There are plenty of juicy tidbits in Rachel Abramowitz's "Is That a Gun In Your Pocket? Women's Experience of Power in Hollywood," from the film financier who told director Martha Coolidge, "We must have naked breasts in this movie four times" to the owner of 20th Century Fox who used to call his female studio chief, Sherry Lansing, "dollface." There's former CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff, who explained to one of the first top female movie executives, Dawn Steel, that he defined success "by the size of my erection." And director Peter Bogdanovich, who refused to drive his then-wife, art director-producer-screenwriter Polly Platt, to the hospital when she was giving birth to their second child because he was too tired from a location scout. And former Columbia Pictures president Frank Price, who explained to Lansing that he couldn't make her the studio's head of production because she wouldn't be able to get a man to work for her.
But the organizing principle of this brightly written (but at times confusingly structured) book is not, in fact, that men are pigs. Abramowitz explains that sexism is a given in Hollywood, "like discussing the fact that the sea was blue." Instead of writing a catalog of the slights women have suffered at the hands of chauvinistic males, Abramowitz wisely chose a more complicated task: assembling what she calls a "history of consciousness" of the town's most powerful women that probes the often contradictory impulses underlying female ambition.
Abramowitz organizes her argument using the experiences of both Lansing and Steel. Lansing, a former Max Factor model who is now chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, comes across in a complex, sometimes even confessional portrait as a shrewd woman who has used her femininity to coax powerful men to do as she wishes. Steel, the one-time chairwoman of Columbia Pictures who died of brain cancer in 1997, is portrayed as a brilliant but rage-filled master saleswoman who conquered Hollywood by being one of the guys. ("She was perfectly capable," the book reveals, "of walking into a bar and declaiming, 'Look at the rack on that woman.' ")
Lansing and Steel, dubbed "the Geisha and the Ball Buster" respectively, coexisted in the industry for almost 10 years and were held up as the two extremes of how to make it as a woman. "One carried ambition as a battle-ax, the other as a carefully hidden stiletto," Abramowitz writes. And it is to the author's credit that her profiles of the two--and her emotional description of how they befriended one another at the end of Steel's life--create a frame within which her sketches of more than a dozen other women make sense.
Abramowitz has covered Hollywood, mostly for Premiere magazine, for the last decade, and her access to name talent is extraordinary. The book synthesizes her conversations with, among others, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, Penny Marshall and Nora Ephron, not to mention the Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri ("Thelma & Louise"), the expert script doctor Carrie Fisher and the former super-agent Sue Mengers.
In Hollywood, as Abramowitz notes, personal and professional relationships are often one and the same. She provides a particularly intimate picture of Platt, who, after her much-publicized split from Bogdanovich (who left her for Cybill Shepherd during the shooting of "The Last Picture Show"), went on to be the creative force behind director Jim Brooks but never worked up the nerve to direct herself. We also get to know Paula Weinstein, a producer and single mom (and former agent and president of production at a studio), whose husband and producing partner, Mark Rosenberg, died of a heart attack on the set of one of their projects, "Flesh and Bone."
In her introduction, Abramowitz admits that she intended to write an oral history but quickly abandoned the idea, opting instead to look at the big picture by giving weight to her subjects' interpretations of events. For the most part, she has succeeded, though one wishes she had placed a little more emphasis on her own interpretations. In the end, the book is long on description, short on analysis.
Statistics are dutifully included, and some of them are doozies. Between 1983 and 1992, for example, women directed just 81 of the 1,794 features released by movie studios. Just two women have ever been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Director, and none has won.
But Abramowitz doesn't say much about what's lost for both men and women when such sexism succeeds. Why--for all the rise of women production executives in Hollywood--are there not more women in power on the real money-making side of the business, in the major studios' movie distribution system? And why--when women often decide what movie a household will go see--do their tastes not dictate more of what's produced in Hollywood?