Review: ‘Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women’s Experience of Power in Hollywood’

Former Premiere reporter Rachel Abramowitz's first book is a rambling journey through the psyches of a dozen or so intrepid women who navigated the past three decades of Hollywood in a violent struggle to make movies, make money, make friends and start families --- with varying degrees of success.

Former Premiere reporter Rachel Abramowitz’s first book is a rambling journey through the psyches of a dozen or so intrepid women who navigated the past three decades of Hollywood in a violent struggle to make movies, make money, make friends and start families — with varying degrees of success.

Flaunting a suggestive title, but no sex and surprisingly little sexual innuendo, the book offers a glimpse of how these gals survived and flourished amid the cutthroat politics of studios and showbiz (which demoralized and destroyed players of both sexes) and how they acted in an industry dominated by men’s outsized egos.

Sherry Lansing, who ran Fox and now heads Paramount, cooed and hi-honeyed up the ladder, hounded by accusations that she slept her way to the top. Her doppelganger, late Columbia Pictures chief Dawn Steel, cursed and hollered so much that she said she was sure years of anger caused the brain tumor that ultimately killed her in 1997. The book begins and ends with Steel’s funeral.

Relationships were rocky. The chronicled women were (and are?) high-maintenance mavens. Their success threatened partners and boyfriends, and many had fewer dates the higher they climbed. On the flip side, anguish took its toll too. “Few men could bear the frustration — and disappointment — that accompanied a woman who wanted to be a director,” Abramowitz writes.

The pressure was immense, from males as well as other females, who saw the future writ large in the success or failure of these prominent few. As the woman’s movement roiled the country, female-themed pics from the cheesy “Flashdance” (Steel’s baby) to landmark buddy film “Thelma and Louise” (written by Callie Khouri), stirred the pot and were often savaged by feminists. Jodi Foster was astounded when women’s groups denounced her for playing “victim” as a woman brutally gang raped in “The Accused.” Lansing and Glenn Close were horrified as “Fatal Attraction” mutated during development from a complex portrait of a wronged woman into a one-night-stand monster movie.

Paula Weinstein, Sue Mengers and Polly Platt are also central figures, with others like Nora Ephron, Barbra Streisand, Elaine May and Jane Fonda flitting in and out of the narrative. Many were afraid of being poor, saw their therapists a lot and had controlling mothers. Steel and Weinstein had really great hair.

Here’s the catch. The book is too darn long, and Abramowitz fails to synthesize the diverse voices into a single, streamlined, engaging story. Closing in on 500 pages, its heft is strictly in keeping with recent Hollywood chronicles like “The Operator” and “Keys To The Kingdom,” whose authors may be overly steeped in Hollywood self-absorption. Gone are the days of John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio. If these scribes don’t lighten up, their public will defect to shorter, less ponderous works — like “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

The length consists of pages and pages of quotes, almost always tiresome, often irrelevant and occasionally inarticulate bordering on incoherent.

One gasps with relief when Abramowitz, a lively writer, interrupts the inane musings to set a scene, analyze statistics on female directors or give the disparate stories some context — which doesn’t happen nearly enough. She lets her subjects talk and talk, thinking perhaps that the weight of all those accumulated thoughts and observations would create an eloquent story if she kept out of the way. It’s a good idea, it just doesn’t work.

The characters rarely come alive. And they rarely address the serious issues. What was their legacy? Did they really change Hollywood, and how? What was the wider social and political climate, and how does their experience compare with women trying to get ahead in other sectors?

And some historical context would have been nice — who were the women who broke the ground for these women?

The worst offense is that no one, as presented in this book anyway, has an inkling of a sense of humor.

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women's Experience of Power in Hollywood

Random House; 494 PGS.; $26.95


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