Hollywood sexism hurts more than careers: “Traditionally women have used fame as a platform"

Salon talks to Illeana Douglas about her TCM series "Trailblazing Women," movies, activism and Donald Trump

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 13, 2016 4:00PM (EDT)

Illeana Douglas   (Getty/Kevin Winter)
Illeana Douglas (Getty/Kevin Winter)

If this outrageously toxic year — with its daily reminders of in-your-face misogyny — has you down, Turner Classics Movies, Women in Film Los Angeles and Illeana Douglas are serving up some seriously empowering escapism right now. Now in it second season, TCM's "Trailblazing Women" series — airing Tuesday and Thursday nights — explores the roles of the most extraordinary women in cinema.

The first season took on women "Behind the Camera," but this fall the series has been highlighting actresses whose offscreen roles have had a lasting impact. Presenting classic films in conversation with leading ladies like Jane Fonda and Bette Midler, host Illeana Douglas delves into the activism, service and leadership of stars from Mary Pickford to Susan Sarandon.

Salon spoke this week via phone with actress, director and author Douglas on Hollywood, politics and the secret history of women.

So this all got rolling when you realized that the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest movies didn't include a single one directed by a woman? 

Yes. And I know I'm a very small voice banging my little drum here, but when I first realized this, I made this lighthearted joke that on the top 100, there was "My Fair Lady." I said that we could all agree that "My Fair Lady," although a nice film, could be taken off the AFI list and be possibly replaced with — and I gave three options — "Outrage," "Harlan County USA," or "Wanda."

Nobody agreed. And what I noticed in my research this year for "Trailblazing Women: Actresses Who Made a Difference" was that "My Fair Lady" is no longer on the list but it has not been replaced by one of the three films I mentioned.

This exemplifies the male-female relationship, right? It's like, "She has a good point, not her point. Let me stamp on her point and then impose my better idea over it!" I'm saying it comically, but it did seem ironic.

Just yesterday I was astonished to see the movie "Bad Moms." When a movie comes out with women in it, they call it a "surprise hit." That's the propaganda. So "Bad Moms" does incredibly well but does not get a sequel. They decide the best thing to do is make a movie called "Bad Dads." 

So when we're talking about these issues and saying that things are changing, on the one hand, yes, things are changing and you can see things changing in front of you. The conversations are being had. Yet that is such a gigantic, glaring loss of an opportunity for those actresses to have a substantial body of work that puts them on the level of a Jane Fonda, where their work stands for one thing and their personal principles stand for something, and they use their fame as a platform for the greater good.

That's the overall huge message of this initiative we're doing with women in film. It's to ask, what are we losing as a society if women are marginalized in films? Because traditionally women have used fame as a platform.

What's unique about this is you're exploring how these actresses used their roles in Hollywood to do other things.

What TCM does so well is to tell the story that since the dawn of Hollywood, this has been occurring. We're going to revitalize people's opinions of actresses. We remind people that Mary Pickford was the very first actress in all of motion pictures to get her credit in a film. Before that, actors weren't even credited. She was the first closeup in modern cinema.

People say, "Oh yeah, Hedy Lamarr didn't she invent something?" She patented this idea that became the basis of mobile phone technology. We have Myrna Loy, who supported the war effort and worked for the Red Cross and became a member of the commission of UNESCO which is the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing.

That is something that Jane Fonda wasn't even aware of. She was astonished to learn that Myrna Loy was in her own way an activist. What you can see with Myrna Loy is that you have this persona she had in the movies, the perfect mom of "The Best Years of Our Lives" and perfect wife of "The Thin Man." And then this persona was translated into her public works. We have so many examples. Shirley Temple, at 11, had over 200 merchandising deals. It's incredible.

The challenge for women — and certainly not just in Hollywood — is that there's a limited kind of visibility.

You have to ask yourself why. What we're seeing does not reflect the current status of women in film, does not reflect their actual status in society. We don't go into a law firm and say, "Sorry, we can only have two women in this firm." That's why it's mind-boggling in cinema.

I was lucky enough to grow up seeing Sally Field in "Norma Rae" and Jane Fonda in "The China Syndrome." It trips off your tongue the amount of women — Faye Dunaway, Marsha Mason, Barbra Streisand, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn. I won't run out of names. But if you currently ask me to name the names, it becomes really challenging.

You know, in the "Da Vinci Code" series, Tom Hanks gets to be in every sequel but not the women. Why not the women? Apparently they were not considered part of the success of the films. Although he ages in the series from age 49 to 60, the women are replaced and their age stays 29, 39, 32.

It's a constant conversation we have to have.

We have Lee Grant coming up this week talking about the blacklist, and she talks about how she was part of what they called "pillow communists." She wasn't even a communist; she was simply married to a communist. The women in some cases were punished — Gale Sondergaard and herself and Dorothy Comingore. They were punished because they were married.

In some instances, like with the Dorothy Comingore story, they were literally persecuted by Hearst, driven out of show business. Her own husband testified against her. It's really chilling. Hers is a pretty scary story and as we get into the blacklist, we think of the current climate today.

Of seeing a woman publicly punished for her husband's behavior? And being shamed and humiliated for what her husband's done?

I don't know a person who hasn't had a discussion about how their stomach turned when they had that parade [of Clinton accusers before Sunday's debate] that we all were sort of forced to watch. It was the Salem witch trial.

Maybe there's some positive thing out of it because it is getting to the root of this unspoken rage that certain men have against women and if they are visible. I think it's something people will probably study and talk about the rest of their lives. No one's going to forget the cinematic image of [Trump at the Oct. 9 debate] looming. I think everybody acknowledges it's one of the most disturbing things, and now it's been unleashed. Now, will other men take the bait or be repelled by it?

I don't know a single adult woman who hasn't talked about how the past few days have reminded them of something that's happened in their lives.

Absolutely. Me too. I've been reliving my own traumas. Everybody has.

Do you think it's getting better in any way? You talk about how things were different a generation ago. We've grown up with the same icons and expectations that things were going to be different for us when we went into the world.

In my opinion, you have to tell the story with entertainment. The avalanche we presented last year was of female directors being just as qualified as men yet having opportunities ripped away from them, even though they'd had success.

The story we're telling this year is first of all by celebrating women. We only hear the story of Hattie McDaniel winning the Academy Award and saying, "I'd rather play a maid than be a maid." We delve into her story. What were her choices, with her fame, in spite of everything she went through in Hollywood? She worked with West Adams residents to overthrow a restrictive covenant that was called the Sugar Hill case. She did that. That's what we need to remember.

Bette Davis not only won two Oscars but helped found the Hollywood Canteen, [a World War II era club for servicemen and -women]. Marlene Dietrich was on the front lines more than any other actor in show business. Carole Lombard died in service of her country [in a plane crash returning from a wartime fundraiser]. Josephine Baker fought in the French resistance.

So by telling the story with these incredible co-hosts I have like Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda, Dana Delany, it gives us a sense of pride in our history. We don't have to be marginalized. The more actresses use their fame for social good, it gives them a sense of strength and power.

You have to use your voice to say something, even in spite of Twitter and cyberbullying and things like that. That's something we discuss: Are people afraid to speak out because it would potentially hurt their careers?

We talk abut the Olivia de Havilland rule. That law is still in use, that you can only have a contract that goes seven years. We talk about what she faced to have that pushed through. The first person to use it was Jimmy Stewart. He didn't get that law done, but he got to benefit from it.

Bette Davis went around to every studio head and they all supported the Hollywood Canteen. They respected women. And yes, that is missing currently. I don't know why, but there is a "lesser than" feeling that is unexplainable. And we divide women into girls and women, young girls and young sexy girls, and then when they get older they're no longer viable.

I quote to my daughters all the time the line from "The First Wives Club" that "there are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and 'Driving Miss Daisy.'" I think in some ways it's better and easier in television because there are so many more venues. So you can have Tig Notaro's show created with Diablo Cody; you can have Jill Soloway doing amazing work. I think it's harder in the studios because the stakes are so high. If you're not a comic book character you're not going to get teenage boys and that means you have no value. That's what disturbs and upsets me. And women are not just the expendable characters.

We discussed this in the series last year. Women have been there all along. It's just been taken out of the history books. We talk about Josephine Baker. This is someone whose ideas of race were so ahead of her time. Just telling her story is so important. She created a model for a multiracial family through adoption, and this was back in the '30s and '40s.

She was the first black woman to star in a movie. She refused to perform for racially segregated audiences. She was rejected by the United States. She went to Paris and became a huge success; she did films there, fought in the French Resistance and came back here and still experienced racism. It was incredible. She wouldn't perform for segregated audiences in Las Vegas; she won this public battle over desegregating the Stork Club

You think of Elizabeth Taylor becoming the face of AIDS. What if she had not done that? Helen Hayes supporting the Girl Scouts. Loretta Young and Catholic Charities. Jennifer Jones was a huge philanthropist. You see it again and again, this platform of fame that they did such important things with.

Jane Alexander ran the National Endowment for the Arts. When I travel down the road in L.A., you see banners for the Mapplethorpe exhibit. We forget that Jane Alexander was there in the thick of it when Newt Gingrich was trying to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts. It's hard to imagine that now.

And if we put women's stories in context, it gives us leverage to move forward.

By telling these stories of all these actresses, it gives us this feeling of wow, look at this history that we should be so proud of. Look at all these accomplishments.

I hope that the show becomes a permanent part of Turner because, I think, we have to keep reminding ourselves that these women exist and that they were more than a pretty face — that they created things. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afi Afi Top 100 Films Illeana Douglas One Mississippi Tcm Trailblazing Women Transparent