Book Review: Liberating Hollywood

Between the Time’s Up movement, demands for wage equality and historic firsts for female moviemakers, Hollywood is undergoing a sexual revolution.

None of these achievements would be possible if not for earlier generations of women who fought against sexism in the industry.

In Liberating Hollywood, Maya Montañez Smukler chronicles an era in which pant legs were wide and the gender gap even wider. In the 1970s, the book says, “woman directors were entangled in a paradox of progress.” Fueled by the women’s liberation movement, they were eager to lead, yet faced discrimination at every turn.

Writer, director, and producer Barbara Loden, a key figure in Maya Montañez Smulker’s Liberating Hollywood, stars in the title role of her spinal 1970 indie, Wanda. 

At the heart of the book are profiles of the 16 women who accomplished the near-impossible feat of directing feature films in the ’70s. Drawing from various sources, including interviews with the directors and their collaborators, Smukler describes the similar economic and artistic roadblocks they encountered: difficulty in securing financing, loss of creative control, being undermined by studio executives, and lack of union protection. Even with positive critical and box office reception, most were unable to obtain funding for future projects and either directed other formats or stopped directing.

Anecdotes liven up the narrative and allow the reader to feel the weight of the structures and social attitudes conspiring against them. An example of this is Smukler’s profile of Joan Tewkesbury. Even with screenwriting accolades and the support of famed director Robert Altman, Tewksbury only directed one feature because of the barrage of sexist obstacles she faced from the studio and crew on-set.

The lengths to which these 16 women go to realize their vision is what makes Liberating Hollywood a fun and fascinating read. When they do succeed in getting their movies out into the world, it feels like an epic feat that one can’t help but cheer on.

The Takeaway

Liberating Hollywood is an invigorating, detailed account of the women who were denied seats at the directors’ roundtable and sat down anyway. Their bittersweet but valiant efforts paved the way for feminist reform. Smukler’s book is valuable not just because it covers an important piece of Hollywood history, but because it’s a reminder that progress is not to be taken for granted.  MM

Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of the 1970s American Cinema was released by Rutgers University Press on December 14, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.

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