Women Who Run the Show
By Rebecca Redshaw
Interviewing Mollie Gregory, the author who interviewed more than 125 women in the entertainment industry, could be intimidating. Her index alone for WOMEN WHO RUN THE SHOW reads like a feminine Who’s Who of Hollywood in the last thirty years. However, in our recent phone conversation, Gregory, a producer, author, screenwriter, and teacher, spoke comfortably and candidly about WOMEN WHO RUN THE SHOW, a book many consider the definitive history of contemporary women in show business.
RR: From a writer’s perspective this project was a hell of a lot of work.
MG: Yes, it was. I didn’t plan it that way, of course, you never do, but there are so few histories written from the woman’s point of view, that it really began to take on a shape that I had not envisioned. Then I realized I had something and said, gee, I gotta get a lot of interviews to make it worth its salt. How many books like this have you read telling exactly what happened and how the people that lived the experience felt?
RR: How did the women feel about being interviewed?
MG: Most wanted to talk without question. Some people started talking immediately. I would call for an appointment and they would start talking as though nobody had ever asked questions about their experience as women in this business before. Most of the women really, really spoke candidly. And some of them had things to lose, but they said it anyway because they felt it was important.
RR: Was the overall attitude positive, with the assumption being that career opportunities are now on a more even playing field for women?
MG: It’s not an even playing field but attitudes on the whole were positive. The younger women I interviewed who were just starting their careers in the late 90’s had a sense that it had been tough for women before (anywhere from five to twenty years before), but that it was easier now. However, they had no sense of what the progression was. The thirty crucial years each decade was like a new generation the experiences between women from the 70’s compared to the 90’s were different. Their treatment was different. Women starting to work in the mid-80’s, young women, were in development or assistant producers with major production companies. If they had a grasp or understanding of building a career, they did very well. The same was not true of women in the 70’s. It was much rockier then and untried.
RR: ASC Cinematographer Brianne Murphy was one of the pioneers in the technical field where women had to fight for everything. You quote her as saying that the president of the cameraman’s local said the only way she would get in the union was over my dead body! He died and she got in. That was in 1973, yet the quote resurfaced recently in regards to the 2003 Master’s Golf Tournament. What’s changed?
MG: What we’re talking about here is that culturally he has to die. These roadblocks, or let’s say, these roadblock guys have to change before women get in. There’re still only a very small number of women DP’s [Director’s of Photography] in the cameraman’s local.
RR: Do you find the writing aspect of the business much different in how it treats women?
MG: I really don’t. It’s better than it was but that’s very qualified. You’d think women as writers would certainly have forty, to fifty percent of the jobs and that’s not so. At the Writers’ Guild, it’s around twenty-five percent. So, is it better? I don’t think so. Writers tell me off the cuff that it’s still a boys’ club.
RR: Do you think it goes across the board for all positions of money and power?
MG: It’s all about power and money. Cutthroat takes on new meaning here.
RR: What did you learn from writing this book?
MG: One is how isolated women were in the 70’s. They didn’t know where each other worked – even in the same studio. I was also very surprised to learn how women felt about the differences in which men and women work. One woman said that her male friends, peers were concerned about doing good work but were just as concerned about The Deal. She had to learn how to do that and she was a lawyer. Her tendency had been to tell a story that was important to her, that was a contribution and that if she had to take less money for that then that was OK. But the guys she knew would say, Screw that. Pay me what I’m worth.
I heard endlessly, endlessly that, If I work hard I would be rewarded. I must have heard that 125 times. The fact of the matter is that’s just not true. Women have been trained [to believe that] and they had to get over or get rid of that training. Work is more than working hard.
RR: Did you find women work differently than men?
MG: I’ve been a woman all my life and I’ve worked very hard, but I never had a real gut understanding how hard women work all the time. They have three roles all the time — wife, mother, worker. There are so many things that surprised me. Number one being the importance of role models. I never paid any attention to role models. That was just a term to me. But they’re crucial. To be able to see somebody, a woman, doing a job that you aspire to. Then you know it’s possible. And there were no role models until the 80’s, or at least, very few. Many more in the 90’s. Second, having a mentor. How do you get one? Can you accept advice? Or have a partner? Really, really successful women always have very strong partners.
I asked every woman, What quality in yourself helped you most in your career? I got lots of different answers. Many said determination and persistence. Several said optimism or humor. The most significant quality was the ability to feel confident enough about yourself and your chances that you have a sense of optimism about your future. I didn’t interview a single victim, not a single one. These women were not sitting around complaining and wringing their hands. It was very inspiring.
RR: What’s been the general public’s response been to WOMEN WHO RUN THE SHOW?
MG: Extraordinary. I went out with some naiveté that very quickly vanished because it didn’t matter who I was talking with. One woman in her eighties said she and her friends were reading it aloud! I don’t know how far they’ve gotten because she said they keep interrupting and saying, That happened to me, that happened to me. These were woman how had just run their own businesses or had worked for other businesses in a supervisory capacity completely un-connected with show business. It doesn’t matter who I’m talking with. Women understand.
RR: So, it’s a gender issue not an entertainment business issue?
MG: I didn’t realize that and I didn’t realize how connected women are [in their experience]. I was at Show Biz Expo and I read a quote from a woman in the book stating, Of course, I was harassed, we were all harassed, we worked for our harassers. A woman got up in the back of the room and yelled, You got that wrong. We still do.
When I spoke in Washington, DC at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a woman came up to me afterward and said, This is just right for my daughter, she’s just starting out. Well, the daughter wasn’t in television; she was doing something else.
RR: History, especially contemporary history as you’ve detailed, is truly something we can learn from.
MG: Women got into this business, because of a combination of factors, one being the women’s movement in the late 60’s. On the West Coast it gained legs in film and TV in the early 70’s. Another important factor was the federal laws B the equal employment law and the establishment of the EEOC. That was the handwriting on the wall to the networks and the studios. They had to hire some women and they had to promote some women to the level of Vice-President. The third reason things changed was there were some men around who saw the inequities in the situation and really tried in their shows to rectify them like the Mary Tyler Moore Show. The final reason things changed was the dogged determination of the women themselves. They wanted careers. Why can’t they have them?