Numerous troubling events of the past month have forced Hollywood — and indeed all of America — to acknowledge that gender and racial discrimination are still very present in our society, even in the second decade of the 21st century, and to consider what can be done to combat it. To discuss all of this and more, I was joined for the fourth episode of “The Geezer and The Kid” podcast by my regular co-host Marcia Nasatir, the first woman to serve as a vice president of production at a Hollywood studio (she worked at United Artists in the 1970s), and Geoffrey Fletcher, the first black person ever to win a screenwriting Oscar (he won for 2009’s Precious). You can listen to the audio of our full conversation — or read a synopsis of what we discussed — below.
Before we got down to heavier stuff, Geoffrey and Marcia — both members of the Academy, Marcia since 1975 and Geoffrey since 2010 — remembered Lorenzo Semple, Jr., the great screenwriter who died in March 2014. Semple, who is perhaps most remembered for writing the Batman TV series, was Geoffrey’s university instructor and Marcia’s dear friend and co-host of the popular YouTube series “Reel Geezers.”
Geoffrey revealed how much Batman meant to him and Marcia revealed how little Semple thought of Batman, as well as its 2008 revival The Dark Knight, which Geoffrey admired. We discussed how this represented a generational divide between people who felt/feel that a popcorn movie can never be anything more than a popcorn movie (associating them with the comics, B-movies and serials of their youth), and people who see them as potential conduits through which art can reach the masses.
Within the Academy, the latter camp prevailed in the sense that after The Dark Knight was denied a best picture Oscar nomination six seasons ago, the Board of Governors expanded the best picture category to make it more likely that a popcorn movie would be able to land a best picture nom in the future. In the years since, best picture nominations have been accorded to a number of crowd-pleasers — among them Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, The Fighter, Inception, True Grit, Django Unchained and Gravity — if not to a comic book movie.
The ACLU Calls for An Investigation Into Hollywood’s Hiring Practices
We next discussed the May 12 New York Times story that revealed that the American Civil Liberties Union is calling for state and federal investigations into the hiring practices of Hollywood studios, agencies and management companies, alleging gross gender discrimination. This came in the wake of studies that produced what Geoffrey found to be “alarming” numbers illustrating the discrepancy in opportunities for men and women in Hollywood, as well as a series of other events in recent months that have thrust gender in Hollywood to the forefront: the Academy’s “snub” of Selma’s Ava DuVernay, who could have become the first black woman ever nominated for the best director Oscar; the firing of Michelle MacLaren from the Wonder Woman movie (she was subsequently replaced by another female director, Patty Jenkins); the revelation, through Wikileaks’ publication of Sony’s hacked files, that lead actress Amy Adams was paid less than supporting actor Jeremy Renner for American Hustle; 37-year-old actress Maggie Gyllenhaal says she was told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old actor; and the list goes on.
“I’m not entirely sure what the solution is,” Geoffrey said. Marcia responded, “You’ve gotta make it illegal,” but also noted, “The problem is you can’t do that in an artform, right? The movies are an art form, books are an art form. Are you gonna say that half the books have got to be written by women and half by men? That movies — half have to be directed and half by men?” Both agreed, however, that some remedial steps need to be taken, if not for the present then for the future. “Things build upon themselves,” Geoffrey submitted. “You know, if you grow up as a young person and you don’t see anyone doing a certain job, you might put that job out of your mind. So these sorts of issues — issues of diversity — are very important for the present — you know, economic opportunity for those in the field right now — but also for the future.”
There are signs that women in Hollywood are fighting back: Oscar winner Geena Davis created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep is financing a lab for female screenwriters over the age of 40; and Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence is holding out to be paid a salary commensurate to her box-office bankability. Moreover, several of the year’s breakout hits have centered around women young (i.e. last weekend’s runaway box-office topper Pitch Perfect 2, which was directed by Elizabeth Banks, and second-place finisher Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Charlize Theron plays perhaps the film’s most pivotal character) and old (i.e. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Woman in Gold). But, as SNL and Scarlett Johansson acknowledged this month in a scathing skit about Marvel, the studio behind the year’s biggest hit, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, there is still plenty of room for growth.
“It’s not just women in the movie business,” Marcia emphasized. “It’s everywhere in the world. Hollywood is reflecting what goes on everywhere in the world: women as second-class citizens… The fear of men is that women are gonna have real power, and they don’t wanna give it up.”
Geoffrey wondered, though, if women and other minorities in Hollywood who do manage to break through the glass ceiling do enough to help others who are still struggling: “I wonder if once a woman or minority reaches that point, is there pressure not to rock the boat too much?” Marcia, as someone who did break through the glass ceiling to become Hollywood’s first high-level female exec, replied, “Your thing is true: you don’t want to rock the boat. Your first response is, ‘Isn’t this wonderful? I can go to lunch every day with a credit card.’ Let’s talk about Hollywood, the truth. I don’t think the women in the business in Hollywood have helped each other enough… I think your reason is accurate. You don’t want to rock the boat. You want to be like the guys.”
Geoffrey said that Marcia’s comments made him think about Amy Pascal, the longtime Sony Pictures chief who was fired after greenlighting a movie that incited the North Koreans to hack Sony’s computer system and leak embarrassing correspondence between Pascal and others. “Those Sony email leaks? The writing from the president of the studio, Amy Pascal? When I read them at first, I found them a little shocking, a little upsetting,” he said. “Then I thought about them more and I began to wonder, ‘Was any of that [just] trying to be or sound like one of the boys?'”
Geoffrey and Marcia agreed that the numbers of minorities in Hollywood are probably suppressed by a business model in which getting any movie made is incredibly tough, making any added resistance all the more demoralizing.
Geoffrey said, “Even if nobody bothers you and people are helping you, to make these films — I’ve never heard it put into words accurately how hard it is. And so when you add the additional resistance, questions on top of the work — the additional questions one might face as a woman or as a person of color or anything like that — the strength it requires has to be greater than that of other people.” He noted that momentum, or lack thereof, can also be an issue. “Other people can get this enormous momentum where it seems as if everyone’s conspiring for them to succeed,” he said. “I feel that if you aren’t a traditional person in power — if you don’t look like a traditional person in power — there is this pressure of, ‘I can’t make a mistake,’ which can paralyze you, which can inhibit you. And all of that feeds into these things.”
Marcia also pointed out that many women who have “made it” eventually leave the business — for any number of reasons — which means that there are fewer institutional allies for those who follow them. “The biggest problem — and it begins with Mary Pickford [the biggest movie star in the world during the silent era and the co-founder of United Artists] — is that they quit. A lot of women who’ve had a chance to make a movie — you would think instantly they would be offered another movie. Maybe we really are different, men and women, and a woman gets tired of fighting.” She added, “Is it possible that women don’t themselves have the strength to keep going?… I think we girls — we women — sometimes don’t have the courage to keep fighting.”
Among the female directors whose career trajectories we discussed: Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God) and Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), who directed films that were nominated for best picture without receiving corresponding best director nominations. We also spoke about the legendary actress Bette Davis’ short and tumultuous tenure as the first female president of the Academy, during which, she wrote in her memoir The Lonely Life, she encountered sexism that drove her from the office: “All in all it was obvious that I had been put in as President merely as a figurehead. I sent in my resignation a few days later and Darryl Zanuck, who was my sponsor for the presidency, informed me that if I resigned, I would never work in Hollywood again. I took a chance and resigned anyway.”
All agreed that things at the Academy today, under the presidency of Cheryl Boone Isaacs — the second woman and first black person to hold the job — are moving in the right direction. Finding ways to increase the diversity of the Academy has been a major focus of her administration. “They seem genuinely responsive and proactive,” said Geoffrey. “She’s a lovely woman.”
Has Hollywood Lost Its Social Conscience?
Our third topic of discussion was the recent unrest in Baltimore following the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department (a subject about which Geoffrey recently wrote for The Huffington Post), and whether or not Hollywood is doing enough to force people to think about the racial problems that continue to plague America.
Only a few decades ago, when America’s Civil Rights struggle was in full-swing, Hollywood turned out movies that forced people to think about the social problems around them: The Defiant Ones (1958), Imitation of Life (1959), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), A Patch of Blue (1965), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and the list goes on. Today, with only a few exceptions (i.e. Precious and 2013’s Fruitvale Station), it is almost impossible to find movies that take a hard look at problems related to race in the present day. Instead, the box-office last week was dominated by mindless escapism — i.e. Pitch Perfect 2, Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Hot Pursuit — begging the questions: Do Hollywood studios have a responsibility not only to their shareholders, but to society at large? And, if so, are they shirking it?
“I think there are two points of view on it,” Geoffrey said. “One, these films don’t reflect our times. And the other point of view is, oh, they reflect our times quite accurately!” Marcia, who worked on three social issue movies at UA that were big hits and major Oscar winners — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976) and Coming Home (1978), receiving an Oscar acceptance speech thank you from Jane Fonda for the third — added, “I think maybe we’re having problems in our society about what’s important anymore… Maybe the adults in the world have lost sight of what’s valuable.”
Geoffrey suggested that the people who run Hollywood today are increasingly of a generation that came of age caring about the wrong things: “Kids were bombarded with countless music videos that showed the good life or what was assumed to be ‘the good life’ — cars, pools, houses, champagne and all that, and how women are objectified as part of that. And you wonder if it’s a reflection of the times or do they feed each other? That became what was valued.” He continued, “Money’s always been a big deal, right? But in the old days, knowledge and kindness mattered, sometimes even how you got your money mattered.”