How To Write a Book on Women in Hollywood

The first rule of book reviewing is: Review the book that was published, not the one you wish had been written. Culturebox is about to violate that edict. Premiere magazine writer Rachel Abramowitz’s Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women’s Experiences of Power in Hollywood is a long, gossipy, blow-by-blow account of seemingly every single career move ever made by the first two generations of women to succeed in Hollywood, including studio chiefs Dawn Steel and Sherry Lansing, agent Sue Mengers, actress/director Jodie Foster, director/writers Nora Ephron and Elaine May, and producer Paula Weinstein. ITAGIYP isn’t terrible, exactly, but it is the kind of book that induces in the reviewer such weighty thoughts as, Ought this kind of book to exist?Does the world require more proof that all humans, male or female, have a propensity for deal-making, backstabbing, and power worship? Can Abramowitz really justify the effort on the grounds that she’s written a history of female consciousness in the movie industry?

The answers to those questions are no; probably; and of course not. The replies would have been different, though, if the book had been independent-minded instead of worshipful and not written in the gee-whiz jargon of celebrity profiles. There is, in fact, an interesting case study to be written about women and Hollywood. Complain all you like, but as industries go, the movie industry is relatively open to women and other outsiders. Sure, Hollywood looks white and male, given the fratlike male bonding that goes on in film crews and the networking that tends to shut out minority executives, but that appearance is misleading. In contrast to, say, brokerage firms, studios tend to be places where people are judged more on their work product–their box-office results–than on their sex or social profile. That means Hollywood can often assimilate new networks–black, Hispanic, female, Australian, subcontinental Indian–before other businesses can. The process is slow and fraught, obviously, and people from one network may have difficulties striking up the necessary relationships with people from another. But the existence of movies like Thelma & Louise tells us something of how far women have come.

You get a sense of how movie studios differ from other workplaces when Abramowitz tells the tale of Marvin Davis, the Denver oilman who bought Fox and couldn’t grasp, on first meeting Sherry Lansing, that she was Fox’s head of production. “In the oil business we only work with guys,” he explains. “I never worked with a broad. So I thought she was supposed to get the coffee.” In other words, Hollywood looked like the land of radical feminists from where Davis was sitting.

In the book about women and Hollywood that Culturebox would like to read, the writer’s main task would be to disentangle sexual discrimination (a structural flaw) and the clash of personalities (which can happen in any group at any time). Unbundling the two would be as rewarding in literary terms as it would be helpful politically. Conflating them, on the other hand, as Abramowitz tends to do, has the effect of reducing the larger-than-life qualities of foul-mouthed telephone-slammer studio chief Dawn Steel or the vulgar ball-busting agent Sue Mengers into something suitably female, like insecurity, anxiety, the need to out-shriek the men, or lack of socialization. Did their careers swing up and down because they were women, because Hollywood is just like that, or because they were capable of being completely, deliriously intransigent? What would it take for a woman to gain recognition for being as big a monster (or genius) as Samuel Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg, or Louis G. Mayer, anyway?