Reel Women Post!

Reel Women Post!

changing life one reel pioneer at a time…


Last year I was shunned from a feminist film panel, let’s call it The Minerva Film Festival, about a subject on which I literally wrote the book. Sour grapes would be a good enough reason for even me, as author, to relegate this blog to the trash. But there is a pearl in the story I instinctively recognized; one that has nagged at me in writing about women’s empowerment for the last thirty years; one not very PC to bring up in leftist women’s circles. Women, and a good deal of the time self-proclaimed feminists, co-op the tenants of patriarchy when it affords them the benefits and privileges they would otherwise not share.

The Minerva Film Festival, which describes itself as a celebration of women and leadership, announced the partnership of one of its films with The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Although the Academy had nothing to do with either the production or development of the film, Minerva’s director explained to me that, We…have been trying to create a relationship with the Academy for some time, and this was the area that we all felt would make the most sense. Having the Academy involved will help elevate your wonderful work and contribution to [all] our history. I wasn’t involved, or even invited to the festival for the film in question, a film in which I also appear, so I couldn’t figure out this might elevate my work? I never felt the need for the approval of a patriarchal organization to do the work I do. Most likely, what the festival’s director meant, though perhaps not consciously acknowledged, is that such an association would do wonders elevating her own career. Minerva’s public relations for the film spotlighted more attention to a best-selling author that would grace its panel (also a member of the Academy), rather than the lesser-known, young women filmmakers who actually made the movie.

Male benefit. Male privilege. This is why women sell out each other, and ourselves. As long as there is patriarchy, women will never be equal. The longer women slumber about our own active participation in a way of life that affords us benefits by keeping us subservient, the longer we will wonder why we keep hitting a glass ceiling.

My two-book series,

as well as my film, Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women, hosted by Jodie Foster, highlight the visions of women who pioneered a craft, before that craft was fully co-opted by male capitalism. Why won’t women ever be equal? All one has to do is to observe history under patriarchy. Before film, for instance, became a huge money machine, women and men enjoyed the playing field equally. But by the mid 1920’s, as film transformed into a lucrative enterprise, the women who had shaped the industry were promptly shown the way out.

By the 1940’s, when it became clear that film was not some passing fad, historians recognized it was accruing a history that needed to be recorded. When those first film histories were written down, they inadvertently left out early women who helped pioneer the craft. This blimp was no small omission. Up until that time, women had written more than half the content made into films. That means that the cinematic vision in the collective consciousness stemmed primarily from the brains and sensibilities of women…women not clouded by capitalistic concerns.

Capitalism is structured from the top down. Its very sustenance is competition. It is married to hierarchal order. Hierarchy is foundation of patriarchal thinking. Such thinking puts a damper on the creative, female life in every one of us. Of course, this is not limited to the film industry. It is everywhere we walk.

Gender should not be confused with consciousness. When I lecture at colleges, I often hear: But look how many women are in powerful positions in Hollywood! Isn’t it great? And I always have to stop and point out, If a women who has the power to green-light films has the same consciousness as a Judd Apatow, what’s the difference? Unconscious women in power are even more dangerous than having no women in positions of power at all. When patriarchal thinking has commandeered our consciousness, gender has very little to do with it.

It is no accident that pant-suit Hillary became the first woman to climb to the top of the political heap. She’s a terrific example of inculcated patriarchal thinking planted in the body of a woman. Did it make a difference that she was a woman? Not really. Could anyone actually tell the difference between Hillary and Bill other than the obvious division of their physical gender, (and Bill’s superior beside manner?…we won’t go deeper into that…). Hillary got to where she did in the patriarchal order, in the same way that Katharine Bigelow became the first female Oscar recipient: they proved to be better than the boys at the boys’ own game. Not to say that Bigelow isn’t a terrific filmmaker, (or that Hillary isn’t a brilliant woman and politician…Look, patriarchy became so frightened of her that we chose a moron to run the country instead. Apparently anyone is better than a woman.) Had Bigalow made a different genre of film other than a war film, one needs to wonder if she would have garnered the top prize?

A friend of mine suggested that if patriarchal-thinking women like Hillary get their foot in the door now, perhaps it will make way for women who are not primarily motivated by patriarchal thinking? Hopeful, I told her. But is it realistic to think that patriarchal consciousness will be a stepping-stone to matriarchal? Not likely. I had to remind her again about history; this was the hope that stemmed from of those “second wave” of Reel Women pioneers of the 1980’s and 90’s who were green-lighting movies like crazy. We all assumed that thirty years hence, we’d have a more gender blend, male/female, consciousness emanating equally out of Hollywood.

What went wrong ?

Jill Soloway has a thing or two to teach Hollywood! On the new season of her TRANSPARENT she’s recruited transgender people for cast and crew. And where they weren’t skilled, say in writing or directing, she’s taken pains to train them. For Studio Bosses, including those of the female persuasion, with no women directors on their lists…take note! Quit whining that women directors can’t be trusted with action pictures, or that they can’t take the heat, or that they don’t want the work badly enough. All fibs. But if you really believe these excuses, then take a note from Jill…Find them, recruit them, train them. Populate the industry with female blood, and your next picture will be swamped with the qualified female applicants you say don’t exist. Of course they do, It’s just that you and your patriarchal-covered lenses render them invisible.

NY Times on Jill’s New TRANSPARENT season

Cartoon by Robert Mankof The New Yorker

Cartoon by Robert Mankof The New Yorker

The ever on-point Manhola Dargis, once again brought her clear-vision focus to the plight of female filmmakers on Dec. 24, 2014 with the second in a series of articles on women filmmakers, In Hollywood, It’s a Men’s, Men’s, Men’s World.

I won’t reiterate the usual arguments about this never-changing (and never will) phenomenon of men in charge. I’d only like to add my experience to the mob delirium of why why why? Why so few women? Why don’t the studios change their behavior toward women? Why don’t women get paid, treated, or respected the same as men?

Here are my own shocking findings:

Since 1984, when I started researching, writing, raising monies, and eventually filming on the topic of pioneering women who transformed the movies, (See men were by far my biggest supporters, both financially and emotionally. With some exceptions like the indomitable Peg Yorkin and Gloria Steinem, women proved petty, jealous, and back-biting when confronted with assisting in the realization of Reel Women.

It was a puzzle to me. And of course I often asked myself why? Why wouldn’t industry women want to support a film about their own herstory? The answer I eventually enlightened on has less to do with the mini boy’s club of Hollywood, and more with the BIG boy’s club globally…that is to say, the insidious, invisible, tentacles (I almost wrote testicles!) of patriarchy.

Don’t confuse patriarchy with gender. Many women executives I’ve met in Hollywood are much more patriarchally inclined than their male studio suits. So deep is culture drilled into us that these women are often the last to know. We are all molded by the same big daddy machine. when culture pins underdog against underdog (i.e. women against women) for one or two or ten slots, those underdogs end up clawing at each other, instead of at the real monster at hand.

The many generous men who showed no hesitation, (and most often quite the opposite, genuine enthusiasm, along with an open check book) for Reel Women had no one pitted against them. They never felt threatened that someone else would, or could, snag their privilege. Their conditioning assured them that such a thing would never be possible.

This is my own 5¢ assessment of the pitiful numbers of women in charge…not just in Hollywood, but everywhere, in every industry you look. After thirty years spent looking at this single question from every possible angle, I’m here to tell you the sad news…the pitiful numbers of women directors working for the big studios will never ever get better. Not until we have a global sea-change from Patriarchy to Matriarchy. Depending how you view it, this could actually be good news. You know what the Buddhists say, the true acceptance of what is right in front of us eliminates all pain. So lets stop whining at Women In Film meetings, and start putting our energies where they belong. Let’s stop crying about what Daddy won’t give us, and focus instead on where we can make real transformation, our work. Let’s make the best films we’re capable of making. Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to make the best films we can make as women. Directing well can be our best revenge.

Kathryn Bigalow - First women to receive the Oscar in Eight Decades

If you live long enough, and you work long enough in the movie business, you will see your best ideas not borrowed, but blatantly stolen by others. Not only stolen, but these same plagiarists will just as shamelessly pawn the ideas off as their own. Last Tuesday night’s PBS airing of Women in Hollywood from the Makers franchise, gave me the only solace I could garner… that my work of the last 30 years has been good enough for the most important people in our industry to want to pawn off as their own. Like Athena popping out whole cloth from head of Zeus, without any need to nod to those who first unearthed it.

I began envisioning a book and a documentary about the great women pioneers who changed the course of cinema in 1983, when I found an obscure Hollywood magazine article that said, almost in throwaway, There were more women in powerful positions in Hollywood before 1920 than at any other time in motion picture history. That one line was enough to shape the next 25 years of my life. I found the only book on the subject that was out on the subject, Anthony Slide’s
Early Women Directors from 1977. I was so grateful to Mr. Slide for his important historic contribution.

In those early 80’s, the women’s movement was still warm under our feet, but the concept that the public at large would be interested in what was termed women’s history (i.e. “her-story” was not really part of “his,” but something parenthetic, subservient, and much more insignificant.) I remember reading film critic, Andrew Sarris’ comment on the early women pioneers of the film industry. He labeled them, A little more than a ladies’ auxiliary. This was how the world viewed women filmmakers at the time.

I had a contact to Cis Corman, Barbra Streisand’s producer, and in the mid-80’s I sent her a proposal for a film called, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema. I thought that Ms. Streisand would be the perfect spokesperson for such a film. I had already been two deep years into this obscure research, buttressed by only a tiny book published on the subject.

All of the discoveries about female film pioneers (my research took me deeper than just women directors) I was making was first hand sourcing. I spent hours at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, going one page at a time in un-indexed periodicals like Moving Picture World, and Photoplay. Each page would reveal another unknown story about an early century unknown pioneer… Cleo Madison opening her own studio, or Mabel Normand directing a newcomer in her new flicker, and showing him the ropes of the business. That newcomer was Charlie Chaplin.

After two hard years of research into about 125 biographies and statistical data of early women pioneers, I made the discovery that Barbra Streisand with Yentl in 1983, became the first filmmaker in history, male or female, to direct, produce, co-author, star, and sing in a major motion picture. I remember how excited I was to make such a find! Being an archeologist was fascinating work. This is what such early discoveries felt like. Unearthings. I remember writing this to Streisand and Cis Corman in my proposal to them.

But in the mid-80’s Cis and Barbra had passed. Such a film was clearly before its time. The audience was not yet there. By 1990, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present, was released by Continuum in NY. (That Streisand ‘discovery’ can be found on page 87 of that original volume…More on this in a moment…)

It was the first comprehensive history of women’s contributions to the film industry in all crafts. Library Journal called it, Groundbreaking. And it was. Without hubris, I worked my tail off on that book, all culled from research done first hand. In 2012 the book was exponentially expanded and updated into two volumes. Volume 1 1896-1950, Volume 2 1960-2010, and includes many present day pioneers who continue to push the boundaries of the medium.

By the new millennium everything was changing. All through the 90’s, (all the while paying my rent as an independent producer and writer for television), I continued to squirrel away stock footage, and do interviews with pioneers for the film version of Reel Women. I felt so lucky to meet, and speak with the most amazing people who had been on the forefront, changing the course of cinema… Lillian Gish, Margaret Booth, Dede Allen, Kate Hepburn, Doug Fairbanks Jr., as well as more contemporary amazements, Margarethe von Trotta, and Euzhan Palcy to name just a few.

I sent my favorite station, and the one I gathered most appropriate for such an idea, TCM, a copy of an updated proposal, again suggesting Streisand as a perfect spokesperson for the film. TCM quickly came back and said they weren’t interested. Quite remarkably, eight months later in 2000, TCM broadcast a show they called Reel Models: The First Women of Film. Coincidentally, Barbra Streisand was its host. In it, a startling observation out of whole cloth, came in this narration:

With Yentl in 1983, Barbra Streisand became the first woman and filmmaker in history to direct, produce, coauthor, star and sing in a major motion picture.

Apparently, plagiarism isn’t only reserved for the unoriginal. The message: If you’re going to steal, STEAL BIG. Be brazen. Be unapologetic. Make it seem like the ideas are entirely your own. Don’t blink. Whatever you do, don’t give credit. If you do, you might get sued. If you’re going to steal, be at the very least, Barbra Streisand.

Sad, I thought. She was someone I looked up to. Here’s a hint for women pioneers, don’t steal from your champions; it will diminish your fan base.

Now I understood precisely the way Streisand herself felt, and had expressed publically many times: underappreciated, and unacknowledged by a film industry that overlooked her accomplishments.

A tough blow, but I moved on. I decided not to wait for anyone else to broadcast or give me permission to do the film I had been harboring for 30 years. In 2014, after a year of editing, the happiest year of my life, I completed, Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women. The luminous Jodie Foster agreed to be the host.

I sent the link of the finished film to several honchos at PBS and TCM. (You think I would have learned the first time…) The film has enough luminaries, I thought, to be of interest now…rare interviews with Dede Allen (1923-2010), Gillian Armstrong, Amma Asante, Margaret Booth (1898-2002), Kevin Brownlow, Martha Coolidge, Donna Deitch, Lauren Shuler-Donner, Nora Ephron (1948-2012), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-2000), Jodie Foster, Harriet Frank Jr., Greta Gerwig, Lillian Gish (1893-1993), Lee Grant, Molly Haskell, Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003), Pirjo Honkasalo, Fay Kanin (1917-2013), Naomi Kawase, Sherry Lansing, Carol Littleton, Haifa Al Mansour, Rita Moreno, Marcia Nasatir, Euzhan Palcy, Sarah Polley, Mala Powers, Buddy Rogers (1904-1999), Susan Seidelman, Fina Torres, Margarethe von Trotta, Paula Weinstein, and Christina Yao.

Strangely however, I found only hesitancy and silence on the other end. The mystery was solved Tuesday night with the PBS broadcast of Women in Hollywood from the people of ‘Makers’. They already had something in the works. Something, it turns out, very similar to my something. The way Women in Hollywood presented the history (and I don’t mean the raw ‘facts’ of the history itself), is eerily similar in idiosyncratic observation, and in style to my film, Reel Herstory. Similar too, are the historic ‘discoveries’ woven once again from whole cloth, as though the writers of the film made the observations themselves, without a shred of historic precedence.

So is this essay crying about split milk? Maybe. I have given the last three decades of my life to a cause, and the cause was unearthing pioneers and their contributions from the grave of obscurity. Do I want to be thanked? Not really. I did it for passion, and I did it to right an historic wrong. I did it because when I went to film school at Columbia in the mid-80’s not even my women professors knew that they had role models whose shoulders they were standing on. I did it to acknowledge the shoulders of the foremothers we all stand on. You can undercut the contributions such shoulders have made, and pawn their ideas off as your own (as Charlie Chaplin did with Mabel Normand). That might make you well known, and well compensated. It might even make you famous. But it won’t make you original. And it won’t make you a pioneer.

To sleep at night in this business, all you have to believe is what Ezra Pound believed, Great writers don’t borrow, they steal.

If you’re lucky enough to believe this as a creed for a long time, historic amnesia will set in. You will see yourself revising your own history. You will begin to believe that the ideas you stole from others were really of your own making. Male film historians did this when they wrote down the history of film in the 1940s. They forgot the contributions of the women from the last 40 years. They simply wrote them out, as if that were the real (sic: reel) story.

So Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women with Jodie Foster will be released some time this year (Vimeo on Demand), with great thanks to my amazing producers Robert Dassanowsky, and Sam Pollard. It’s headed now into film festivals that, because of the Makers PBS broadcast which mirrors many of our film’s observations, and stylistic idiosyncrasies, will no longer make it seem new, fresh, or startlingly original, as original and startling as I found it from my first observations in the early 1980’s. But it will be mine. And I will be able to sleep at night. At least I know, with all of my spilt milk, I have not been unoriginal.

Ally Acker
October 9, 2014, NY

Fay Kanin
It is with sadness that I read today of the passing of one of film’s greats, FAY KANIN.


I’m a big feminist,” Ms. Kanin always proudly asserted, “I’ve put into my play my feeling that women should never back away from life.”

As Mr. Harmetz recounts in his NYTimes obit, In 1979 Ms. Kanin, who was a playwright as well as a screenwriter, became just the second female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the advocacy organization that presents the Oscars. The first was Bette Davis, who resigned after two months in 1941…Thirty-four years ago Ms. Kanin was elected president of the Motion Picture Academy by a board that consisted of 34 men and one other woman. Although the gender ratio has changed since then — there are 19 women on the Academy’s current 57-member board of governors — Ms. Kanin was the last woman to serve as president. In her four one-year terms, the maximum allowed, she was widely credited with pushing the Academy to help preserve Hollywood films.

I was honored to interview Fay Kanin for the award winning, Reel Women Archive Film Series: Screenwriters on Screenwriting. The above video was Kanin’s interview excerpts from that documentary.

I also wrote of her extensively in Reel Women:The First Hundred Years

We honor and enjoy her again today.

Thanks Fay, for all that you did for Reel Women and for film. You won’t be forgotten.