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Francine Parker, 81; made Vietnam-era antiwar film

November 19, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Francine Parker, a director best known for the film "FTA," a documentary with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland that chronicles a tour of antiwar entertainers during the Vietnam era and that was inexplicably pulled from theaters within a week of its 1972 release, has died. She was 81.

Parker, who was one of the first female members of the Directors Guild of America and fought to expand opportunities for women in the industry, died of heart failure Nov. 8 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Jay Stephens Rodriguez, a close associate.

"Francine was a warrior for her causes," Rodriguez said. "She was very much in love with political protest and fairness and justice. . . . 'FTA' was probably the single most important event of her life."

The documentary had shrunk a weeks-long tour of military bases in the Pacific into a 90-minute film that devoted about as much screen time to the revue's audience -- disillusioned servicemen -- as it did to the entertainers' sharply critical political satire.

"FTA" stood for "Free the Army" -- or something more profane -- among thousands of soldiers who saw the show despite the military's opposition.

The movie opened in theaters in 1972 the same week that Fonda made her controversial trip to Hanoi, according to the Internet database All Movie Guide.

American-International Pictures quickly withdrew it from circulation under "questionable circumstances," according to filmmaker David Zeiger.

At a Directors Guild screening of the film in 2005, director Oliver Stone said Parker had concluded that "calls were made from high up in Washington, possibly from the Nixon White House, and the film just disappeared."

Speaking at the same screening, Fonda said, "I must say, looking at it now, it's no wonder" the film was pulled from distribution. She produced the film with Parker and Sutherland.

"When you see thousands of guys and women with their fists in the air who were active-duty military personnel, it's a different slant. Now, in the context of Iraq, it's very . . . subversive," Fonda said, according to a report on the news website

Zeiger called the film "a lost classic that has real resonance today."

He incorporated footage from the "FTA" show in his 2005 film "Sir! No Sir!" that documents the antiwar movement by soldiers during the 1960s and '70s.

" 'FTA' is the only film made at that time that really gives a vivid portrayal of this antiwar upsurge in the military," Zeiger told The Times last week. "It has a huge impact on how people see the 1960s."

Rarely viewed since 1972, the film will be screened Thursday at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, an event Parker had been scheduled to attend.

"This was her big film 35 years ago, and it really got buried," said Zeiger, who worked with Parker on "FTA" over the last year. "She was excited about the opportunity to bring it back into the world, and for it to have an impact."

Since arriving in Los Angeles from New York City about 1950, Parker tried to have an effect on the role of women in Hollywood.

In the early 1960s, she was chosen to appear on the television show "What's My Line?" by producers who were sure that panelists would never guess a woman would hold the title of "TV director," Parker recalled in a 1986 Times article. The game show was canceled before she could go on.

When she produced a series of one-hour plays for the Public Broadcasting Service called "Jews and History," a 1966 Times article marveled at the "odds of a female producer selling anthologized culture on television." The plays presented various contributions Jews had made to the arts.

As president of the newly formed Women for Equality in Media, Parker led a march against the American Film Institute in 1971 to protest the near absence of women in institute programs that were partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The protest shook the AFI, The Times reported in 1973, and the article noted that the number of women admitted to the institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies had risen to seven from zero in 1969.

She was reportedly the 11th woman to join the Directors Guild, in 1971, and spoke out for the need to develop an "old-girls network."

"When you're powerless, what good is your network?" said Parker in a 1986 Times article that ran under the headline "Plight of Women Directors Improved -- But Not Much."

Born in New York City on Dec. 18, 1925, Parker earned a bachelor's degree from Smith College in Massachusetts and a master's degree in theater directing from the Yale School of Drama.

In Los Angeles, she produced radio and TV programs for the University of Judaism, where she developed the "Jews and History" program that helped her make connections in Hollywood, Rodriguez said.

Parker often directed equity-waiver theater and had worked as an acting coach. For the last 18 years, she taught film directing at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

She is survived by her daughter, Amanda, of West Los Angeles and two grandsons.

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