Monday, April 23, 2018

J. E. Smyth's "Nobody's Girl Friday"

J. E. Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Warwick and author or editor of Reconstructing American Historical Cinema from Cimarron to Citizen Kane (2006), Edna Ferber's Hollywood (2009), Hollywood and the American Historical Film (ed., 2012), Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance (2015), and the BFI classics monograph on From Here to Eternity (2015).

Here Smyth shares some ideas about developing a film version of her new book, Nobody's Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood:
It’s a catchy title. But a feature film? Meh. I happen to think actress Olivia de Havilland was quite right about Feud (2017) and the scandalous way the male screenwriter portrayed her, playing fast and loose with the facts to construct a story about another Hollywood catfight between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The California judge was correct when she said no one “owns history,” but 75 years ago, Hollywood producers routinely consulted living historical subjects and scrutinized the script to avoid libel suits. I think in this recent case, the writer was too sloppy or stupid to realize Ms. de Havilland was still alive.

What I would like is to develop Nobody’s Girl Friday as a documentary, assembling as much archival footage as I can to complement the story of the women who ran Hollywood in its “golden era.” I certainly don’t want Susan Sarandon playing Bette Davis in a feature film—and if a feature had to be made, I would rather wait till CGI had improved enough to cast Davis as herself (with the family’s permission, of course). But there are certainly great individual stories in the book that would make strong biopics. Mary C. McCall Jr., Barbara McLean, Silvia Schulman, Dorothy Jeakins—their lives are far more interesting and poignant than anything some contemporary screenwriter could dream up.

I admire the work of Margot Robbie and Lena Headey (a perfect Joan Harrison), but very few contemporary actresses could fill the shoes of the women in Nobody’s Girl Friday. Their attitudes toward work, equality, power, education, and fulfillment are often strikingly different from those held by women in today’s Hollywood.

#MeToo has certainly done a lot to highlight sexual harassment in contemporary Hollywood and promises great strides towards gender equality, but too often the studio era has been wrongfully dismissed as a system bent on the disempowerment and abuse of women. The media has forgotten the achievements of other generations. The image of the victimized woman has been selling in movie theaters for decades. Nobody’s Girl Friday would offer something different—and some might not be ready for the challenge.
Learn more about Nobody's Girl Friday at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Nobody's Girl Friday.

--Marshal Zeringue