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Rediscovering the female filmmakers of the 1970s with UCLA’s ‘Liberating Hollywood’ series

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Elaine May directing “A New Leaf,” her 1971 debut feature, screening as part of the “Liberating Hollywood” series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive
(Photofest)

Anyone dismayed by the fact that no women were included in the recent Oscar nominations for best director or upset by statistics that female directors made up only 8% of the top 250 films at the 2018 box office may find some solace and inspiration in the film series “Liberating Hollywood.”

Beginning today at the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood and running through Feb. 23, “Liberating Hollywood” features 15 films directed by eight women from the 1970s. The series is an extension of the new book “Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema” by Maya Montañez Smukler, which looks at the 16 women who directed feature films in Hollywood in the 1970s.

The series opens with the 1979 film “Old Boyfriends,” directed by Joan Tewkesbury from a screenplay by Leonard Schrader and recent Oscar nominee Paul Schrader, starring Talia Shire, Keith Carradine and John Belushi.

Among other films included are Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 “Between the Lines,” set at a Boston alt-weekly and featuring Jeff Goldblum; Jane Wagner’s 1978 “Moment By Moment,” starring Lily Tomlin and John Travolta; and 1980’s “Fatso,” the only feature film written and directed by Anne Bancroft. A double bill of films directed by Elaine May will spotlight 1972’s “The Heartbreak Kid” and 1971’s “A New Leaf.”

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Between the Lines (1977) Directed by Joan Micklin Silver Shown: Jeff Goldblum
Jeff Goldblum in 1977's 'Between the Lines,' directed by Joan Micklin Silver
(Midwest Films / Photofest)

It is possible to see both the book and the film series of “Liberating Hollywood” as a corrective to what one might think of as the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” history of ’70s Hollywood. That 1998 book by Peter Biskind celebrates filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and other male directors who made the movies now seen as the golden age of New Hollywood.

“The premise of the book is this historical moment where there was this belief in this mythology that anyone who was young and ambitious and loved films could make a movie. And, of course, we see that was true for white men,” said Montañez Smukler in a recent interview in Los Angeles. “And we have all those remarkable male filmmakers, and women during that period had that same ambition but just constantly were maligned.”

Montañez Smukler noted, as she does in the book, that she sees her work as an expansionist and integrationist history, one intended not to take down that vaunted version of 1970s Hollywood but, rather, to add to it.

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“My goal is never to say all those wonderful male directors are not wonderful. They are, but the history of the ’70s is much bigger than just that,” Montañez Smukler said. “And the women of that era are a part of it. So I really want to break open the historical record to be able to put in this history of these women directors. But we often just get locked in to this dominant narrative. And, of course, the great male director is one of our favorites.”

I really want to break open the historical record to be able to put in this history of these women directors
Maya Montañez Smukler, author of ‘Liberating Hollywood’

KJ Relth, a programmer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive who assembled the film series along with Montañez Smukler, agreed that part of what makes this series particularly energizing is simply the opportunity to take a fresh look at films that relatively few people have seen in the first place. In turn, this helps expands audiences’ definitions of movies that should be venerated.

“Part of my effort as a programmer is to highlight work that is under-screened and underseen,” Relth said. “I’m interested in not necessarily breaking the original canon but kind of cracking it a little and leaving room for an expanded definition of what that means.

“And I think that by highlighting these films and giving them a real opportunity for exhibition and re-contextualization, it’s allowing people to fall in love with a film that they maybe weren’t aware of before or that given this new light, they can appreciate it in a different way.”

Among the guests scheduled to appear as part of the series are Tewkesbury, writer-director Barbara Peters, writer-director Lynne Littman and writer-director Stephanie Rothman.

From Tewesbury’s “Old Boyfriends” to Peters’ 1975 “Summer School Teachers” to Littman’s 1983 “Testament,” to Rothman’s 1971 “The Velvet Vampire,” the series also shows how these filmmakers worked in such an array of styles and genres that it seems reductive to put them in one group.

Montañez Smukler pointed out that these women who directed movies in the 1970s do not necessarily fit under some umbrella simply as “female filmmakers” and that the distinctions and differences in their work should be recognized and celebrated as much as the things that bring them together.

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“It’s not just about women filmmakers in general, but it’s this specific moment in the ’70s where the women’s movement and second-wave feminism is intersecting with Hollywood, commercial American cinema, at a very distinct moment where the industry is going through all these shifts,” she said. “It’s the specific moment where these different cultural and social and industrial factors are creating problems or opportunities for these women.

“These were individual filmmakers, and that’s something that’s really important to me,” Montañez Smukler said. “We have to look at them in terms of gender because of what was happening in the ’70s and just historically within the institutionalized sexism and racism in Hollywood. But we always have to talk about them as individual filmmakers. And that’s the fun of a program like this to really be able to see the individuality.”

Fatso (1980) Directed by Anne Bancroft Shown on the set, left foreground: director Anne Bancroft
Anne Bancroft on the set of "Fatso" (1980), her only feature film as writer and director.
(Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest)

The films screening in the “Liberating Hollywood” series run the gamut from comedy to drama to down-and-dirty genre fare, and though many of them are not widely known, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be.

“They do go together, in that they are part of this conversation that we unfortunately still need to be having and need to have loudly and often so that we no longer have to do something like this,” Relth said. “The ultimate goal is to make more room for these films and these women to just be shown as often in the context that films by men are shown.”

Filmmaker David Gordon Green, in an interview around the release of his “Halloween” last year, cited Littman by name and said, “To me, the biggest horror movie of my life is the movie ‘Testament,’ which stirs me to the core every time I think about it.”

For audiences approaching these movies for the first time, the films and filmmakers of the “Liberating Hollywood” series can serve as a stark reminder of how much progress has been made and yet how far Hollywood still has to go to achieve true parity and equality.

“If you believe that you want to do something, you just go ahead and do it no matter what,” Tewkesbury said.

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“If people realize that all these women’s films were made in spite of the odds,” she said, “perhaps they’ll be inspired to take up the opportunities that are really available to them now that certainly were not then.”

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus


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