I have two great loves in my life: books and movies. Hollywood: Her Story, An Illustrated History of Women and the Movies is a new book that combines my passions in a stunning look at women’s work throughout the history of cinema. Hollywood: Her Story traces the contributions of women in film across 13 decades and 26 categories for a comprehensive look at the careers of some of the industry’s biggest names and, perhaps more importantly, celebrates the work of the behind-the-scenes masters who should be household names. It is a beautiful book, both in its design and also in its dedication to forcing you to reexamine everything you think you know about the movies.
Hollywood: Her Story is, in my opinion, a quintessential, must-read book for any cinephile. But you don’t have to be a movie buff or bookworm to get lost in its glossy pages.
I am thrilled I had the opportunity to speak to Jill S. Tietjen and Barbara Bridges about their important, new book and their thoughts on Hollywood—past, present, and future.
Awards Daily: When you were doing your research for the book, who was somebody who maybe you didn’t know as much about that you were excited to learn about? And who was somebody that was very well-known that your research led you to reexamine?
Barbara Bridges: We both, I think, really came to love the silent film-era women. And it just so happened that while we were doing the book, I co-executive produced a film about the very first woman in our book, Alice Guy-Blaché, so it was really during that film that we learned so much about her. Not everything got in the book, with 1,200 women to feature, but she was so interesting as this first woman filmmaker, having her own studio and making a thousand films. She was trying out so many different techniques at the beginning of this wonderful movie industry. She was so impressive.
Jill S. Tietjen: I’ll follow the theme that Barbara started. First of all, Barbara is the founder of Women+ Film here in Denver. She’s intimately involved. And has been a movie buff for years. I’m an engineer, that’s my background. I go to movies, I enjoy them, but I didn’t have the knowledge base. I have it now. The women that we found in the silent film era, I mean, they were amazing. They did everything. They were writers, they were directors, they were producers, they were editors, they were actresses. They did their own stunts.
They did everything in the beginning of the movie industry. One of those women in 1907, her name is Gene Gauntier, she wrote the screenplay adaptation of Ben Hur in two days. And she’s also credited with creating the genre of serials. The villain tied the heroine to the railroad tracks this week. And then you came back next week to see how she got saved. And then of course she got in peril all over again, and Gene Gauntier wrote the first one. And she wrote her own scripts, including stunts. And then she said, “I was terrified at each daring thing I had to do, but for some inexplicable reason, I continued to write them.” And then she said, a [stunt] double was never even thought of in those days. So, they were doing all of their own stunts.
Awards Daily: Somebody that really stood out to me when I was reading was Lois Weber. Not only was she considered an excellent female director, but she was considered a great director in general, equal to her male counterparts. It wasn’t even a discussion that she was a female director. She was great director, period.
And one of the things that you talk about in the book is that once the industry became unionized, men would take over the unions, and that led to a decline in female leadership roles.
That was fascinating. My question is, other than the role that unions played in shaping the industry, why do you think our mentality has shifted?
BB: You know, [in the book] we talked about what was happening with the movies, and with women in the industry by decades. So, when you get to the 1920s, the talkies, came into it, but more importantly, money came into the discussion. That’s when the men got really interested, and really involved. I think the roles were very prescribed then. Women were pushed out of much of the business, but they weren’t pushed out of everything that would be okay for women to do.
Like costume design, and we have Edith Head getting more Academy Award nominations than any woman ever, because that was the great thing for her to do. Costume design was really an accepted thing for women to be involved in.
Then you have the directors. And there have been studies, even now, about how studios have a list of people that they go to for these big budget movies and who’s on the list? Most, if not all, are men. So, part of this is, are studios comfortable giving large budgets to be controlled by women? Look at Patty Jenkins, who had this huge budget with Wonder Woman, and she did a fabulous job. And we know that films by and about women make money as a box office. So even Patty Jenkins said, “Are you guys about money or not?” [Laughs]
JST: And Shadan, I want to go back to one of the comments that you made about Lois Weber, Louis Weber was the biggest director, male or female, during the silent film era. And her talents were recognized. And in addition, she made money. And, people were willing, the bankers, at that point in time, were willing to give her money.
But at that time, movies didn’t cost very much to make. And so, before the talkies, before that all happened, when it wasn’t a very high-cost business, then it was okay to risk money on women. But after that, and as Barbara and I were discussing earlier today, it was absolutely legal to discriminate against women until 1964. The studios, the banks, and whomever could do whatever they wanted.
AD: So many things struck me while I was reading your book, but as a young woman myself, I’ll admit, I got very frustrated because I felt like every time I would read something about an advancement that women were making, there would be something a few pages later, pointing to a decline elsewhere in the industry.
And I’m just curious, when you were working on this, did you have any moments like that where you got frustrated? Or did working on this leave you more hopeful? How do you feel about it?
JST: I mean, the reason why we wrote the book is because women are not written in history and Barbara has just this fabulous quote that she got from Sundance.
BB: I was just at the Sundance Film Festival, and I had the privilege of being able to spend a little time with Gloria Steinem.
And she had this wonderful pearl of wisdom, she said, “History and the past are not the same.”
So, whenever you’re thinking of the past, and the movie business, if you’re only thinking about Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in the silent era, and you don’t realize that there were all these women that were creating this new industry, then you don’t have the correct past, so history needs to be written.
JST: Right. The purpose of this book… I was just doing some research, looking at Encyclopedia Britannica. They have a series of articles on the history of the film industry. You read those articles and Mary Pickford is in there, and you would just think that there were no women there at all, except for Mary Pickford! Because every person that is referred to in that article is a man, and of course I’m exaggerating, but I was reading this going, well of course [Hollywood: Her Story] is important, because if this is what Encyclopedia Britannica is doing, then this is what everyone is doing. They’re only telling the history of men, which is not the correct task. Women were there as well, and it’s very important to tell those women’s stories.
You asked us a question that I’m going to respond to in an interesting way. You asked, “Do we get frustrated?” And the way I now answer that question is, if the women who attended the first women’s rights convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York all died, except one attendee, before the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1920, 72 years later, If they could fight for the whole rest of their life, for the right to vote that we are celebrating a hundred years of this year, then how can I get frustrated? I mean, they didn’t have the right to an education. They didn’t have the right to a divorce. They didn’t have a right to custody of their children. They didn’t have the right to own property, and yet they fought, and they fought and they fought.
So, I have to say, we’re going to write these women into history, we are going to advocate that the past and history are not the same, and we’re going to make sure that their accomplishments are recorded.
And no, I’m not going to get frustrated because I’m going to look at those women who fought for us for 72 years for the right to vote and say, if they can do it, then we can do it.
BB: I would also add that, it was a learning curve to see in which decades there were a low number of, you know, pick any category, screenwriting or editing, etc. And so that was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ But, we just keep having hope because we keep talking about it now. We keep talking about how the studios aren’t hiring women. We keep writing about it and it’s out there now. We continue to have hope.
AD: That actually leads me to my next question because, obviously, there is such a conversation now about gender parity in the industry. Has writing this book changed your opinion on what should be done? Or changed your opinion about what is being done?
BB: I know people who are working on this. I was just at Sundance, to use that as an example. With ReFrame, they are contacting the studios, they’re bringing in the story of the women, the talent of the women, and trying to change those lists that the studios have about who they can hire.
So that’s one example. Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg, and the research that she does about what’s happening with women in the industry and trying to put that forward. There are things happening, so that helps to give us hope also.
AD: What other trends did you notice while working on this book that maybe you weren’t aware of before? Did something stand out to you?
JST: The decade in which there are more women than any other decade in this book, all 26 categories, is the 1910s. And by a lot. The picture that it painted for us, and when I started talking to some of my friends about this book that I was writing, they said to me, well, ‘Is the movie industry similar to other industries where women are only now being able to be in leadership positions?’ And I said, ‘No, they founded the industry.’
Women made some of many of the very early technological advances in the industry. They developed genre, they did all kinds of things, and then when the movies started making money, they left, many of them were forced out.
AD: That’s such an excellent point.
BB: We think it’s interesting that in the beginning women were multitasking, right? They were doing everything that needed to be done in a movie.
And that’s a lot of what’s happening now, there are women creating their own production companies, they’re multitasking, just like the early women were to make the films that they want to make. And it even goes back to Jane Fonda, who we have [listed] in 1972. She said that when she was 45, she thought that she was just trained to be an actress and that’s what she was going to do. With the decline of the studio system, she began to produce and develop the projects she wanted to do. I think that’s a really interesting observation of what women did early on. And then again, later on.
AD: As you mentioned earlier, there are SO many women across film history that have never gotten their due, and you, of course, have a limited amount of space in this book. How did you go about choosing who you wanted to highlight and what facts you wanted to mention? Can you talk to me a little bit about that process? Just from the outside it seems very overwhelming. [Laughs]
JST & BB: [Laughs]
JST: When you tackle a project like this, really all you can do is take it one step at a time. We started with books, and went through them. We made a decision one person at a time. Do they get in, do they not get in? And that’s when we started discovering all of these silent film era women. I mean, we found stunt women, and we found directors, and we found producers, and we found writers. I mean, all kinds of women that I didn’t know anything about.
Some of the things that we found were funny. Barbara likes to tell the story about how in the ’30s and ’40s, women were writing all these westerns! They were writing westerns, and westerns, and westerns! And we would find all the writers and all they were writing [were] westerns.
In the end, we made decisions based on criteria that included what we felt was the significance of her accomplishments. In the index in the back, every woman who has been nominated for an Oscar, whether or not she actually appeared in the pages of the book, she actually is in the index because we felt that any woman who had been nominated for an Oscar deserved to be acknowledged in the book. So there’s actually many more women in the index than in the book itself.
BB: If you look at our website, hollywoodherstory.com, we have the Oscars listed by year, and by category, but only the women who were nominated. It was really a challenge because you can’t always tell the gender by the name. It was difficult to put an accurate list together of just the women by year, and by category.
And when you look at it by year, you can see that more and more women are being nominated over time. And this year, 62 women have been nominated, which was a record.
And then you can see by categories, too. And you can also see that the categories where women are typically nominated, that’s where they are again this year, too. But it’s interesting to take a look at the website and see just the women.
AD: Do you have any plans to collaborate on another project? Maybe do a part two of this book? I mean, when Renee Zellweger wins her second Oscar for Judy, are you going to have to go back and do edits?
AD: Jill, what other future additions are you planning?
JST: I am planning other books in the Her Story series. They are in process. It’s an interesting question that you ask about Hollywood: Her Story and the book itself. Barbara and I are under contract, and there will be a Korean version of the book.
We do understand that there are plans from the publisher to put forward a paperback version, at some point, although those plans are not definite. And we keep up with, and we know about, and we keep track of, not just on the website, but in our heads, the additional women who win Oscars. And when we have an opportunity to update the book as appropriate, we will.
And you know, Barbara and I are still pretty busy with this one, so we haven’t gotten to the point yet of talking about what particular project might come next.
BB: Yeah. And what we didn’t tell you is that from the time we decided to do the book, we have been meeting regularly at a library, every week. We always have the next meeting scheduled month by month. So, for three and a half years, at least once a week, we’ve been meeting about the book. And so, we continue to do that, to move that forward.
AD: So, are you still meeting now?
BB: Yeah, we met today!
AD: [Laughs] Like I said, I love the book. It is absolutely stunning when you see it in person. And I must thank you for making my shopping particularly easy this year because I do plan on gifting it to every single person I know. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter, they are getting a copy!
What do you want the ultimate takeaway for those readers? What’s that one piece of wisdom you are hoping comes across?
JST: I would just say that these women demonstrate that it is possible to live your dream. To do the things that you want to do in the movie industry. And of course, there are going to be obstacles and problems along the way, and you just have to surmount them.
BB: I think when you look at the book, and all the women in one place that affected the movie industry, you can see how different each one of them are and what talents they brought to the table. And so, if you are a woman interested in the movies, you can see how you could plug in. Or really, no matter what you’re interested in, you can see that so many different women added to one industry and to be inspired by that.
AD: If you each had to pick one woman, past or present, that you think is an unsung hero doing amazing things, who would you pick?
BB: She’s not totally unknown, but Ava DuVernay is somebody. At the beginning of every chapter, we have a large picture of someone from that decade, and Ava’s picture is on that last decade [2010s].
AD: And what a stunning photo. All the pictures in this book are so beautiful.
BB: It’s a great picture of her, isn’t it? She’s doing so much as a director, and particularly as a director of color. And she became the first African American woman to direct a movie with a $100 million budget [2018’s A Wrinkle in Time]. I think she is really somebody to keep an eye on.
JST: And then there’s a woman who is nominated this year, it’s her eighth Oscar nomination. Thelma Schoonmaker, she’s an editor and she edits and has edited for Martin Scorsese for more than 40 years.
She’s won three Oscars. If she wins this year [for The Irishman] she will be the first person to win four film editing Oscars. And the movies that Scorsese makes? She makes them. She’s the editor.
AD: That’s something that I hope to highlight in this article, that so many of the films that you love are the way they are because a powerful, talented woman was behind them, whether she was doing the costumes, or producing, or directing.
JST: That’s actually very important because when I go to a movie, and I’ve always looked at the credits, but now of course, I actually look at the credits and I go, she’s in the book, she’s in the book, she’s in the book. But when you look at all of those people that are required to make a movie, there is an amazing number of women.
AD: Before I let you both go, is there anything else you wanted to mention?
JST: Well, I do want to say thank you for this opportunity, and please buy the book for everyone that you know. It is a fabulous gift book, and it is winning design awards. [Hollywood: Her Story won Best Interior Design at the 2019 Best Book Awards.] It’s just an amazing book.
BB: Yes. Thank you for planting that idea! Buy it for everyone that you know. [Laughs] But I think the thing that is interesting, there are so many different ways to read this book.
When you first give it to someone, they flip through, and look at the pictures and identify the people that they love from the movies, and then you can go a little bit deeper and start reading the quotes and the information under the pictures, and you can go even deeper and read about the movies that we described, by the decades. it’s just a wonderful book to read about, or just to pick up on a rainy day.
AD: I’ve been giving my copy lots of love. Thank you so much for your time! I don’t want to let you go because this has been such a fascinating conversation, but I know how busy you both are!
JST & BB: [Laughs]. Trust us, we could talk about this book all day, too!
Hollywood: Her Story, An Illustrated History of Women and the Movies is available now.