Before the rise of the blockbuster, the number of women working in Hollywood wasn’t any bigger than it is today, but lead actresses could consistently find interesting parts. During the 1940s and 1950s, a small, pioneering group of female screenwriters gave stars like Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, and Rita Hayworth characters who were whip-smart, tough, and irreverent. The scriptwriter Sonya Levien, for example, co-wrote the 1956 film Bhowani Junction, which stars Gardner as a fearless Anglo-Indian soldier who kills her attempted rapist. Virginia Van Upp, one of Hollywood’s first women writer-producers, is best known for making the noir Gilda, which stars Hayworth in her ultimate role as twisted femme fatale. There’s also Ida Lupino, in a category of her own as the first actor to write, produce, and direct her own films. Her female protagonists dealt with issues like out-of-wedlock pregnancy, bigamy, and rape.
Then, as now, it was also common for studios to adapt the bestselling literature of the time to the screen. “Hollywood moguls actually cared about art,” Maureen Dowd wrote in her 2015 New York Times piece about women in Hollywood, referring to the First Golden Age of American cinema. “They would take all the literary bestsellers, throw starlets into them, and make prestige movies.” Raymond Chandler’s whodunit The Big Sleep was co-written for screen by the “Queen of Space Opera” Leigh Brackett and starred Bacall. Francois Sagan’s disaffected teenager in Bonjour Tristesse, the novel that the French novelist wrote when she was 18, gave Jean Seborg her first role. In 1951, Hitchcock turned Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train into a mammoth hit. Lois Weber, the first American woman to direct a feature film, famously said that her “ideal picture entertainment” was a ‘‘well-assorted shelf of books come to life.’’
The advent of big box-office hits shifted dynamics, stacking the cards even more in the favor of male directors. But, as Gregory explains, the 1970s were also a time when “women in numbers began to reenter film,” and they eventually began climbing the ranks. By the 1980s, Hollywood had its first class of female film executives, including Marcia Nasatir, the first woman vice president of United Artist, and the Columbia Pictures vice president Rosilyn Heller, both of whom came to Hollywood by way of the New York publishing scene. New York was more conscious of the women’s liberation movement at the time than Los Angeles, Gregory writes, and more women had infiltrated the publishing at all levels.
This isn’t to lionize the literary world over Hollywood. Like many fields, publishing often treats men’s work as more serious or prestigious than women’s: Last year, the author Nicola Griffith found that the Pulitzer Prize, considered the highest honor in literary fiction, hadn’t been awarded to a book about women or girls in 15 years (2016 was no exception). And when it comes to racial or ethnic representation, the publishing industry falls painfully, embarrassingly short: 80 percent of industry staffers today are white. But for all the narrowness of the literary canon, many readers would be able to name several of their favorite women authors, while few moviegoers would be able to do the same for their favorite women directors. Many of the biggest female writers of the last 200 years have, incidentally, had their works adapted into films: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club; Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; several of Jane Austen’s novels.