Hollywood Lives, Part II, Women in Charge

Featured image

Part II of Hollywood Lives, mainly focusing on the results of women’s liberation, time, and talented girls reaching for the moon and making it.

The woods of Hollywood are full of women, once famous or well on their way who got sidetracked by a man and ended up in the dust. Susan Peters is all but forgotten now. But in 1942 when she made “Random Harvest” with Greer Garson and Ronald Colman she was young, beautiful, talented and the camera loved her. Plus she was in love and married — to an actor, although not a star.

Publicity photo of Susan Peters for Random Harvest.

At 23, Susan Peters had everything a girl could get from Hollywood. That was the good news. Then came the bad. During a hiatus from shooting a picture, the young star and her husband took a few days off to go hunting.  Out stalking their prey one morning, the husband mistook his wife for a wild animal, pulled the trigger and accidentally shot her in the back, severing her spinal chord and paralyzing her below the waist.

Susan Peters and Richard Quine in love and marriage.

For starters, that was it for Susan Peters’ career, although the tough, brash Harry Cohn saw to it that she worked a bit in a wheelchair. She was not confined to a chair or reclining on a board. It was while she lying on that very board one day that her husband came home with some more doubled barreled bad news: he’d met someone and wanted a divorce.

Peters testifying in her divorce request from Quine.

Unable to walk, her career finished, wrenched by the emotional pain, Susan Peters no longer had a life and she knew it. An accomplished horseback rider, one afternoon she had herself driven out to a friend’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley so that she could go riding. No one’s objections could overrule her desire for such dangerous activity. Hoisted up onto a horse, the tiny paraplegic girl galloped off, fast and wild, toward destiny’s door.

In a matter of minutes, Susan Peters lost her grip and fell from the racing animal and crashed to an untimely death. Did she lose the reins, or did she just let go?

The former husband, Richard H. Quine, may have been a lousy shot, but he went on to a prosperous career as an actor and later as a director. Susan probably took it too personally. He eventually had several wives.

Hollywood is a man’s town. Men rule, make and break. “The women out there are still in purdah,” Kitty Carlisle Hart remarked to me once about the town.

Irene Mayer Selznick.

To be fair, things have changed radically in some ways. Women have made inroads that didn’t exist 45 or 50 years ago. And they’ve done it mostly without husbands or boyfriends. Irene Mayer Selznick is often remembered as having been bright enough to run a studio “if she were a man.” However, several women today have “run a studio,” Sherry Lansing being the first and most famous, and, it should be noted, the best looking. To the studio bosses “female” is still pulchritude. If she looked like Roseanne Barr, there’s a good bet they’d have passed on her.

Over the last three decades, there are also women with such box office clout that they could and can demand production deals like the big male stars always got. Sally Field, Goldie Hawn, Jessica Lange, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Barbra Streisand, to name just a few. Streisand is still without peer. Like Charlie Chaplin, she’s produced, directed, and starred.  Her power in the lion’s den launched her former hairdresser to the point where he and his business partner became two of the most powerful producers in Hollywood.

Streisand …

Jane Fonda, in other ways, is also without peer. She has a past. Fifty years ago, she would have been another Frances Farmer. She went from being a nymphet to a kind of political rival, to a money machine who is admired for her ability to survive (read: make money). Now in her early 80s, she’s still working and still box office and a minor tycoon (who also married — and later divorced — a tycoon).

Hollywood wives like the Misses Selznick and Goetz and Cohn don’t even exist today. People rarely entertain privately on the scale and style of the old days. The last of them was Barbara Davis, wife of Denver oilman Marvin Davis, who came to town back in the ’80s and bought 20th Century-Fox Studios. He bought and sold the studio (for hundreds of millions in profits) and bought and sold the Beverly Hills Hotel (on which he turned a $50 million profit in a year).

… and Fonda.

Mr. and Mrs. Davis lived and entertained on a scale matched by no one before or since.  Their annual Christmas Dinner party for five hundred (seated), which was held in a tent behind their Beverly Hills mansion, drew everyone from former Presidents, governors, senators, congressmen to movie and television stars and international socialites. Its costs upwards of a million dollars made a production that looked like a movie. There were so many rich and famous guests decked out in their multimillion dollar jewels that the security guard alone was the size of the police force of a small city.

Mrs. Davis, a petite blonde with a perpetual tan and a predilection for shocking pink, always traveled around town (by stretch limo) with a security detail. Her jewels are legend and she is said to sometimes wear several million dollars worth at a time. When she and her adoring husband, an enormous man who towered over her at 6’6”, went to a friend’s home for dinner, Mrs. Davis always took along her own specially prepared vegetarian dinner on a gold plate and two security guards to man the hostess’ door. But time changes everything and now, it seems, faster than ever. Barbara Davis is still going strong and her late husband by the end of his life was not even in the movie business anymore.

Marvin Davis and Barbara Davis at the Third Annual Fire & Ice Ball Benefit, December 6, 1993 at the Beverly Hilton. Barry King / Alamy Stock Photo.

Nowadays wives derive less power from their hostessing. Social events tend to be charity fundraisers staged in hotels and restaurants. Dinners at home are more informal (the fashion) and often catered affairs.

Like everywhere else, the liberated woman in Hollywood usually has her own career. Lili Fini Zanuck, married to the producer Richard Zanuck — son of Darryl Zanuck who for decades ran 20th Century Fox (now 21st Century Fox) —  was in sharp contrast to her mother-in-law Virginia Zanuck, who had a completely different life and marriage. Virginia, whose philandering husband was so active that he was away from home for twenty years while she sat home and waited. When he was old and infirm, he came home to die. Virginia may not have come a long way back then, but at least her daughter-in-law did. A Darryl Zanuck today would probably come home to an empty house.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Darryl F. Zanuck and Virginia Zanuck, c. late 1940s-early 1950s.

Women have always held positions in the industry, and there are more women in executive positions than ever before. Back in the 1940s through the ‘60s there was only one woman who held real executive power, Lillian Burns Sidney, who initially worked for LB Mayer as the studio’s acting coach. Her initial assignment when she joined the company in 1938 was to coach a new actress Betty Jane for a role in a major musical film.

One day, she and Mayer happened to cross paths on the lot when he asked her “When will Betty Jane will be ready for the picture.”

Lillian mentored Debbie Reynolds when she came to MGM.

“Never,” Lillian replied with the suggestion: “If you want to know what I think, you should put her on the next train back to Chicago.”

Her certainty shocked his secretary, Ida Koverman, who told her after hearing her advice: “No one talks to Mr. Mayer like that. You’d better clear out your drawer and look for another job.”

“If that’s what he wants, then I should,” was Lillian’s no-nonsense reply.

“Her power with Mr. Mayer exceeded many other executives and  stars because he trusted her advice (and she often read and acted out scripts for him).

Ten years later, Mayer was pressured by his only arch rival in the company, Nicholas Schenck (who was CEO of Loews, Inc. which owned M-G-M), to name Dore Schary as vice-president in charge of production. On hearing the news, Lillian went up to Mayer’s office and told her boss: “Now you’ve done it. You’ve ruined everything.”

She was certain Schary would change production from musicals, comedies and adventure films to “message” movies he was known for. “They won’t have need for anybody around here. Even you! You’ll see!”

DPC and Lillian at the first book signing Debbie did for the completed memoir, “Debbie; My Life,” published by William Morrow in 1986.

Three years later Mayer was gone. After his retirement Harry Cohn hired Lillian as his executive assistant (not, as in today’s parlance, secretary) because she held rank among the moguls. Lillian was also the highest paid non-actor in the industry (six figures, seven figures in today’s dollars) going all the way back to the ‘40s.

Women have always exerted influence as editors. Margaret Booth, the head cutter (as they were once called) at MGM, well into her nineties, was still working regularly on a consulting basis for Ray Stark. Women have also always held crucial positions in casting. Proportionally there are not more woman directors but there are many more producers, and successful ones.

Women have also just about cornered the market in “Development.” Known as “D-girls” these women are the executive version of the “woman behind the man.” They comb the worlds of Hollywood and Broadway and the hinterlands for writers and material that can be developed into films. They are competitive, indefatigable, tough networkers always on the lookout for an idea.

They are the ones who spend the thousands of concealed hours pushing and prodding writers to produce the scripts that often become the blockbusters. They are well paid, but not overpaid. A BMW and a generous expense account (for dinners) are about the only perks for their tasks. However, their successes, once set into actual production, become the personal property of the producers they work for — the men. That is part of the price that women still must pay in Hollywood.

“Head cutter” Margaret Booth.

As it is in any of the professions, wherever there is hard work to be done, there are women present, at least behind the scenes. No matter the liberation, women as a group still lack the bonds of fraternity that propel men. They have nothing compared to the “old boy” network. In fact, quite the opposite, many women in the entertainment industry are notorious for NOT helping each other along.

Despite their diligence and dedication which far outclasses their male counterparts, women in powerful positions often adopt the worse characteristics of men in their treatment of women. Given the power to promote, they are more likely to choose a man over women. Many even prefer men to work as their secretaries. Those who do hire other women are often brutally tyrannical. One high-ranking female studio executive was notorious for verbal and mental abuse of her female underlings, even going so far as, in once instance, to demand they wash her dirty underwear.

The catty, petty jealousies that permeated Clare Boothe Luce’s classic “The Women,” are alive and in some cases, epidemic in the Hollywood female executive suites. With no husband, or powerful boyfriend exercising power behind her, a woman in Hollywood still has a lonely and sometimes treacherous row to hoe.

Recent Posts