and later in their decadence.

Now, thanks the Maya Montanez Smukler we have another, equally fascinating story about revolutionary filmmakers in 1970's Hollywood. Unfortunately few, if any, of the filmmakers featured in Smukler's Liberating Hollywood, have, like their male contemporaries, become household names who, for the most part, continue to produce and direct films.

Joan Micklin Silver on set 1979

In truth, the alternative future Smukler hints at, one in which these ambitious, driven, talented filmmakers go on to have long, illustrious and productive careers is the most fascinating and tantalising aspects of the book. The challenge for Smukler in telling this story, one which she tackles adeptly, is making these unknown voices feel important. Getting their stories heard.

Before reading the book my knowledge of female filmmakers was, i believed, quite good. Early cinema featured a number of pioneers. Then nothing, with a few exceptions; Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner etc., until contemporary cinema (early 90's to today) when a small number of female directors forged unique and interesting careers, and in some instances continue to direct with great critical and commercial success. I knew little of the battles, challenges and institutional sexism the growing number of female directors faced during the 70's. I was surprised by how few of the sixteen directors profiled in Smukler's book i'd heard of; Penny Allen, Karen Arthur, Anne Bancroft, Joan Darling, Lee Grant, Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Barbara Peeters, Joan Rivers, Stephanie Rothman, Beverly Sebastian, Joan Micklin Silver, Joan Tewkesbury, Jane Wagner, Nancy Walker, and Claudia Weill.

Elaine May on set

Take a second to re-read that list. How many of those names do you recognise. Elaine May. Anne Bancroft. Joan Rivers. All famous not for directing. The rest. I'd be confident that few would have heard of any of them. Yet over the course of a decade of so, all mounted and successfully directed films, against increasingly difficult odds and almost impossible circumstances. Smukler's book brings their stories to life in fascinating and honest detail.

Through interviews with the filmmakers, many of whom are surprisingly not bitter, and recounting the production history of the films, Smukler explores their grit and determination without ever mythologises these women. She never implies these were creative genius' who, due to their sex were quashed by the system. Instead she hints at what could have been. Reveals that for all of them we'll never know. Where their male contemporaries had huge, career changing successes and almost career ending, self indulgent disasters, these women were never given the opportunity to prove how they could reshape cinema.

Stephanie Rothman on set

None though are still directing. And so the book, as well as documenting their failed attempts to forge careers as directors does remind us of the battles fought, and the paths they carved for the future generations of female filmmakers. The book ends in the 80's, with none of the women still making films. But it does give us an insight into how their determination and desire to be heard, to be given the same freedoms and opportunities of their male counterparts began to open a door that future filmmakers and generations are still not fighting to open completely.

For anyone interested in the role of female filmmakers in cinema this book is indispensable. Smukler's writing is engaging, informative, passionate and impartial. She is focused on capturing the experiences and histories of these women and directors, and in highlighting the limitations and restrictions they encountered during one of cinema's apparently most liberal and transformational periods. A fascinating period of cinema gains greater clarity with this book and surfaces and showcases cinematic voices who have too long been forgotten or ignored.

A selection of 1970s female directors.

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