Locke Feels Vindicated After Lawsuit
Here, in a cramped cutting room off Melrose Avenue, is where it could begin again--life after Clint, after cancer, after an all-consuming legal war.
Sondra Locke, who says her professional reputation was vindicated last week in court, is making a movie called “Do Me a Favor.” It is, she says, “a little movie” with a budget of about $1 million, and Locke, who was paid just $10,000 to direct, plans to screen it at next year’s Sundance Film Festival.
A little movie perhaps, a little paycheck for sure, but “Do Me a Favor” marks Locke’s return to movie-making after standing up to some of Hollywood’s most powerful men. For years after her acrimonious 1989 breakup with Clint Eastwood--her lover and mentor until, she says, her hunger for creative independence drove them apart--nobody was doing her any favors. She was a pariah, untouchable.
But last week, Locke won back a measure of respect, persuading jurors in Burbank that although she had the talent to direct, the politics of the bedroom and the back lot had stalled her career. She had sought more than $2.5 million in a civil lawsuit against Eastwood.
Several jurors said they were ready to decide in her favor when Eastwood settled, for an undisclosed sum. In the case, Locke had alleged that Eastwood cheated her by secretly financing a sham development deal for her to direct films for Warner Bros. She’d accepted the deal under a settlement of an earlier palimony suit. At the time, Locke says, she was still undergoing chemotherapy after a double mastectomy and grasped at the offer like a life preserver.
Some jurors later said they had believed Locke but had trouble with the testimony of Eastwood and the studio executives who testified that they wanted Locke to succeed. One juror said later it was clear that the executives were more interested in appeasing Eastwood, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, than in giving her projects.
So, as Locke reviewed a scene for her movie’s first cut, the irony was inescapable. On the monitor, Rosanna Arquette was stomping and fuming.
“Men!!!” hissed Arquette.
“What about them?” asked Devon Gummersahl, who plays the other lead.
"----ing idiots!!!” Arquette spat.
The room filled with peals of female laughter as Locke, her editor and a production assistant found new humor in a scene they had scrutinized dozens of times before.
Men: They still get the lion’s share of directing jobs in Hollywood. Last year, for example, of 175 films produced, women directed only 14, or 8%, according to the Directors Guild of America. The year before, they fared a little better, directing 9% of the feature films.
Though women are increasingly getting work in television, progress in the film industry has been much slower, according to Jennifer Reed, co-chairwoman of the Women’s Steering Committee of the DGA. Locke was among the 11 female filmmakers in 1990, the year she made her second feature, “Impulse.”
“Being a filmmaker is difficult even if you are gifted and blessed and have the silver spoon,” said Donna Mungen, a director and freelance writer whose short film, “Success Avenue: Watts” showed at last year’s Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
For women--especially minorities--it’s particularly hard, said Mungen, who is African American.
“When I look at my male contemporaries, the ones I went to film school with, it was very apparent to me there were two tracks,” said Mungen, a graduate of the American Film Institute. “Theirs was to direct and mine was to be a nonplayer.”
Locke, who directed her first film, “Ratboy,” in 1986, said some of the harshest criticism of her work has come from other women. She believes some women have not taken her seriously because she was Eastwood’s live-in companion.
In a wide-ranging interview, Locke spoke about her life with the famous older man who she says used to call himself “Daddy,” their breakup, the lawsuit and her future. She was careful to avoid “bashing” Eastwood and says she has no regrets.
She wore not a speck of makeup on skin so flawless it seems translucent and dressed like someone half her 48 years in an oversize faded-denim shirt, baggy striped pants and baby-blue hightops.
Much of her life and career seems like a fairy tale. Some of it seems like a nightmare.
She never knew her father, and she spent much of her childhood at the movies or with her face buried in a book, biding her time while plotting to leave tiny, rural Shelbyville, Tenn. Her best friend was Gordon Anderson, the man who would become her husband in the early ‘70s. Anderson is gay, she says, and to this day he continues to be her “anchor” and closest friend. The two have never divorced but live separately.
She was discovered in Shelbyville by Warner Bros. during a nationwide talent search and cast alongside Alan Arkin in the 1968 film, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” She was nominated for an Academy Award.
A few years later, she auditioned for a part in one of Eastwood’s movies. She didn’t get the part, but he called her back and cast her in his next film, “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” They fell in love on the set.
“I never knew my father, which explains the Clint thing,” Locke says now. “He called himself Daddy. . . . I loved it then, because it filled a great void. But [later] I think through his distancing himself from me, I finally began to grow up.
“It was incredible for a lot of years,” she added. “It was great as long as I would surrender to him.”
They starred together in half a dozen movies. She immersed herself in his career, to the point where a script she was asked to read eventually became the basis for a “Dirty Harry” movie.
“We merged and became personally and professionally intertwined,” she said. “I knew that my own, separate professional identity had disappeared. I had worked in films that were Clint’s vision, not mine. I had to go forward.”
Recalling the “Every Which Way” films, in which she and Eastwood shared billing with Clyde the orangutan, she said, “I didn’t want to be up there with the orangutan. I was there because I was in love and [Eastwood] wanted me to be there. And I loved working with him and we were together. But I didn’t want that. I don’t want that now.”
The relationship began to show signs of strain when Locke started to direct. “I was beginning to develop, maybe a little bit too much, and it changed the dynamics. He was Daddy, you know, and I guess that was no longer the case. When you’re a director, the job itself forces you to take charge.
“ ‘Impulse’ came along, which was a project he was not involved in at all. And that’s really when it started to unravel.”
The tensions erupted in April 1989, when Eastwood changed the locks of their Bel-Air home and called Bekins to pack up and store her clothes while she was away, directing.
She sued to get the house back, but dropped her case a year later, settling instead for the home Eastwood had bought her husband, about $500,000 and a three-year, $1.5-million development deal at Warner Bros.
Unbeknown to Locke, Eastwood was financing the Warner deal, and although she pitched more than 30 projects, she didn’t direct a single film.
After her contract expired, she sued Warners for failing to develop any projects. During pretrial hearings, she discovered Eastwood’s secret side deal with the studio and sued him for fraud in 1994. A judge dismissed the action against Warner Bros. but the Eastwood suit continued and went to trial two weeks ago in Burbank.
She bristles at the memories of Eastwood’s comments on the courthouse steps that she was after his money and had a gun to his head, “like he’s a 7-Eleven I’m trying to knock over. Give me a break.”
But for Locke, seeing Eastwood take the witness stand “really became, to me, the crowning moment. It was a catharsis. It felt like a validation, and empowerment.”
“It was almost this mythic thing,” she added. “All that had happened could only be resolved by that public moment.”
Afterward, she felt a tranquillity she hadn’t known in years. “It was like this big albatross was gone.”
Whatever others in Hollywood think of what appeared to be a quixotic quest, few are talking publicly. One industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that many of Locke’s friends urged her not to pursue the suit.
“Anybody would have told her, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” the source said. “ ‘You went through it once. And this time if you lose, everybody’s going to turn their backs on you.’ ”
But Locke, thinking she had little left to lose after being so humiliated at Warner Bros., says she sued because “I was sick and tired and I didn’t want to take it any more.”
“It was about me being vindicated, to me, if no one else,” she said. “Everyone said, ‘They’re going to crush you.’ Hollywood closed ranks. People wouldn’t testify for me. I had no idea how it would turn out.
“In this business,” Locke continued, “people get so accustomed to being abused, they just accept the abuse and say, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.’ Well, it isn’t.
“Since everything in my life collapsed in ’89, I was just determined that I wouldn’t cave in. I wouldn’t just go away or become a basket case. I knew the value of me as a person.”
And then, some friends from “Impulse” did her a favor. They recommended her to direct a small, independent film.
Tag Mendillo, the first-time producer of “Do Me a Favor,” said he was well aware that he would not have been able to afford Locke had her professional life not taken a turn for the worse.
“She had a bad run,” Mendillo said. “But to me she’s also the kind of person who really could be a Penny Marshall,” one of Hollywood’s most successful female directors.
“If all that stuff hadn’t happened the way it did, she could very easily have been a very well received director right now,” Mendillo said.
Locke, he said, brought a strong sense of style to the film and provided an atmosphere in which star Arquette could work well despite a crushingly low budget.
“Some people can really do it and others just can’t,” he said. “Sondra really knows how to do it.
“I’m just glad she’s been vindicated,” Mendillo said. “She deserves it.”
Locke knows that her career would have gone very differently without Eastwood.
“It’s very likely and probable that I wouldn’t have had that kind of huge notoriety. I wouldn’t have had that kind of big giant commercial hugeness. I would have wanted to make a lot of interesting, little films. And I would have been very happy.”
That’s where she is now. No one knows yet how good “Do Me a Favor” will be or how it will fare. But it is Locke’s own labor of love.
She plans to continue making features, with or without Hollywood’s approval.
Times staff writer Sharon Bernstein contributed to this story.