The documentary film “Women Who Run Hollywood” from sister filmmaking team Clara and Julia Kuperberg (“This Is Orson Welles,” “John Ford and Monument Valley”) is only 52 minutes long. That is perhaps as eloquent a comment as this rather cursory Cannes Classics title makes about its hot topic — just try to imagine how many hundreds of hours a male-focused counterpart film would run to. But despite evident good intentions, and some excellent interviewees, it is a frustrating effort in many ways, not least of which is its slightly misleading title, which suggests a more contemporary than historical slant. Its more evocative French title translates as “And Women Created Hollywood,” riffing on Roger Vadim’s majestic 1958 monument to paternalistic sexism “And God Created Woman.” It would have been a more accurate and enticing choice.
Following a tried-and-true if largely uninspired format of talking heads and archive footage, “Women Who Run Hollywood” does get access to some articulate and engaged insiders: Paula Wagner discusses her discovery of and subsequent production company partnership with Tom Cruise; producer Lynda Obst and screenwriter Robin Swicord (“Little Women,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) recall starting out in their respective fields when there were no female forerunners to speak of; and filmmaker Ally Acker (whose own far more comprehensive, treble-punned title “Reel Herstory: The Real Story of Reel Women” covers the same ground and more over 145 minutes) along with film historian Cari Beauchamp, place the modern day-barriers to women becoming Hollywood power players in their historical context.
And it’s really the historical aspect, whistle-stop though it might be, that yields the most interesting revelations — at least for the neophyte film scholar. Simple facts still have the power to surprise, like that prior to 1925 50% of all films were made by women, just because the then-nascent, low-status and not particularly lucrative film industry had yet to be deemed important enough to be an attractive proposition to men. Women worked in every area of film and often for the most hilariously practical of reasons: Golden Age editor Margaret Booth got her start, as did many female editors, because the editing process was likened to sewing and women have smaller hands. Pioneer Alice Guy, whose place in history as the director of the first proper narrative film (six months prior to that of Georges Méliès) is being gradually rehabilitated, was a secretary for Gaumont who was allowed to shoot as long as it didn’t interfere with her filing. Largely forgotten names like director Lois Weber and Oscar-winning writer Frances Marion carved out filmographies longer and more successful than many of their better-remembered male contemporaries. Acker says acidly at one point, “History is written by the victors. And the victors, in this case, were men.”
The story subsequent to those effortlessly egalitarian early years is a rapid arc of decline. The post-WWII era saw at best the occasional near-singularity in terms of female Hollywood directors or producers: For a time, guild meetings began with the greeting “Gentlemen…and Miss Lupino” as actress-turned-director Ida Lupino would be literally the only woman in the room. From this period until the 1980s, which brought the rise of studio execs like Sherry Lansing, the material is particularly thin. The Kuperbergs’ film thus becomes even more cursory, barely skittering over the intervening decades before going for a hasty dismount with glancing mentions of Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
As a very basic primer on the history of women in Hollywood, the film has some merit, and its short length makes it an easy sell for classrooms, educational TV or specialist online channels. If what little it gives only serves to make the audience seek out the stories of these and other women in more depth, it will have rendered a valuable service. But it’s hard to see how “Women Who Run Hollywood” will find much of a viewership outside of its specialist programming category, where it’s in danger of preaching to the converted, and doing little more than restating a known problem.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity, though, is how real discussion of the artistic impulses of these remarkable women is sidelined in favor of a reductive kind of headcount approach. The desire to namecheck as many neglected individuals as possible is understandable, but some insight into the artistic impact of even a few of these filmmakers could have gone some way to addressing the slight roll-call feel of proceedings. The history of female power players in Hollywood is so much the story of pioneering, original and inspirational women — they wouldn’t have beaten the odds otherwise — that this broad-based, rather passive sociological approach misses a trick. Perhaps a documentary that was itself more pioneering, original and inspired could have not just brought a depressing issue to light, but brought it along, too.