March is Women’s History Month and the 8th of this month is International Women’s Day. While it’s important to watch films created by strong women, with strong female leads, it’s also important to read about them too. Feud, the miniseries currently on FX exploring the relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, has been met with some resistance by members of the classic film community because of its revisit to a topic that’s been discussed over and over again. After I watched the first episode I was impressed by how it showcased the deep levels of sexism these respected actresses faced in their careers. Davis and Crawford are well known for breaking away from the expectations imposed on them because of their gender but they weren’t the only women to make a difference in classic Hollywood. Below are a list of books that tell the story of glass ceiling breakers in the classic era.
A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960
Jeanine Basinger examines the realm of the so-called “women’s pictures” of the classic era and the messages they sent to their audience. These pictures cross all genres from screwball comedies to even film noirs. I sometimes want to throw this book at people who claim that classic films never featured strong female leads. Um hello? Have you even seen a Barbara Stanwyck picture? The book focuses from the 1930’s to 1960 with a close examination of stars such as Kay Francis, Loretta Young, and Miriam Hopkins. I appreciate its attention to these secondary actresses because it goes to show that Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis, and Katharine Hepburn weren’t the only crop of leading ladies around portraying these characters. Basinger is also very effective at putting these films and tropes into historical context that makes you wonder why this debate is still going on in the first place. Oh Hollywood, will you ever learn?
Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the Powerful women of Early Hollywood
Without Lying Down serves as both a biography of Francis Marion as well as a look at the formation of early Hollywood and its key players: Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler, and Irving Thalberg. Marion was one of the most influential screenwriters in movie history. So much so that’s she often credited for being the one who gave Hollywood its voice. She wrote almost 200 produced films and won Academy Awards for writing The Big House and The Champ. Marion was Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter for almost three decades. Her background was in journalism. She even served in Europe as a combat correspondent during World War I. I think what most people will be surprised to learn is how well respected she was and how many women like her during this time actually more freedom than one might think when it came to her work. It was obviously much different for women in other parts of the country.
Pickford: The woman who made Hollywood
Eileen Whitefield’s Pickford: The Woman who made Hollywood is, in my opinion, the best account of this pioneer’s life. Pickford led an extraordinary life. In addition to being an actress, she was also a writer, businesswoman and at 27 co-founded United Artists, the first independent film distribution company. Contrary to the adolescent women with fringy hair she portrayed onscreen, Pickford was a brilliant businesswoman. The impact she had on all aspects of cinema’s early era is inspiring. I left this book truly impressed by what one person accomplished in their life during the formation of an industry that no one had much hope for.
Women in Film Noir Revised Edition by E. Ann Kaplan
Women in Film Noir is a collection of essays examining the complex female characters brought to life in film noirs. I always loved the complex dames that populate the seedy underworld of noir. They’re often much more interested than the main plots. As a teenager when noir was everything I watched I found myself rooting for these women even if they turned out to be the villains in the end, they were just more fun to watch. These essays go beyond the femme fatale box by delving deeper into tropes and themes in such essential films like Gilda to more modern noirs like Klute and L.A. Confidential. Multiple editions exist so as long as noirs keep getting made, we can expect this book to grow.
Rita Moreno: A memoir
Rita Moreno is an icon. The Puerto Rican trailblazer is one of the only 12 people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony and she did it the fastest. She’s had a colorful life by all accounts and is still working. Her hit show One Day at a Time was just renewed for a second season by Netflix. As candid as she is in interviews, she gives us even more in her autobiography Rita Moreno: A Memoir. This is one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. Moreno is such an engrossing storyteller. I felt like I was in her living room and she was telling all these amazing stories about life in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. I also appreciated how Moreno didn’t water down some of the darker aspects of her life including racism, misogyny, and an attempted suicide. The book is incredibly revealing but always dignified. Moreno more than anything is a survivor who is still kicking it. A reina indeed.