Cari Beauchamp is the award-winning author of Without Lying Down, a landmark biography about the early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, who won two consecutive Academy Awards. The film historian has also written books on Joseph Kennedy, Anita Loos and the Cannes Film Festival, and is the resident scholar of the Mary Pickford Foundation. Ahead of her Women and Hollywood lecture in Cobourg, Ont., on Sept. 14, part of a sesquicentennial celebration of Canadian-born actor Marie Dressler, Beauchamp talked to Nathalie Atkinson about what #MeToo and #TimesUp have to do with the powerful women of early Hollywood, and what we can learn from them.
I’ve heard you say that every paragraph in Without Lying Down represents five different research trips.
Yes. And my frustration in not being able to find out more about all these women – Frances Marion, Lois Weber, Adela Rogers St. John – is what led me to spend so much time writing Without Lying Down. The information was indeed there, it just took a lot of digging. If you’d told me in the beginning that was how it would be… But the journey really was the most fun part of it.
Is that because you worked as a private detective first?
Right out of college. And I stayed a P.I. for five or six years. Who knew how well that would serve me? Not just in terms of the obvious things but what it really did was convince me early on that the answer was out there, that it could be found in the documents. That plus my mantra: Take every no as a maybe.
In the 20 years since publication, have you found that awareness of this – what should I call it – need for rightful correction? Restoration? of influential women to Hollywood history?
Lynda Obst [producer of Interstellar] called it excavation and I like that term. It’s there to be found it just got to be excavated. And focused on a little bit. It’s important that we be cognizant of that, and it’s the reason I think something like Women Make Film [at TIFF this year] is so incredibly revelatory. We need to view each of these essays and projects and works as links in the chain that help us understand. And then we need to move forward to build on them. As women, we are not only standing on the shoulders that came before us in Hollywood but that we’re standing on the shoulders of the women who are researching it.
I was struck by the fact that until Irving Thalberg’s death producers were more powerful than directors, who often weren’t assigned until a picture was written and cast, or that historically, female film editors exercised phenomenal creative control. What role did later auteur theory play in that historical erasure?
I enjoyed knowing Andrew Sarris well but that said, I’ve never been an auteur person. To me filmmaking is the ultimate in collaborative experience. When it works well is when everybody brings their A-game, none of this singular vision stuff.
Yet that director-driven agenda is what shaped so much of contemporary criticism and film discourse.
And I find it a very lazy discourse.
You’ve mentioned, as have other historians, one of the great challenges researching the women of early Hollywood is that unlike their male counterparts in the film “canon,” most did not save their papers and letters.
Women do not value their own material and archives, and part of the reason is that women don’t take themselves as seriously. I have manuscripts of Frances Marion’s, and a couple of her paintings, that I only have because when she was moving yet again in the 1950s her secretary Martha fished them out of the dumpster. To Frances it was behind her and she was looking forward. I also think women value different things – like the full life they’re living. It’s like Frances always said, the boys [her sons] came first and then it’s a photo-finish between work and friends.
Why do you think there wasn’t that impulse to posterity?
Because if that’s your attitude, you’re not going to save every letter, every version of your manuscript. Whereas Cecil B. DeMille and David O. Selznick? If it had their name on it they saved it! Steven Spielberg, bless him for it, today has his own private archivist. Gloria Swanson was an aberration on that and saved every single thing. But most women didn’t, because they were too busy living their lives. And they thought their work was an aspect of them, but it didn’t define them. And I think this isn’t something that isn’t limited to film history – it’s much more classically male/female.
So is changing the nature of the conversation from win or lose, the attitude and structures and markers of success to become a quote-unquote power player.
And why is that even a goal? If you’re going to be climbing a ladder, the most important thing for you to remember is to keep that ladder down behind you to let other people follow you.
In the current climate, what do you think of the protests and rallies and inclusion riders and hashtags?
One of the best and biggest things that is going to come out of #TimesUp and #MeToo is a critical mass of women who realize that Hollywood is systemically set up against them. The web of that is incredibly exciting and it’s going to be strong, even though the price for the creation of it was hell. I find so much joy in being part of a larger community, and so much strength in that. That’s what I’m talking about in my speech. As my old friend Betty Bumpers used to say, "It’s hell getting women to stand up and talk for the first time but once they do, good luck getting them to shut up and sit down."
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cari Beauchamp’s “Women and Hollywood” talk is Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. Victoria Hall, Cobourg, Ont.; the Dressler 150th dinner takes places Sept. 29 (dresslerfoundation.ca)
Special to The Globe and Mail