Spotlight: Invisible Women of 1970s Hollywood
Fifty years ago, Hollywood enjoyed its last Golden Age. In the late 1960s, the surprise success of countercultural hits Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider spooked the old guard, prising open the door to a new wave of outsiders. As the studios quaked, a wave of young, ambitious filmmakers - Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg and others - seized power, drawing inspiration from the fractious political climate and resurgent avant-garde to make a series of era-defining films. This was The New Hollywood, a cinematic renaissance that briefly burned hard and bright, until the arrival of the blockbuster – typified by Jaws and Star Wars - extinguished the flame.
Our understanding of 1970s Hollywood is bound up with the idea of maverick male genius. This is the mythology immortalised in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, journalist Peter Biskind’s influential if salacious account of the period. In Biskind’s narrative New Hollywood is a revolution driven as much by ego as artistry, spearheaded by a generation of self-declared auteurs who burned through drugs, wives and film stock before collapsing under the weight of personal and professional excess.
It’s a compelling narrative, but an incomplete one. Reading Biskind you’d be forgiven for thinking that no women directed films in Hollywood at the time. In fact, as historian Maya Montañez Smukler states, 16 women directed commercial feature films across the decade. This small but significant number includes women who worked with studios – Elaine May, Joan Darling – and others who found their way through B movies and independents – Barbara Loden, Joan Tewkesbury, Stephanie Rothman. Nevertheless, the testimonies that Smukler gathers demonstrate the extreme difficulties faced by female directors. The counterculture espoused by the Easy Rider, Raging Bulls generation was decidedly white and male; New Hollywood remained a hostile place for women with creative vision.
This is the impasse we so often reach when we look for female stories in film history. While some have always found ways to direct, many other capable and driven women have been locked out of the industry completely. Reappraising work by female directors is important, but if we only talk about authorship within the limits of auteur theory, we lean into a reductive, inherently patriarchal interpretation of how a film is made.
Cinema Rediscovered’s new season 1971: The Year Hollywood Went Independent presents an opportunity to challenge these narratives. At first glance, the selected films support an auteurist interpretation. Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show: five films directed by men and centring male characters. Yet, if we broaden our definition of authorship, it doesn’t take much digging to find compelling stories of women playing crucial roles in the filmmaking process.
The most obvious way in which women contribute to these films is as actors. While the history of stardom is full of exploitation, it’s true too that since the birth of celebrity female stars have found ways to harness the power of their image to their artistic advantage, The soft power of an actor is evident in performances which demonstrate such agency that they re-define the films in which they appear.
Take for instance Jane Fonda, who was initially reluctant to play call girl Bree Daniels in Klute, fearing that the role clashed with her feminist politics. Unable to persuade Pakula to release her from her contract, Fonda worked actively to flesh out the role, spending a week with sex workers in New York and finding parallels between their experiences and her own as an actor. The final film is unquestionably shaped by Fonda’s rich and complicated performance. The release of Klute would mark a transition from passive starlet to active cultural icon. From this point onwards, Fonda’s outspoken political views would become part of her star power.
The idea of the star as author opens up the possibility that authorship lies in the eye of the beholder. Even when a director considers themselves an auteur, the reality is that a film is always beyond the control of one person. Films are inevitably collaborative, and just because a collaborator does not claim credit does not mean that they are not an author.
The story of Polly Platt is a case in point. Platt was a production designer, writer and producer who rose to prominence working on three hits in the 1970s – The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon – alongside her then husband Peter Bogdanovich. Film Historian Karina Longworth dedicated ten episodes of her podcast You Must Remember This to Platt and in doing so has uncovered a fascinating story of underacknowledged female artistry.
One of Longworth’s key arguments is that Platt should be acknowledged as the uncredited “invisible woman” behind the success of several male directors. Certainly, there’s a case to be made that Platt effectively co-directed Picture Show. She was credited for design and costumes on that film, but in fact seems to have been involved with almost every aspect of the production, including finding the source material, securing funding, co-writing the script and casting key roles. Platt and Bogdanovich had worked together from the start of their career and Platt saw no reason to insist on due credit when working with her husband in what she saw as a union of equals. When Bogdanovich embarked on an affair on the set of Picture Show, he set in motion a chain of events that would eventually destroy both their marriage and this partnership.
Platt and Bogdanovich made two more acclaimed films together that decade, but the illusion of parity had been shattered. Platt went on to play an important role in the production of many hit films in the 1980s and 1990s including Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and Bottle Rocket. Yet despite this exceptional career, and a series of symbiotic creative partnerships with male directors, Platt’s genius was never adequately recognised in her lifetime. Over the years Bogdanovich has become increasingly insistent that Platt’s contribution to his films has been overstated. Despite the extent of her achievements, Platt remained defined by her relationship to her ex-husband for her entire life – when she died in 2011, Bogdanovich’s name featured prominently in her obituaries.
Platt’s experience is echoed by other ‘wife of’ creatives who developed complicated working relationships with better-known husbands. Such arrangements often allowed women to take on more responsibility than would have been possible working independently in a sexist industry, but this boost came at a cost. The editor Marcia Lucas (wife of George) is quoted by Biskind describing her struggle to separate her career from her husband:
I thought, If I’m ever going to get any real credit, I’m going to have to cut a movie for somebody besides George… if I’m cutting for my husband, they’re going to think, ‘George let’s his wife play around in the cutting room.’
In the 1970s Lucas more than proved herself, playing a vital role in her husband’s work (she won an Oscar for editing Star Wars) as well as on several Scorsese films, including Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. Yet, despite these credentials, Lucas’s career was derailed by the breakdown of her marriage. After her divorce, she was blackballed by George and his movie brat peers, and she has effectively been written out of the history of Lucasfilm.
On Alice Doesn’t Live Here, Lucas shares a credit with Toby Carr Rafelson, another woman who was an important influence on her husband. Rafelson was, like Platt, a production designer who worked with her husband Bob on films such as Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. As an editor, Marcia Lucas benefitted from trails blazed by female peers such as ‘Mother Cutter’ Verna Fields (who won an Oscar for Jaws) and Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon), but Platt and Rafelson lacked such role models in male dominated production design. Both women were initially rejected by their union, dismissed as ‘wife of’ designers. Unable to work independently without guild membership, they were only able to earn the credits needed to join by working on their husband’s films - an absurd, sexist, circular logic.
Despite the pettiness of the industry, Platt and Rafelson made an impact. While credits did not always reflect their work, they were known by their peers as arbiters of taste who “looked after” the aesthetics of their husband’s films, shaping some of the era’s most iconic images. Their best-known films are testament to the authorial importance of production design. The sparse, monochromatic dustbowl beauty of Last Picture Show is its most immediately arresting feature. In Five Easy Pieces, the contrast between the derelict blue-collar world of diners and trailers and the casual opulence of middle-class society is integral to the storytelling.
Another woman who made a vital contribution to Five Easy Pieces is writer Carole Eastman. Eastman, who wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce, is a mysterious figure about whom little information is available. We know she was born in California into an industry family – her father was a grip, her uncle a cameraman, her mother secretary to Bing Crosby. As a young woman Eastman worked briefly as a dancer, actor and model before coming to writing. Her first produced screenplay was The Shooting in 1966, the film Monte Hellman directed before making cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop. At an acting workshop in the 1950s,Eastman met Jack Nicholson, who recognised her talent for writing lively, funny vernacular dialogue. It was Nicholson who brought Eastman’s script to Bob Rafelson and set Easy Pieces in motion.
Rare descriptions of Eastman cast her as an eccentric reclusive figure. Biskind (who should always be taken with a pinch of salt) summarises her like this:
A sensitive soul, nerves very close to the surface, she was striking to look at – tall, blond, rail thin, with a long neck, a skittish bird apt to take flight at the rustle of a leaf… phobic about having her picture taken, obsessive about food at the same time that she coughed continuously from chain-smoking. Even in Los Angeles, she rarely went to places with which she was not already familiar.
Given this apparent sensitivity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Eastman was reluctant to play the Hollywood game. Five Easy Pieces was a critical and commercial hit, establishing Nicholson as the emblematic American anti-hero of the decade. Nicholson never forgot Eastman’s role in his breakthrough and remained a fierce ally throughout her career.
Eastman continued to write screenplays, most notably The Fortune for Mike Nichols, an infamous flop that effectively put Nichols’ career on pause for nearly a decade. By all accounts production on The Fortune was chaotic, and Nichols clashed with Eastman over an unfinished, overlong 240-page first draft of the script. Eastman refused to co-operate with the editing process and was cast by Nichols as a key factor in the film’s failure. Polly Platt, who briefly worked as Production Designer on the film but also clashed with the director and was fired, interpreted the situation differently:
He kept cutting all the good stuff out of the movie… [Eastman] would suffer over it, but she couldn’t do anything about it… Mike was trying to make the movie for a price—he’d gone very far over budget on those other movies, and they were flops—so this time he was going to prove to the studio that he could bring it in on budget.
After this fiasco, Eastman retreated once again from the limelight, still working sporadically but keeping herself largely separate from the industry. Her death in 2004 was met with a small smattering of obituaries which celebrated her contribution to an era-defining film but failed to shine more light on Eastman the person.
Drawing conclusions about artists from their work is always a risky business, but the mystery that surrounds Eastman makes it all the more irresistible to seek glimpses of the woman in her best-known film. Easy Pieces centres on the rootless Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), a former piano prodigy playing at being working class who is constantly encountering weird, complicated, infuriating women. It is in these eye-catching supporting roles that we might try to find Eastman - in Karen Black’s hopeless co-dependent romantic; Helena Kallianiotes ranting, obsessive clean freak; Lois Smith’s neurotic sister. Ultimately of course, this is a fools’ game. Part of the films’ power lies in its hall of mirrors effect. Wherever Bobby runs, he cannot run away from himself. Wherever we look for Eastman, all we see reflected back is ourselves.
This is the challenge we face when we try to reinsert female stories into film history. The record is fractured, the information incomplete, the accounts contradictory. The further away we get in time, the harder it is to reconstruct these stories. In the end, we look at the negatives, we try a different edit, we do what we can. The myth of maverick male genius is a dazzling thing, but we should be aware that auteurism has its limits. When we look again, we might discover, more often than not, a brilliant woman, semi-obscured, stood just out of shot.
Cinema Rediscovered is a festival which celebrates restorations, rediscoveries and archive film. This year’s festival will take place 28 July – 1 August online and in venue at The Watershed, Bristol.
As part of Cinema Rediscovered 2021, Invisible Women will be hosting Rewriting Film History (With the Women in It), a free online panel discussion with writers Helen O’Hara, Simran Hans and Pamela Hutchinson. 30 July, 15.30 (BST). Sign up here.
Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. 1998.
Longworth, Karina. “Polly Platt: The Invisible Woman.” You Must Remember This. 2020.
Pinkerton, Nick. “Bombast: Carole Eastman.” Film Comment.
Smukler, Maya Montañez. Liberating Hollywood. 2020.
McLellen, Dennis. “Carole Eastman Obit.” LA Times. 27 Feb 2004.
“In Tribute to Marcia Lucas.” The Secret History of Star Wars. 2010.