The Wrong Kind of Women and Why I Never Knew I was One Until Now

calamity jane

I grew up in a traditional household; my father worked, my mother stayed home to raise the kids, and when I decided I wanted to go to college, my father told me I wouldn’t be able to use my education when I got married anyway, so why bother.

He didn’t say it to be mean.  He grew up in circumstances I can only begin to imagine and worked hard to overcome them.  There was comfort to be found in creating the family he wanted, not the one he somehow managed to survive and part of that was making sure his wife didn’t have to work and his daughters could marry and be taken care of for the rest of their lives.

rosalind

I also grew up watching old movies on TV where Rosalind Russell was a reporter holding her own with Cary Grant, Ida Lupino directed TV movies, Harriett Frank Jr co-wrote Academy Award winning screenplays with her husband Irving Ravetch and best of all, Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Jennifer Jones, Irene Dunn, Rita Hayworth took center stage in comedies, dramas, potboilers and tearjerkers about rich society girls, harlots, ballbusters, sex goddesses and doormats but GOD was it wonderful seeing women doing things I could only dream of.  If I watched THE WOMEN once, I must have watched it a hundred times.  Sure it’s a dippy soap opera about women fighting one another over a man but we never saw the man and the dialogue was fantastic.

It never occurred to me when I packed up my battered yellow Volkswagen in 1982 and drove from Salem, Oregon to Los Angeles by myself to sleep on a friends couch that I would find myself  38 years later without a shelf full of Oscars and Emmy awards, a beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills, and more money than I could spend in a lifetime.  I was born ready to conquer the world and nothing was going to stop me.  I was young, hungry, ambitious, beautiful, determined and driven.  It was only a matter of time until I willed the world around me into submission.

It turns out, I was the Wrong Kind of Woman.

Because I was a woman at all.

wrong

Naomi McDougall Jones, author of the new book THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN; Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, lays out in sobering detail just how rigged Hollywood game is and quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with this information.

I decided early on I wanted to be a screenwriter.  I wasn’t passionate about acting and, anyway, the one meeting I had with a woman who cast actors in commercials told me pretty girls are a dime a dozen in L.A.  The one audition I went on proved something else.  I’m not that invested in being a “pretty girl.”

So I started writing.  About women.  In period pieces.  Who Did Things.  Things like PEARL HART, THE BANDIT GIRL, who was the only known female stagecoach robber in American history.  Or LUCKY 13, about the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots and how they helped win the war.  There was a contemporary comedy too, called HOW TO; A LOVE STORY based on an article in The Nation written by Richard Lingeman, about finding love in a time of self-help books.

athena sloan

I started making the rounds of all the freshly minted junior executives and “D” girls in Hollywood eagerly telling my stories.  People loved them, or so they said. But it always came down to the same thing; no one is going to make a movie with a female driven lead.  But aren’t you cute for trying…

Twelve years in, I’d had enough and it was heartbreaking. I sobbed on the phone to my father that my dreams were dead and I just didn’t know how I was going to make it without them.

I did.

But the dream of a career in Hollywood never died and in 2014, I sent a one page treatment to the New York Film Academy for an eight week screenwriting scholarship and won!  This was IT!  I could just feel it.  This time was going to be different.  I was one of the few women reaching for a career as a screenwriter in 1982, but it was 2014 and everything was different.

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Only, it wasn’t.

The statistics in THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN are irrefutable.  Nothing about Hollywood is designed to benefit, support, champion or encourage women filmmakers in any way shape or form.  There is a passage in the book in particular that stands out:

“None of us women expected to be handed anything.  We understand about paying our dues.  We understand about work. In fact, we even understand all too well that any one of us may not have what it takes.  Indeed, almost every woman I interviewed for this book rushed to assure me that her own career hurdles might be her fault.  

But we all can’t suck.  You can explain a lack of career success of any one woman in a thousand different ways, but to look at what is happening across a gender and say that it is our fault, that it is down to weaknesses in each of us, is very simply to say that women, as a gender, are just less talented, hard working and psychologically intact.  And not a little bit, but so much so that we are collectively undeserving of having voices in an industry that creates the stories that shape our culture.”

postcard mailer feb 2020

I have a Sloan Foundation Development grant, a short film directed by Robin Wright starring Sam Rockwell and Leslie Bibb, a major screenplay competition win, two “shopping agreements” (i.e. free options), a mentorship with the New York Stage and Filmmakers Workshop, an eight week scholarship to the New York Film Academy, placement in more script competitions than I can name and everyone who hears about these successes all say the same thing to me…if you were a man you would be working full time in the industry by now.

cannesBut I’m not a man, and no matter how hard I work my chances of “making it to the top” are next to impossible because now I have one other problem to contend with.

I am 60 years old.

To put this in perspective, I am taking a pitch class right now and two of the people in the class are in their mid to late twenties. Neither one of them had ever seen Renee Zellweger in anything before her star turn in JUDY.    They both thought A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN was too old to use as a comp.  In fact, the prevailing wisdom is to avoid using a movie over five years old because the executives who run the studios these days won’t know what you are talking about.  And forget using HIDDEN FIGURES as an example of a movie about women that made $252 million on a $25 million dollar budget.  Men in Hollywood are still scratching their heads over that one.

My point is this.  I’ve spent close to four decades chasing the dream of a career in Hollywood and blaming myself because I just can’t seem to get there no matter how hard I try.  I  had to stop reading THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN after the introduction because I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.  All these years I’ve felt like an idiot because I figure anything out and I just cannot find a way Inside.  I even reached out to Bryan Lourd, who I started with in the film industry on the same day and while we all know where he wound up, I wound up nowhere.  So I asked his help in finding an agent and he set me up with two new motion picture literary agents who asked to talk to me on the phone.  I was elated.

They called to say they weren’t interested, not even when the one logline I sent prior to our conversation really grabbed them.  When they said it was the one logline I should pursue, I immediately said the script was finished and asked permission to send it.  There was a crashing silence, then some blah, blah, blah about how they would keep me in mind for future projects.

freefall pitch deck

THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN makes me realize, at long last, that kind of response is not a reflection on me.  The problem isn’t my work, or my talent, or my ambition, or, at this point even my age.

I am a woman.  And in Hollywood, that just makes me wrong.

But at least now, I know I am not alone. And there are a whole lot of women who aren’t gonna let this stand.

Hollywood, you have been warned…

 

 

 

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