The first movie star was Florence Bridgwood. Born in Hamilton in 1890, Bridgwood made her screen debut in 1906, only seven years after the creation of the medium. She starred in more than 300 pictures, won the nickname "The Girl of a Thousand Faces" from the press, and worked with such greats of the silent era as D.W. Griffith. (She also advised an 18-year-old unknown and fellow Canadian named Mary Pickford to take a contract with Independent Moving Pictures Company of America.) But by 1924, Bridgwood's career began to unravel after a series of traumatic on-set injuries. From then on until her death by suicide in 1938, she was only cast in small, uncredited roles. The public forgot Bridgwood, and in many ways so did history.
The trajectory of Bridgwood's career, from public persona to persona non grata, isn't uncommon for women who act. In an industry dominated by men and one that guzzles from the fountain of youth, women not only have a hard time rising to positions of power, but also are cast aside as they face the inevitability of aging. It's a common enough refrain, but also a quantified one: In 2013, the Canadian Unions for Equality on Screen (CUES) published "Focus on Women," a report that found "data from both Union des artistes and ACTRA clearly shows that female performers have fewer work opportunities than men, earn considerably less than men on average and that men's careers as performers last longer than women." Put another way, in the film world, women's visibility, and thus their clout, is often short-lived. Call it Bridgwood Syndrome.
This reality exists for many reasons, one of which is the gender bias of "women's work." Of the female film work force behind the camera, to cite the same CUES report, most "are overwhelmingly concentrated in areas … such as hair, makeup and wardrobe, script supervision and publicity, and office and administrative jobs." These skills, while crucial to the ecosystem of any film set, are seen as secondary supporting roles. As such, the female workforce often goes unrecorded in the annals of Hollywood's history.
Amending this was part of the impulse behind Barry Avrich's project with filmmaker Patricia Rozema, Women Who Act. Composed of four interviews conducted by Rozema – with Andrea Martin, Ellen Page, Tatiana Maslany and Sandra Oh – director Avrich describes the documentary as a "Barbara Walters-esque special." But instead of taking the personal tell-all route, Women Who Act aims for discussions about the women's careers and their active approaches to the craft of acting. A bold choice, given that, as Rozema said over the phone in Toronto, "Actors are seen as 'just being there,' and not as people of agency." But it's especially radical when the focus is on women, as it disperses the myth of feminine passivity.
For Rozema (director of Mansfield Park), who collaborated with Avrich from the beginning on the project ("I created the setting and the vibe, but I left it up to Patricia to craft the questions," explained Avrich), this was crucial when considering which women to invite to partake in the documentary.
Rozema commented that while there is a diverse range in the four women's acting styles, they're all "at the level that they can pick their roles. Their careers are defined by their choices."
As Rozema is the first to admit, she's no professional interviewer, and her self-criticism that she's "preposterously positive" is evident in the interviews. There are missed opportunities to dig into topics such as gender representation in the media and the lack of female-centric stories on screen; Rozema sidesteps these in favour of broader lines of questioning. But this is the central conundrum of talking about "women in film": Does the conversation always have to be about being a woman? Put another way, would there ever be a documentary called Men Who Act?
"I think it's laughable when people talk about 'women in film,'" said Martin on this matter. "Women have always been in film."
It's true, but as Bridgwood's tale proves, popular history sometimes forgets this and women's stories aren't always told. Indeed, Avrich, known for his industry-focused documentaries on male moguls such as Harry Weinstein (Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project) and Bob Guccione (Filthy Gorgeous), confessed that the idea for Women Who Act came from recognizing the scarcity of female subjects in the 30-some films he's made.
With women in film comprising many of the industry's forgotten histories – to say nothing of the actors, screenwriters and directors of colour or of First Nations backgrounds who are routinely marginalized – Women Who Act does fill a void. The doc offers a platform outside of tabloids and celebrity profiles that showcases onscreen stars as something more than red-carpet icons and instead as thinking professionals. But it's also just the beginning. "Do I think there are more opportunities now for funny women to star in films? Yes," Martin said. "Do I think there are just as many opportunities for women as there are for men? I don't really think that's changed."
For this reason, Avrich hopes to keep the Women Who Act conversation going by turning the doc into "a series or annual event." It shouldn't be hard. As the four featured women and their foremothers like Bridgwood prove, there are certainly enough stories out there to tell. We just haven't been listening.
Women Who Act screens Friday, Feb. 27 at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Canadian Screen Week, and will be broadcast Feb. 28 on HBO Canada (9 p.m. ET).