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A Hollywood League of Their Own

Entertainment: Women run the top guilds. But female actors and directors still struggle.


Just days before Halle Berry snagged her historic Oscar, another Hollywood barrier fell, quietly, with less fanfare, but engendering the same sense of disbelief that it had taken so long: A woman, Martha Coolidge, was named president of the Directors Guild of America.

She's not alone at the top of the heap. In a coincidental convergence never before seen in Hollywood, women are running the town's other major guilds as well.

In March, Coolidge joined Vicki Riskin, the first female president of the Writers Guild of America, West, and Melissa Gilbert, the third woman to serve as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Together, they represent 12,000 directors, 8,500 writers, 98,000 actors--the majority of Hollywood's talent pool.

"I think, in a grand scale, it clearly means that women are playing in what has traditionally been a boys' club up to now," said Gilbert, a former star of "Little House on the Prairie." "It's exciting to be a part of this, but I look forward to the day when it's not even a qualification."

Whether there is more to it than the curiosity factor is a matter of some debate in Hollywood, where dismal statistics persist on the treatment and hiring of female writers, directors and actors. For example, according to DGA records, female film directors are working less and less. Certainly, the guild presidents find themselves at the helm during a time of tumult and contradictions--one in which female executives, including studio heads such as Stacey Snider, Sherry Lansing and Amy Pascal, are relatively prominent and plentiful, but female talent still struggles. Moreover, the unions now must square off against negotiating opponents that are not simply studios or networks but vast multinational corporations with deep resources, conglomerates that many in the creative community already fear are attempting to erode artistic freedoms.

For many in town, the mere discussion of the gender of guild presidents brings about groans. It seems about as relevant as the onetime feminist flash point "Ally McBeal," which is going off the air.

"We should be past it. Do you know how many trillions of times I've been asked, 'As a woman, what was it like ... ?'" said Oscar-winning writer-director Callie Khouri, a WGA board member. "And my answer always is, 'As opposed to what? Reality?'"

Yet she noted: "It's shameful how few women and blacks are working in Hollywood."

Traditionally, the talent guilds have been among the most influential unions in town because a strike can have serious economic consequences. "They have a bully pulpit," Alan Brunswick, a labor lawyer, said of the guild presidents. "Any one of them can get a meeting with any of the studio heads at any time because of their position."

Having women in such positions, said Meryl Poster, co-president of Miramax Films, "is a sign of the progress we've made, but there is still plenty of room for more."

The three guild heads are not planning any collective efforts to improve diversity and have not yet met to discuss business. Coolidge described her task as to "pressure, embarrass, prepare and educate our members and the employers."

"We can't tell people who to hire and how to hire them, but we can certainly commend or admonish them for what they do or don't do," said Gilbert, whose union has been mired in internal strife for two years.

Riskin and Gilbert won their posts in open elections, while Coolidge, formerly the DGA's first vice president, was named by the board to replace Jack Shea when he retired. All the positions are unpaid.

The three are part of a veritable bumper crop of female guild presidents in power in Hollywood today, including Kathleen Kennedy at the Producers Guild of America and Lisa Zeno Churgin at the Motion Picture Editors Guild. They join a plethora of women in the executive ranks, ranging from the three female studio chairs to the four women--Susan Lyne, Nancy Tellem, Gail Berman and Dawn Tarnofksy-Ostroff--who run the entertainment divisions at ABC, CBS, Fox and UPN. The visibility, prestige and presumable influence of these women obscure the fact that employment levels for most creative women have barely budged in the past decade.

"People tend to look at women who are so high-profile and think women must be equally represented in the workplace. We know that's not the case," said Martha Lauzen, professor of communications at San Diego State University, who studies the employment of women in Hollywood. "If you look at the number of women working behind the scenes, they're dramatically underrepresented."

In the latest DGA statistics, for the year ending April 2002, women directed nine of the 145 studio films released, accounting for 6.2% of the whole. In January, the DGA released a report on the top 40 prime-time shows of the 2000-01 TV season, showing that women directed 11% of the episodes, and none on high-profile shows like "Friends."

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