Women and New Hollywood: A New Research Project

With this entry I’m happy to announce that I’ve recently begun a two-year postdoctoral
research fellowship on the topic of Women and New Hollywood. The fellowship is based in the department of media studies at Maynooth University and is sponsored by the Irish Research Council.

I’d also like to use this space to announce the launch of this blog, which is one component of the research project. To kick things off, I’ll say a few words about the fellowship’s topic, which I’ll expand on in a series of entries over the next couple of weeks.

It’s fair to say that it is generally well known among film scholars that an increasing number of women played major creative roles in 1970s Hollywood compared with previous decades – as editors, producers, writers, production designers, sound designers and more. However, while most film scholars know that Dede Allen edited Bonnie and Clyde or that Julia Philips produced The Sting, Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, little actual academic work has been done on any of the women of this era. That’s why this is the full title of my fellowship:

Women and New Hollywood:
How the Auteur Paradigm Devalues Women’s Labour

I’ll spend my next few blog entries unpacking what I mean by this title, but here’s the gist: American cinema of the 1970s has been known, almost since its inception, as a director’s cinema. As with the rest of Hollywood history, in the 1970s almost all the directors were men. So men are given the credit for everything innovative, daring, or just plain good about ‘70s cinema.

Yet women often made such profound contributions to the films they worked on that an argument can easily be made that without those contributions, the films would have been entirely different and perhaps not nearly as groundbreaking. For example, have a look at the famous climax from Bonnie and Clyde:

Clearly there’s a lot going on here, and many elements combine to make the sequence effective. But there is absolutely no doubt that much – perhaps most – of its power lies in the editing. If we could be so reductive as to say there’s one scene that launched New Hollywood, then this is it. However, director Arthur Penn (along with, sometimes, producer/star Warren Beatty) is generally credited with everything about the film that makes it great. Sure, everybody knows Dede Allen cut the film. But there are no books about Allen and relatively few scholarly appraisals of her working methods or individual style (to be fair, her death in 2010 was quite widely covered in the popular film press). Of course, as the film’s director, Penn might have been responsible for much of the sequence’s editing – he may even have dictated each of those cuts to Allen – but until the hard, empirical research is done to verify such a claim, this is only speculation. It’s just as likely (as Penn has indicated to some extent in interviews) that Allen alone is responsible for the power of the sequence’s editing. Certainly, Penn found something effective about Allen’s work – she cut all of his best-known films!

And yet, the story that scholars have accepted and stuck with – for so many Hollywood films – is that the director alone deserves the credit.

This research project is about exploring and articulating alternative narratives of New Hollywood history, new ways of understanding who actually deserves the credit. There will be formal analysis, archival research, and probably quite a few anecdotes, as I try to unpack and delineate artistic styles for some of the women working in the 1970s. In doing so, I hope to argue that those styles were integral to the era’s overall aesthetic and should be celebrated as just as influential as the styles of the men who directed the films.

Along the way, I welcome input, suggestions, clarification, and other insights any reader may wish to offer. I’m incredibly excited about the project, and hope to get at least a few more people excited about it, too.

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