Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?: Women's Experience of Power in Hollywood

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Ten years ago, Rachel Abramowitz began interviewing the most powerful women in the movie-making business in an effort to discover how they had infiltrated this male-dominated world. From superstar actors to independent directors, women in all arenas opened up to her, and the result is extraordinary—together, these stories comprise the most comprehensive history to date of women in Hollywood. Here, in their own candid and provocative words, are Jodie Foster, Penny Marshall, Dawn Steel, Sherry Lansing, Barbra ...
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Overview

Ten years ago, Rachel Abramowitz began interviewing the most powerful women in the movie-making business in an effort to discover how they had infiltrated this male-dominated world. From superstar actors to independent directors, women in all arenas opened up to her, and the result is extraordinary—together, these stories comprise the most comprehensive history to date of women in Hollywood. Here, in their own candid and provocative words, are Jodie Foster, Penny Marshall, Dawn Steel, Sherry Lansing, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep, Jane Campion, and many others—in short, one of the most talented casts ever assembled. Poignant, inspiring, scandalous, and hilarious, this is at once a landmark look at the evolution of women’s place in filmmaking and a glimpse inside one of the most powerful industries in American culture.
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Editorial Reviews

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For all it's liberal posturing and democratic fund-raising, Hollywood remains a bastion of the "boys club" mentality, a town where masculinity and power are wielded like weapons. Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? examines the small group of women who have achieved phenomenal success in this male-dominated climate, women who have made it as directors, producers, and heads of major studios. Author Rachel Abramowitz, who spent seven years interviewing her subjects, provides an unflinching view of the most powerful women in Hollywood-- showing that they are often their own worst enemies.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Despite her provocative title, Premiere senior writer Abramowitz's look at some of Hollywood's female players (including Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, writer/director Nora Ephron and actor/director Jodie Foster) turns out to be a rather scattershot account that only glances its target. The material is not much more developed than it was in Abramowitz's magazine articles. And as is typical in such an overview, the emphases given to the various women may seem debatable to some readers. For example, Abramowitz only briefly mentions Julia Phillips, the producer of The Sting, perhaps because Phillips already expressed herself so well in her classic slash-and-burn Hollywood memoir, You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. Although Abramowitz's book rarely captures the passion of Phillips's, it does provide some pathos in describing the rise and demise of Dawn Steel, the tough-talking studio executive who succumbed to a brain tumor. In what is perhaps a sign of the times, the profiled women seem reluctant to complain too loudly about any gender discrimination they have faced or to advocate too strongly any particular ties of sisterhood. Perhaps it's because, as Ephron notes, "If you're not helped by men, you don't get anywhere in this business, because they run it, women don't." Still, Abramowitz's analyses of these women's business experiences will appeal to media junkies as well as those looking to carve out their own careers in Hollywood. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
This is a superbly written and insightful look at the lives of some of Hollywood's most powerful women--directors, writers, agents, actors, and other major players. Sherry Lansing, Sue Mengers, Polly Platt, Penny Marshall, Dawn Steel, Nora Ephron, and others all made their careers with talent, creativity, perseverance, and hard work in an industry known to be difficult at best and rife with obstacles at worst--particularly for women and particularly when these women built their careers. Their stories are more than just a chronicle of strong women who triumphed against the prevailing odds and shattered sexist practices within the industry; they are intensely absorbing narratives, rich in details of childhood memories, heartbreaks, inspirations, past experiences, and family and friends (men included) that all shape their lives, both personal and professional. Each woman is real--not just a famous name--and Abramowitz, a senior writer at Premiere, weaves their separate stories together with consummate skill and emotional resonance. This important work will provide a substantial and lasting addition to the serious literature on both Hollywood culture and women's studies.--Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Elaine Showalter
A knockout. Based on extensive interviews with women of power in Hollywood, this book makes clear how much women had to pay to win the right to make movies and how worthwhile that fight has been. Mesmerizing, un-put-downable.
Erica Jong
An entertaining, dishy read about women in film. I devoured it.
Gloria Steinem
This is the movie behind the movie, the story of what women in Hollywood did for power, and what power did to them. Tough-minded, detailed, generous, and fascinating, Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? exposes the working conditions in America's dream factory, a reality more cautionary than anything it puts on film.
Jeanine Basinger
Forget what your mother told you. Here's everything you need to know about what a woman runs into, not only in Hollywood but just about everywhere else on earth, including a hair salon. This is an invaluable book for many reasons. It's funny, well-written, impeccably researched, a great read, but also an important and original history. How many readable histories of the female experience do we have anyway? This is the one that counts.
The New Yorker
When Stanley Kubrick took two years to choot and edit a movie, he was hailed as an eccentric genius; when Elaine May did the same thing, no woman got to direct a Hollywood feature for another decade. Abromowitz recounts, in eye-opening detail, the experience fo some of the pioneering women in the movie business.
Kirkus Reviews
From countless interviews with Hollywood's female elite, Abramowitz compiles a mesmerizing account of the sometimes-ugly confluence of sex, power, and celebrity amid the tarnish of Tinseltown. Beginning and ending with the death of studio chief Dawn Steel, Abramowitz (Premiere magazine) describes a Hollywood landscape lush with money and power, as well as the rampant sexism that still hinders any woman who wants to grab a piece of the action. Despite the obstacles, many women succeed in these predatory waters, and their stories simultaneously shock and inspire. Abramowitz gives us the full range of Hollywood, from Barbra Streisand's eventual triumph in filming Yentl to Jodie Foster's trauma as the assassination-inspiring wunderkind of Taxi Driver. Sex, of course, is never in short supply, from the affair between Cybill Shepherd and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of The Last Picture Show to the rumors that have long dogged studio head Sherry Lansing that she slept her way to the top. Celebrity may sell in Hollywood, but one of the strengths of Abramowitz's exposé is that she gives us the stories of the women behind the scenes as well. We see, for example, Callie Khouri's creation of Thelma and Louise and Carrie Fisher's odyssey from actress to script doctor, as well as snapshots from the long careers of such Hollywood mainstays as writer Nora Ephron, agent Sue Mengers, and director Elaine May. These topics provide only a brief sampling of Abramowitz's tales: the beauty of the book lies in its encyclopedic ability to address almost every notable woman in Hollywood over the last 30 years. Abramowitz's strength as a writer emerges in her ability to let her subjects speak candidlyandopenly about their experiences and passions; the resulting collection celebrates Hollywood's irrepressible ability to entertain while plumbing the dark reaches of its soul.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679437543
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/23/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 494
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel Abramowitz has covered Hollywood for the last decade, primarily for Premiere magazine. Her work has also appeared in Mirabella and The New York Times Magazine. She graduated from Yale and lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and son.
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Read an Excerpt


INTRODUCTION

The day of Dawn Steel's funeral was one of those bright, wintry days the smog recedes and the palm trees with their jagged fronds stand like paper cutouts against a cloudless blue sky. It was December 23, 1997, and the studio lots were bare. The phones had ceased to ring. The only members of the Hollywood elite left in town were the eighty who gathered that clear morning at Mount Sinai Cemetery, an unnaturally lush green cliff overlooking the candy-colored buildings of the Disney lot. They had come to bury the diminutive former studio chieftain, a colorful and determinedly outrageous figure, famed for her name, which sounded like a moniker in a trashy novel, her viteruperative mouth, which popped off swearwords like fireworks, and her thick, lustrous tresses, to whom celebrity hairdressers routinely paid homage.

The mourners included the billionaire David Geffen, who used to commiserate with Steel about their respective issues with anger; and former beau Richard Dreyfuss, whom she had once bullied out of a depressive funk. There was the director Joel Schumacher, who had made the New Age thriller Flatliners, one of the few hits to emerge from her tenure as chairman of Columbia Pictures; and Ray Stark, the wily, Machiavellian power broker producer who had helped place her in that job. Close to eighty, Stark looked old and withered, while the producer Dan Melnick, the onetime Hollywood smoothie who had deciphered the town's mores for Steel, looked shattered.

When Steel arrived in L.A. in 1978, she was a thirty-two-year-old college dropout who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by the men who ran Hollywood. That Dawn Steel would have beenoverjoyed by the appearance of so many members of the boys' club at her funeral. It was a narcissist's fantasy, the ultimate validation that she had mattered in a town where significance was as fleeting as your last hit movie.

That Dawn Steel, however, would have been shocked by the women, the female industry titans arrayed in dark business suits who lined up to carry her casket. In those days, if she thought of women at all, it was usually as competitors. For years Steel had felt competitive with Sherry Lansing, the first woman to be named president of a studio. She had feuded with Lynda Obst over Flashdance and had Ignored Lucy Fisher until the two became the highest-ranking women in the business to bear children. Amy Pascal had been her protege, her kid sister who had grown up and become a studio president in her own right, an inversion of roles that had created its own stresses. Indeed, many of the women present at the funeral had warred at one time or another with Steel, who tended to treat relationships like a high-contact sport, with head-on confrontations representing the only sign of authenticity and true intimacy.

Her ten-year-old daughter was the first to speak. She was poised, blunt, and uncannily Dawn-like.

"My mother could do anything," she told the well-heeled crowd. "She was the first woman ever to run a studio. She wrote a book. She even found time to have me. That's because my mother thought she could do anything." She paused. "I want to tell you a story about my mother. She couldn't figure out how to work anything. She was never able to turn on the TV. She couldn't make the phone work. She could never make the VCR work. You can imagine what life was like at our house. Every other minute, she would be yelling, 'Rebecca. the TV's broken. Chuck. the phone's broken. Rebecca, the VCR's broken. 'You see, those things had to be broken because my mother could do anything. If she didn't know how to work it, it had to be broken."

Steel's death had not been unexpected. When the news had filtered out over a year earlier that Dawn Steel had developed a brain tumor, the town had roiled with shock. For those who liked her, it was unthinkable that someone so vital should be so cruelly smote. For those who didn't-and there were many-it was divine retribution caused undoubtedly by the ubiquitous cell phone, and -roundly deserved for a lifetime of temper tantrums, of heaping humiliation on a legion of secretaries, assistants, maitre d's, generally anyone less powerful than she, and certainly anyone who didn't meet her exacting standards.

There was a tendency to look upon Steel's life and death as a Hollywood fable. In her heyday she had represented for many of her peers the shadow self, the female fury, the woman unsexed. She was someone who aped the testosterone-fueled antics of the town's men-yelling, screaming, controlling, demanding fealty and obeisance from all who came into her purview. She was the ultimate ball buster. Now the angry woman-the woman who had it all-was being punished. What was essentially a freak occurrence was being cast as a moral comeuppance.

It was a neat narrative but a flawed one, and certainly not an explanation for cancer or for Dawn Steel, a flawed. charismatic figure who often turned to aggressiveness out of fear. Ironically, if she had been a man, her death would have been not the stuff of myth but just another one of life's tragedies.

Women and power-perhaps no other confluence of subjects has launched as many myths, or stirred as much gossip.

When I began reporting this book, almost every woman I met came with a kind of urban legend attached, usually a pejorative back story that purported to be the secret key to her identity or success. Most of the stories were about sex, or sexual attractiveness. The Fatal Attraction producer Sherry Lansing, more than a few people assured me, had slept her way to the top. Penny Marshall hadn't gotten over the fact that she wasn't as pretty as the starlets who stocked Hollywood. Steel, of course, had simply become a man. A number of Hollywood players confessed to me that they had had long conversations with their therapists over whether they "were turning into Dawn Steel."

It was 1992, and I had been asked by Susan Lyne, then the editor in chief of Premiere magazine, to write an article about women in the movie business. The rise of the women's movement had coincided with the death of the studio system, and the baby boomers (and a handful of those a bit older) had systematically infiltrated the entertainment industry. While there was a plethora of material devoted to the representation of women in films, not much had been written about the women trying to make films.

Nineteen ninety-two was an odd lull for women In Hollywood. It was a time when women were prevalent enough in the motion picture business that no one was alone in her foxhole, yet expectations seemed curiously diminished.

No one had followed in the wake of Steel, who had been pushed out of her job when Sony bought Columbia in 1990. "Women as studio chiefs. It's a novelty act that only happens once," quipped the agent Elaine Goldsmith. There was no female Rupert Murdoch, and not one of the seven major studios boasted a female studio chief. Many of the women who were considered for that job or even president of production had pointedly taken their names out of the running. They ostensibly weren't interested In that kind of power, or that kind of headache. "Women really don't care about the hierarchy. They don't feel the thrill that a man feels when they are top dog," posited the producer Lindsay Doran. "When I was asked to run a studio, I felt really thrilled. It was really flattering, and it lasted about twenty seconds before [I realized]. The power was of no interest to me. The money was of no interest to me, not if it meant selling my life down the river," she said adamantly at the time (although later she became president of United Artists). On the talent side, the ranks were even thinner. Only Penny Marshall, the former sitcom star, was considered an A-list director.

The women of Hollywood were a curiously diffident lot, at once-fiercely political about the issues of the day-Anita Hill, the emerging candidacy of Bill Clinton-and curiously much less politicized or vocal about their fates as working women in an industry dominated not just by men but by the likes and dislikes of the young male consumer, and by a certain saber-rattling ethos of masculinity, in which women were relentlessly sexualized, their gender constantly accessed and reassessed as a key component of their professional abilities. It was a business where the leading women's professional society, Women in Film, was determinedly apolitical and generally dismissed by the haves In the business as an organization for the have-nots. While antidiscrimination lawsuits had forced change in the newspaper and television industries, they had failed utterly to transform the studios or the talent agencies.

The writer-director Nora Ephron has often commented that what has helped her most in her journey through Hollywood has been "denial." Willful blinders, the ability to keep one's focus amid the daily setbacks and dramas, combined with perpetual politicking, kept women relatively mute about their plight. There was, and is, a fierce desire to assimilate.

Yet how these women thought of themselves had impact far beyond the shores of Malibu. For better or worse, movies constitute much of the national dialogue on gender, and the Hollywood women were intimately involved in the processes that bore fruit such as Fatal Attraction, Thelma & Louise, Pretty Baby, Flashdance, and A League of Their Own. Sometimes their visions emerged intact. More often, they were bastard children-whittled, refined, plundered by more powerful entities, their shape often determined by commercial imperatives. But these films are still the Hollywood women's legacy, one that has brought as much approbation as applause.

The challenge in writing about women in Hollywood was to puncture the mythology and to circumvent the silence. Lyne suggested that I simply try to assemble the women's stories, in their own voices, an oral history, free from cant and posturing and vague, politically correct pronouncements on the meaning of gender. I was twenty-six, and it was a young woman's dream assignment, carte blanche to call up all the most powerful women in town and ask them simply how they got to where they were, and how they felt about it. My goal was to elicit the kinds of Intimacies women discuss with one another, usually when men aren't around. I wanted the messy, unpredictable truth, and I wanted to hear it In their voices.

Fortunately, public reticence did not equate to private quietude. Almost every one had a story to tell-of job Interviews that began with "Take off your clothes" and of bosses who started each morning with a call announcing, "I'm holding my big. veiny dick in my hand." Or about male agents who asked their female assistants to track down phone numbers of cute girls they had spotted in cars driving along Wilshire Boulevard. Discussing sexism, indeed sexual harassment, in Hollywood was a little like discussing the fact that the sea was blue. It was just a fact of nature, keenly noted but largely accepted as the cost of doing business.

But I quickly found that there was another story, one full of unresolved, contradictory impulses, of feints and dodges, of Id-driven behavior. It was the story of a group of unusual, gutsy women who'd arrived in Hollywood at a time when women were largely employed as either secretaries or actresses. Some came as helpmates of great men-successful directors like Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson and George Lucas--or helpmates to great women like Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda. Others found positions as development girls-later called D-girls-a new title for script readers, the only opening traditionally afforded to women-, the so-called literate sex. For some, their novelty was emancipating.

"One of the great things about being an early woman was that there was nobody there to tell you what to do. You did what you thought you wanted to do. And that was so appealing, to be able to develop freely." says Paramount's chairman, Sherry Lansing, who arrived in Hollywood in 1966 to try her hand as an actress before segueing into development work. For others, their own ambition was the novelty, an inchoate, desperate yearning, of expectation born of the winds of the women's movement and of guilt bred by the expectations of their postwar childhoods. They wavered between self-righteousness and self-loathing.

They came at a time when Hollywood itself was undergoing a dramatic transformation. By the late sixties the studio system was in sorry shape. Movie attendance had plunged from an all-time high of 78.2 million a week in 1946 to 15.8 million a week in 1971. For a brief period the spotlight focused on a group of renegade male directors, men like Rafelson, Scorsese, Beatty, and Coppola whose output was often brilliant but devoted to plumbing the male psyche, and whose personal lives often seemed to thrive on rampant womanizing. Slowly, however, the studios were taken over by larger conglomerates determined to bureaucratize the unruly feudal system. By 1977 laws and Star Wars had ushered In the era of the blockbuster, when every movie had to gross a hundred million dollars to be deemed a success. The movie industry became obsessed with the teenage boy-the primary audience for such fare-at the high cost of other kinds of entertainment.

Over the next seven years I interviewed more than 150 women about their lives in Hollywood. many repeatedly. I cross-referenced their stories with one another and with those of another 150 men and women whose lives they had touched. Of the movie business, William Goldman once famously said, "Nobody knows anything." Its axiom might be 'All business is deeply personal." Tales of work often bled into tales of life, because Hollywood was more than just a place to work: It was a mindset, a secular religion, a deeply inbred community whose denizens increasingly married one another. It was a fishbowl existence where friendships rose and fell according to business dealings, where marriages prospered and crashed on the shoals of mutual ambition, where grosses determined social standing. Outrageous behavior-particularly by men-was tolerated, even celebrated. Many of the women in this book rose less through systematic strategy than through force of personality coupled with strategic alliances, crashing over the barriers with a blend of brass balls and charm, insouciance, and the proverbial ability to "eat a lot of shit and keep going." Usually their status was consecrated with hits-commercial ones, the only kind that really count in Hollywood.

I quickly abandoned the idea of writing an oral history, perhaps an impossible dream in the capital of spin and narcissism. I've tried. however, to give primary importance to these women's Interpretations of events. I wanted to know how they felt. For this is not only a history of facts but a history of consciousness, of these women's-elite, well-educated, deeply psychotherapized-changing consciousness. What has emerged is a study of how these women played in a man's world, the conscious and unconscious strategies each fomented to deal with the impact of her sex. It is an examination of the pleasure and the cost of power.

As Dawn Steel lay dying, almost every power broker in Hollywood trekked to her Coldwater Canyon mansion to pay respects. Hillary Clinton stopped at Johnny Rocketts to fulfill her special request for junk food. Even President Clinton called. "The operator on the line said, 'Please hold for the president.' And then put her on hold," says Steel's husband, Chuck Roven, who'd answered the phone. "Well, Dawn never liked being put on hold. So it didn't really matter who called. After sixty seconds she hung up the phone. So about a minute later a rather frustrated operator gets on the phone and says, 'Dawn Steel. please. 'And I said, 'Dawn, he's probably running calls, why don't you give him a chance to get on the phone?' She grabs the phone and says to the operator, 'Tell him to hurry up, I've got a tumor here.' So, he gets on the phone and they have a very lovely chat, and she says, 'Why are you wasting your time calling me? Get off the phone. You've got a country to go run.' "

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