As part of BlogHer's focus on Women's History Month, this post is about amazing women in the history of film and television: women who inspired in front of the camera and women who crashed the Hollywood old boy network behind it.
When I sat down and thought about the women I might want to write about, I was overwhelmed with names. Like my fellow Contributing Editor Maria Niles and her post on Women Who Rocked American History, I felt the only way to do the subject justice was with a list. The list I came up with was as long as my arm.
By the time I'd whittled that down to something manageable, I'd immersed myself in the remarkable careers of a group of twenty-seven talented and pioneering women.
They're listed alphabetically and in two categories, movies and television.
Women Of Television
Lucille Ball: Actress, Comedienne, TV Executive.
Though she started out as a Goldwyn Girl and then a serious actress in B movies, Lucille Ball will always be remembered as the star of the classic TV comedy, "I Love Lucy." A comic giant, she was the first woman to own a film studio, Desilu, and with her husband Desi Arnaz, created the three camera sitcom technique that is considered a standard today.
As a kid, I watched the "I Love Lucy" shows over and over so often, my grandmother would beg me to turn to something else just to give her a break.
Gail Berman: TV Executive.
Gail Berman was one of the guiding forces behind one of my favorite TV shows, "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," but that's not the only reason she's on this list. Berman began her career as a producer on Broadway and eventually made her way to Hollywood. Once there she broke into television, eventually becoming executive producer of "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel." In 2001 she was promoted to President of the Fox Television Network. During her tenure she developed such hits as "24," "House," and "American Idol," consequently presiding over Fox's most successful era since its inception
By 2005 she was President of Paramount Pictures and named one of Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women.
Carol Burnett: Actress, Comedienne.
This multi-talented comedienne was of course the star of "The Carol Burnett Show," but she came from humble beginnings. The daughter of alcoholic and absent parents Burnett and her little sister were raised by their grandmother. One of my favorite stories about her is one she told in a recent PBS American Masters. How when she first arrived in New York, trying to break into theater, she lived with a group of about ten women who all chipped in to buy one nice dress. They took turns wearing the dress when any of them had an audition.
"The Carol Burnett Show" was a wonderful achievement of talent and timing. Talent, because it was the perfect showcase for Burnett and timing because of the synergy of her co-stars, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner. "The Carol Burnett Show" ran for eleven successful years.
Diahann Carroll: Actress, Singer.
Born and raised in New York City, Diahann Carroll's first film role was opposite Dorothy Dandridge in the film "Carmen Jones." In 1968 Carroll became the first black woman to star in her own television series in a role that wasn't that of a servant. She played a widowed nurse with a young son and the show was called "Julia." Though the show was a hit, it reportedly ended after three years when Carroll requested out of her contract. She had grown tired of the criticism, much of it from blacks, that the show didn't reflect the anger of many black people in the ghetto. On the other hand, the show was lauded by Ebony magazine for depicting black people who were not solely defined by race.
Carroll's most recent TV appearance was as Dr. Preston Burke's mother on "Grey's Anatomy."
Marcy Carsey: TV Executive.
Co-owner of Carsey-Werner Productions, Marcy Carsey was one of the guiding forces behind two of television's most successful shows, "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne." In the early 70's she was a programming executive at ABC, helping to develop such shows as "Happy Days," "Soap" and "Mork and Mindy." In the early 80's, she formed her own production company and later joined forces with Tom Werner, a former co-worker at ABC. Carsey-Werner's first big hit was "The Cosby Show" starring Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad. That was followed up by "Roseanne" starring Roseanne Barr and John Goodman. Today in addition to producing programs, Carsey-Werner has a distribution branch that supplies programming all over the world.
Suzanne de Passe: Writer, Entertainment Executive.
Originally an executive with Motown Records, de Passe was known for signing and developing the Jackson 5. Her career moved into film and television when she was promoted to the position of producer for Motown Productions. Her productions included the celebrated "Motown 25" where Michael Jackson first moonwalked across the stage.
She was the first black woman to be nominated for a writing Academy Award for co-writing "Lady Sings The Blues" starring Diana Ross, and later as head of Motown Productions, de Passe acquired the rights to the as yet unpublished Larry McMurtry novel, "Lonesome Dove." No one in Hollywood had any interest in filming the western, but a chance meeting between McMurtry and de Passe changed that. You see, de Passe was a big fan of westerns and a horsewoman herself. The result of that meeting was one of the best mini-series in television history.
Patty Duke: Actress.
The Patty Duke I knew was the one I grew up with from "The Patty Duke Show." The sitcom ran for three seasons and in it, Duke played identical twin cousins, Patty and Cathy Lane. The show was a continuation of that sweet, wholesome era of TV entertainment that was born in the 1950's.
What I and other fans didn't know was that Duke was a tortured soul, often high on prescription drugs and alcohol provided by her agents and de facto parents, John and Ethel Ross. The Rosses were given control of Duke by her alcoholic father and depressive mother and it was they who promoted her as a child actress. That eventually led to the role that would gain her major acclaim, that of Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker" on Broadway. Two years later, the play was turned into a film starring Duke and the late Anne Bancroft, and at sixteen Duke became the youngest actress at that time to win an Oscar for the role.
It wasn't until years later that Duke talked about her drug and alcohol problems, and her diagnosis of bi-polar disorder in her autobiography "Call Me Anna."
Yunjin Kim: Actress.
Yunjin Kim hit it big in her native Korea as one of the co-stars of the film, "Shiri" a big budget, Hollywood style action picture that broke box office records all over Asia. However to American audiences, Yunjin Kim is one of the plane crash survivors on the hit ABC series "Lost."
I included Yunjin Kim on this list because her role as Sun Kwon is nearly as groundbreaking as Diahann Carroll's was on "Julia." She and Daniel Dae Kim portray a Korean married couple who find themselves stranded after the crash of Oceanic 815. Often their dialogue is in Korean with subtitles, nearly unheard of on American television, and Kim's character Sun is an iron willed woman hidden beneath a seemingly submissive exterior.
A recent "Lost" episode, "Ji Yeon," should guarantee Kim an Emmy nomination for Best Drama Actress. Her portrayal of Sun's crisis with her husband and subsequent birth of their child was truly heart wrenching and some of the best acting I've seen this year.
Helen Mirren: Actress.
We all know her as "The Queen" whether it be Elizabeth I or Elizabeth II. But Helen Mirren first made her name in the United States as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in the PBS series "Prime Suspect." Mirren's performance was riveting as she played the ballsy Tennison trying to deal with the sexism of her subordinates, the complexity of her criminal cases and the dissatisfaction of her far from perfect personal life.
Mary Tyler Moore: Actress, Comedienne.
From "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Mary Tyler Moore was like a microcosm of the advancement of American women in the 60's and 70's. As the funny and stylish suburban housewife to Dick Van Dyke's Rob Petrie, she could say more with a plaintive, "Ro-obbbbbb," than most actresses could with a page of dialogue.
In 1970 "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was created by MTM Enterprises, the production company started by Moore and her husband Grant Tinker. This time Moore played Mary Richards, a single career woman who was "making it after all," as the theme song says. The show was not only funny but tapped into the feelings of a generation of young women who saw themselves as reflections of the spunky Mary Richards.
After "TMTMS" was over, Mary Tyler Moore went on to receive an Oscar nomination for a role that was a polar opposite to Mary Richards. That of a grief stricken, mother whose family is falling apart after the death of a son in the film "Ordinary People."
Nichelle Nichols: Actress.
She was Lieutenant Uhura on the original "Star Trek" and in all the subsequent "Star Trek" movies. Because of its syndicated success, "Star Trek" was as prevalent as "I Love Lucy," hence Lt. Uhura was a familiar face on television for years. She had adventures, she wielded a weapon and she shared that first interracial TV kiss with Captain Kirk. But beyond that, she represented all the black girls out there who aspired to great things. Who knows? There might not have been a Dr. Mae Jamison if there hadn't been a Lt. Uhura.
Whoopi Goldberg once said that growing up, watching Lt. Uhura gave her the subliminal message that we as black people would not only continue but succeed in the future. That's one reason why years later, she campaigned for and got a role on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Growing up, I felt the same way. "Star Trek" may now look dated in comparison to contemporary sci-fi, but it's concepts of equality and humanity are timeless.
Shonda Rhimes: Writer, TV Producer.
Shonda Rhimes is the only black woman executive producer of a primetime network TV show. She's the creator and executive producer of "Grey's Anatomy" and its spinoff, "Private Practice." Rhimes started out working in administrative jobs while trying to break into movies after college. She got her break when she wrote the HBO TV movie, "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and then "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement."
"Grey's Anatomy" revolves around Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey, her fellow interns, their medical lives and their many loves. The characters are wonderfully flawed and often for me, totally dislikeable, but they can be fascinating and touching as well.
What finally got me hooked on the show was the second season post Super Bowl episode. I was one of the 38.1 million viewers who were perched on the edges of their seats waiting to see what would happen to the patient with the bomb in his belly. That two part episode that featured guest star Christina Ricci was phenomenal.
Diana Rigg: Actress.
Ah Mrs. Peel. My first female TV heroine. She was the female half of the British import "The Avengers," and she and her partner John Steed (Patrick Macnee) were just as likely to sip champagne as they were to foil plots against the UK. Emma Peel was smart, stylish and most importantly, she could kick butt. Since that time, Diana Rigg has had a successful career as an actress, but for me she'll always be remembered as the mother of TV action heroines.
Oprah Winfrey: Talk Show Host, TV Executive.
She's the most powerful woman in television and arguably the most powerful woman in entertainment. If someone hasn't heard of Oprah, they've obviously been living under the proverbial rock, because Oprah is everywhere. From her original "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to "O" Magazine to her OWN Television network to debut next year, Oprah is a self-made woman who has used savvy and an innate sense of what her viewers want to build an empire.
Lately she's had her detractors, people who think she should stay out of politics---she's stumping for Barack Obama---people who think women follow her blindly (they shouldn't), and people who are just plain suspicious of her because she has gobs and gobs of money (so what?). Personally, I think most of what she does is great and I can only admire someone who's carved out such an amazing career from the ground up.
Women Of The Movies
Gillian Armstrong: Director.
Hollywood hasn't done very well when it comes to developing women directors, but Gillian Armstrong found her way to Hollywood via her native Australia. Her 1979 film "My Brilliant Career" helped launch the careers of stars Judy Davis and Sam Neill. It told the story of a young woman trying to break free of what's expected to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
According to Wikipedia the film was "the first Australian feature length film to be directed by a woman for 46 years." It made Armstrong an international hit and she went on to direct "Starstruck," the 1994 version of "Little Women," and "Mrs. Sofel." I can't in good conscience recommend all these movies---the best bet is "Little Women" starring Susan Sarandon---but Armstrong is a talented director who's not afraid to explore the lives of a variety of women.
I haven't seen "MBC" in ages, so I don't know how it holds up over time, but I remember the film stayed with me long after I'd seen it, primarily due to the intelligence of it's main character Sybylla Melvyn.
Sofia Coppola: Director, Writer, Actress.
The daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola has directing in her blood. She professes she never wanted to be an actress and that's a good thing because her turn in "Godfather III" was universally panned. But her success as a director is unquestionable. The first American woman to ever be nominated for an Oscar as a director---the two others were Jane Campion, a New Zealander, and Lina Wertmuller, an Italian---Coppola made her big splash with the film "Lost In Translation." She won an Oscar for the film's original screenplay and her most recent film was "Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst.
Bette Davis: Actress
If somehow you've never seen a Bette Davis movie, drop what you're doing, and run don't walk to your local rental store and rent, "All About Eve," "Jezebel," "Now Voyager," and "The Letter." Then have yourself a good old movie marathon one rainy weekend, because those are the films that showcase Bette Davis at her best.
As an actress, she was known for her talent as well as for being a tough broad. In the early 30's when she felt she wasn't getting good roles under contract at Warner Bros., she breached her contract and took two film roles in England. Although she was sued by Jack Warner and lost her case, she continued to produce critically acclaimed performances and the roles she was offered improved. According to Bette Davis.com, "by 1942 she was the highest paid woman in America."
A two time Oscar winner, during WWII Davis was one of several Hollywood stars who created the Hollywood Canteen, a nightclub for serviceman. And it was Davis who reportedly made sure there was a star to perform there for the troops every evening. According to Wikipedia, "She also performed for black regiments as the only white member of an acting troupe formed by Hattie McDaniel, that also included Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.
Doris Day: Actress, Singer.
In some ways, Doris Day's romantic comedy characters of the 50's were the movie pre-cursors to Mary Richards of the 70's. She often played smart, spunky career woman whose virtue was without question. That persona was on full display when Day played Jan Morrow in the wildly popular "Pillow Talk." But despite being the most popular actress at the box office in the early 60's, at the death of her third husband, Martin Melcher, Day discovered that he and his business partner Jerry Rosenthal had depleted all of her earnings. Though she won a $20 million judgment against Rosenthal, no one's certain how much she actually collected. She made an unwilling foray into television with "The Doris Day Show," and once that ended in 1973, so did her official career.
For the last twenty years she's been the co-owner of the Cypress Inn, in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California and today she's works full time for the benefit of animals through the Doris Day Animal Foundation.
Ruby Dee: Actress, Writer.
When Ruby Dee was nominated for her first Oscar this year as a Supporting Actress in "American Gangster," it was a long overdue recognition of an incredible career in film, television and the theater. For years, she and her husband, the late Ossie Davis were considered the first couple of American black theater. But as more roles became available for blacks, they found film work as well.
Most notably Dee was in the original production of "A Raisin In The Sun" on Broadway and recreated her role for the film version, in which she starred opposite Sidney Poitier. For her television work, Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, and she won for the TV movie "Decoration Day."
Dee and Davis were very active in the civil rights movement, maintaining personal relationships with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Edith Head: Costume Designer.
You may never have heard of Edith Head, but odds are you've seen her work. That's because throughout her legendary fifty plus year career, Edith Head was the costume designer on over eleven hundred films. That's right, eleven hundred. You name a star in Hollywood from 1930 to 1982, the year she died, and you can put money on the fact that at one time, or indeed many times, she dressed them. Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and the list goes on.
Head was nominated for thirty-five Oscars and won eight, more than any other woman in film history. She was known for her restraint when it came to contemporary designs, and well liked by most of the female stars in Hollywood because she took the effort to consult with them. Her last film was the film noir send-up "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," starring Steve Martin.
Sherry Lansing: Producer, Studio Executive.
Sherry Lansing began her career in Hollywood as an actress, but after a couple of movies, decided that her talents lay elsewhere. She was proven correct when at the age of thirty-five she was appointed President of 20th Century Fox, the first woman to hold such a post at a major studio. During her tenure at Fox and in partnership with Stanley Jaffe as an independent producer, Lansing supervised the development of such films as "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal," and "The Accused." When she became CEO of the Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group in 1992, the studio saw the release of such hits as "Braveheart," "Forrest Gump," and "Titanic."
Lansing retired in from filmmaking in 2005 and currently is CEO of The Sherry Lansing Foundation.
Barbara McLean: Film Editor.
The daughter of a film laboratory owner, Barbara McLean was born in Palisades Park, New Jersey. Based on her experience in her father's lab, after getting married and moving to Los Angeles she eventually became an assistant film editor and then an editor for what became 20th Century Fox. The first film she cut was "Gallant Lady" in 1933 and Darryl F. Zanuck came to depend on her so much, he wouldn't make a major decision about anything from casting to costumes without her input. For example, he hired Tyrone Power on her recommendation for the film "Lloyd's Of London" and that movie made him a star
One of the first women film editors in Hollywood, McLean's credits included "All About Eve," "12 O'Clock High," "The Robe" and "Tobacco Road." Directors she worked with like Henry King often wanted her on the set of their films to discuss during shootin: which scenes were needed and which were not. She was known for her timing and her ability to cut a scene to its bare bones while maintaining the essence of what the scene needed to say. She retired in 1969 and died at the age of 92 in 1996.
Hattie McDaniel: Actress, Singer, Songwriter.
Hattie McDaniel was the first black performer to win an Academy Award. She won for her role as Mammy in 1939's "Gone With The Wind." She began her career as a singer on radio programs in the mid-1920's and after moving to Los Angeles she got small bit parts playing either maids or singing in choruses. Her films included "The Little Colonel" with Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the 1936 version of "Show Boat" in which she co-starred as Queenie.
McDaniel landed the role of Mammy in "Gone With The Wind" after a search nearly as exhaustive as the search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara. What tipped the scales was Clark Gable's desire for her to be cast, and the fact that she showed up at her audition in a genuine maid's outfit.
I've never been a big fan of "Gone With The Wind," but I respect what it represents as a piece of filmmaking for its time. The thing I always found striking though was the chemistry between Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel in their scenes together. They seemed to genuinely like each other and after finding out that they were friends off screen, that now makes sense.
And like all black actresses of her time, McDaniel caught it from both sides: from blacks because of the roles she played and from whites because of the Jim Crow laws that prevented her from attending the Atlanta Premiere of the movie. Reportedly Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere if she wasn't allowed to go, but she insisted he go and she went to the Los Angeles premiere instead.
Meryl Streep: Actress.
Almost anyone who's been to the movies in the last twenty years knows abut Meryl Streep. Her Oscar nominations and her international range of accents have been joke punchlines for years. But that disguises the truth of what she's accomplished. Though she's made her share of stinky movies---have you seen "Death Becomes Her?"---I still believe she's the greatest actress of the last twenty years.
As proof I only have to mention one of her many films..."Sophie's Choice." Her performance in "Sophie's Choice" wasn't just acting, it was a metamorphosis.
The greatness of the performance is exemplified by the scenes of Sophie, a Polish immigrant, sitting on a window seat in a Brooklyn apartment, narrating the horrors of her experience in a Nazi concentration camp. The camera stays on a closeup of her face throughout and you find yourself hanging on every word of this woman who at that moment becomes so real, you feel you can reach out and touch her. It's hands down, the most haunting performance I've ever seen.
I put these three actresses together because often they're known as much for their politics as they are for their acting roles. Fonda's troubles began with her antics as "Hanoi Jane" during the Vietnam War. A fervent anti-war activist, she angered many people with pictures of herself posed on anti- aircraft guns of North Vietnamese fighters. She has since said that she regrets those pictures and the pain they caused.
Redgrave caused worldwide firestorms because of her support of the Palestinians in the in the Middle East conflict. When she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1977 for the film "Julia," her acceptance speech included a rant against Israel.
Sarandon and long time partner Tim Robbins have been active in liberal causes for years. Sarandon actively campaigned against the invasion of Iraq and she's been a staunch supporter of a number of causes in relation to women and gays.
Sometimes lost in all the noise about their causes was the excellence of their work. If you haven't seen some of these movies, you really should: Sarandon's "Thelma and Louise," "Dead Man Walking," and "Bull Durham." Fonda's "Klute," "The China Syndrome," "On Golden Pond," and the aforementioned "Julia." Redgrave's "Mary, Queen Of Scots," "Agatha," "Murder On The Orient Express," and the TV movie, "Playing For Time."
So that's my list. Who would you include? Feel free to add your own names.
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