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.
October 9, 2014, NY