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A WOMAN’S PLACE IS ON STAGE

Times Staff Writer

Even without the presence of Elizabeth Taylor, who was to have been the star honoree, the ninth annual Crystal Awards celebration turned out to be quite an occasion.

Marlo Thomas, who was not an award recipient, delivered what proved to be the keynote address at Women in Film’s bash in the grand ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel on Friday, tracing the journey women have taken in the industry--and in life. “Our generation was the first in this industry to say ‘No Thank You’ in a big way. . . .

“We said ‘No’ to the idea that women couldn’t direct movies, and Lina Wertmuller paved the way,” Thomas said, commenting on the luncheon’s pride of winners. “We said ‘No’ to the idea that a woman’s physical features might lock her into stereotype forever--and no one has buried that idiotic notion as beautifully as Elizabeth Taylor. . . . We wondered why male comedians so often made fun of sex and female comedians made fun of themselves. Bette Midler solved our problem by making fun of everything.”

Midler, the comic of so many faces, and somewhat of a surprise in a dress-for-success plain navy dress, made fun. “God, I love a lunch,” she began, looking out at the sold-out house of more than 1,800 women and men.

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Meta Carpenter Wilde, 77 and looking closer to 57, provided inspiration. With a career spanning 54 years and encompassing any number of behind-the-scenes, “below the line” roles from secretary to script “girl” to script supervisor, as well as being a union organizer, Wilde is still working, having just completed “Prizzi’s Honor” under director John Huston with whom she had worked on “The Maltese Falcon” 44 years ago.

“Dreams can come true even for women,” Wilde (also the author of “A Loving Gentleman,” about her 30-year romance with William Faulkner) said in a soft Southern accent. “I never believed a script girl--or a script boy--could become script supervisor. . . .”

Jean Stapleton gave advice. Receiving the Norma Zarky Humanitarian Award “for her untiring efforts advancing the cause of woman’s rights . . . and her ability to use her artistry to benefit humanity,” the actress who made Edith Bunker a household name talked about career beginnings. Forget about luck, said Stapleton, whose portrayals have also included Eleanor Roosevelt and Irene Wallin, leader of the so-called Minnesota Eight bank employees who struck their hometown bank in a fight for equal pay.

“The best thing I can say is, it (a career) starts with your right desire, your drive, your impulse to fulfill the voice within. And you can trust that, if you have the patience. I believe that one’s career is the externalization of that desire.

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“I’m therefore putting luck out of the picture,” Stapleton added while her audience burst into applause. “It’s not reliable and not to be trusted.”

Besides Italian director Lina Wertmuller (“The Seduction of Mimi,” “Swept Away,” “Seven Beauties”), Midler (the Jack Oakie Comedy Award), Stapleton, Wilde and Taylor, other 1985 Crystal Award recipients were WIF founder Tichi Wilkerson, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Hollywood Reporter, and rock star--and feminist--Cyndi Lauper, who uses words like herstory where others might say history .

Taylor, in effect, called in sick last week after her publicist issued a statement by her physician stating that the actress had suffered back injuries two months ago during shooting of the Civil War miniseries “North and South,” in which she wore a 50-pound plantation-style dress. The physician, Dr. William Skinner, said Taylor had been hospitalized for a week, and now requires intensive physiotherapy.

Although the other award winners offered best wishes for the illness-prone actress’ speedy recovery, Women in Film officials were privately fuming. “I’ve been stood up, and that hasn’t happened to me since I was 14,” Johnna Levine, president of the 1,200-member organization, said. And Crystal Awards spokeswoman Jo-Ann Geffen noted that contrary to statements by Taylor’s publicist Chen Sam that they were “forewarned” two weeks ago that Taylor would probably not attend, the organization was instead told Taylor probably would be there.

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No matter. The event itself dominated. At a press conference Lauper--wearing streaks of purple, red, orange and yellow hair as well as a Gypsy’s bagful of baubles, bangles and bright, shining beads--glanced down the table that included Wilde, Stapleton, Wilkerson and Thomas, and pronounced in vintage Queens, N.Y.: “There’s too many of us (women) now to stop us anymore.”

Thomas, who announced the establishment of a new Luminas award to be given to film makers and producers beginning next year who present a “positive and inspiring image of women,” added: “We are telling you that now because we want you to be forewarned. Women are watching. And they want to see themselves.”

“When I was starting out as an actress,” Thomas explained, “there were very few kinds of roles a woman could play, in the media as in life. If you were pretty, you could be dumb. If you weren’t pretty you could be funny. If you were black, you could be a maid. If you were Hispanic, you could be an evil sexpot.

“If, God forbid, you were a woman director or a producer or a cinematographer or a grip,” she added, “you could forget about working altogether.

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“Now of course, even before the existence of Los Angeles Women in Film,” Thomas continued, “there were some females who raised hell about this insane abridgement of their possibilities. Ida Lupino defied convention and directed movies. Bette Davis defied the studio and rewrote her contract. My grandmother defied the whole family and played drums in a California beer garden.

“You think violence on the screen leads to violence on the streets?” Thomas asked with a life-imitates-art rhetoric. “Think on this: Situation comedy on the screen leads to situation comedy in the home. If the average American male sees a fluff-headed, defeat-ridden, ambitionless, sexually demandless dream girl on the screen, what’s he gonna do when he finds out he’s living in a country full of real women?”

Real women, Thomas said, have “special problems. They are wives who get beat up and fed up as in ‘The Burning Bed’; daughters pressured into incest as in ‘Something About Amelia.’ They have glories. They are widows who defy racism as in ‘Places in the Heart’ and police officers who muddle through every hassle, still incorruptible, like ‘Cagney and Lacey’. . . .”

In presenting a Crystal award for Elizabeth Taylor, noting “a body of her work which has affected all of our lives,” and following a brief retrospective from “A Place in the Sun” to the recent television movie “Malice in Wonderland,” Mariette Hartley stated:

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“I was raised going to movies and seeing this woman. I saw her everywhere. . . . I followed her; I read about her. Wherever I turned I, and everyone else here, experienced her pain. And I watched her stay, and stay, and stay. In all her glory and dignity, I’ve watched her do more than just survive. I can think of no one who symbolizes (more) the vagaries, the traps and the romance, and the real glory of this business.

“One thing that no one here knows, that I know, is that she gave a group of women great, great joy--silently. . . . I used to work in a little dress shop called the Second Shop in Westport, Conn., and I worked with my mom. We were working very hard to support our family. And one day I walked in and no one was talking. And this was rare in Connecticut. . . .

“And what had happened was that Elizabeth Taylor had walked by the window, and everyone had seen her violet eyes. I personally want to thank her for giving my mother her place in the sun.”


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