Friday, 17 November 2017

Post-Weinstein reflections on ‘Female Stars of British Cinema’


MELANIE WILLIAMS

One of the things that is telling about the book-writing process is what you feel anxious about having omitted or fudged once a book is published and it’s too late to change anything, short of a second edition. With my book on David Lean it was my unwitting but still problematic editorial squeeze on material I originally had in the book about Lean’s frequent recourse to work by gay writers (Coward, Rattigan, Arthur Laurens, E M Forster) who used heterosexual narratives as allegories or cover stories for exploring the complexities of closeted gay experience. This ended up being reduced down to one reference to Andy Medhurst's (excellent) article on Noel Coward's queer authorship of Brief Encounter. But you can’t encompass everything in a single book already straining at the seams, you tell yourself, and so you move on, striving to be more carefully and thoughtfully inclusive in future endeavours.

With my most recent book, Female Stars of British Cinema, published this summer, the post-publication worries and regrets have been of a different order altogether. I am still very proud of the book's detailed analysis of star personae and careers, and still believe it makes a valuable contribution to our understandings of women's place on British screens over the last 75 years. But... Weinstein. And everything that’s happened since. If I had known then what I know now, I would have written an altogether angrier book. Re-reading it now, its feminist critique seems too gentle, tempered, modulated, careful: too bloody reasonable by half. At that point – not that long ago at all – I was not apprised of the full facts about quite how grimly sexist a place the film industry still continues to be for women, despite guessing at those darker depths from time to time via allusion, anecdote, or veiled inference. Although I had noted and critiqued the misogyny of the critical commentariat and the vile treatment meted out by the press to many of the stars I discussed, I was not as attentive to the toxic sexism in film production itself, nor to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment within it. It is impossible to inhabit that position of ignorance now, with the revelations around the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein having had a domino effect in exposing similar cultures of male entitlement and sexual violence not only in film but in many other professions besides.

In the case of Weinstein, it was clear from Peter Biskind's book Down and Dirty Pictures that the producer had always been an obnoxious operator whose business ethics were questionable to say the least but what hadn't been public knowledge (even if it had been industry lore) was his status as a sexual predator. Listening to the tapes of his intimidating, emphatic, relentless verbal bullying of Ambra Battilana Gutierrez as he attempted to get the aspiring actress to come into his hotel room is a chilling experience. So is reading the testimony of Rose McGowan, Asia Argento and a mounting number of other women who accuse Harvey Weinstein of molesting and raping them; this is a truly rotten, repulsive state of affairs. Understandably the lid was kept very tightly shut, with NDAs for all associates and employees of Weinstein, threats of legal action from his crack team of lawyers for anyone who dared to speak out publicly, and even, it seems, ex-Mossad agents working to discredit any potential whistleblowers. But simultaneously there was also a smokescreen put up of Weinstein being an advocate for women: the very tactic he attempted to use, without success, when he released his initial sorry/not sorry statement about needing to undertake therapeutic self-work to overcome his 'sex addiction’, in which he thought that setting up a fellowship for women filmmakers at USC would be enough to get him off the hook and make his mother proud of him again.

It was this same aspect of Weinstein, his desire to be seen as a friend to women in the industry, that I referred to in my chapter on Judi Dench in my book, noting that Weinstein had been a powerful advocate and ally for Dench, and she not only credited him with kick-starting her film career but was also able to indulge in affectionate practical joking with him. Quoted in innocence and ignorance, that material now leaves a bitter aftertaste. While Weinstein was proselyting for one woman's career, he was oppressing and attacking numerous others. An earlier chapter of my book dealt with teen discovery Emily Lloyd's distressing experiences of swimming with the Hollywood sharks in the late 80s and early 90s, drawing on material from her autobiography. But I wonder what she might have said about sexual harassment in the industry if she had been able to write without being in fear of litigation (especially since she was once up for the role Uma Thurman ended up playing in the Weinstein-produced Pulp Fiction). Certainly Hollywood as well as the British film industry found multiple ways to mistreat Lloyd that are already well documented but it would not be surprising if a whole further layer of foul behaviour now came to light. And in the conclusion to my book, I discussed the barriers to British BAME actresses being accorded with full star status and the repressive nostalgia of the dominant (white) English Rose ideal but I had no idea how this was so tightly intertwined with the erotic peccadillos of producers like Weinstein and their own racist understandings of who could be considered sufficiently star-worthy, i.e. ‘fuckable’. As Bim Adewunmi commented, ‘The next time you ponder the relative lack of black women on your screens, consider that the casting process starts long before the casting call goes out and can be debated, even when talent alone should have secured the role, taking in factors like the preference of a producer’s sexual desires.’

Concluding my book about the chequered history of women’s place in the British film industry as actresses and stars and then pondering the future for British female stardom was always going to be a big ask, and it proved so. There have been advances in some areas but backward steps in others, and given the choice between faith in gradual progress or despairing nihilism, I would always choose the former. But admittedly it is hard to sustain one’s optimism in the wake of such harrowing evidence; evidence of a media industry riddled with patriarchal power at its most poisonous and malign, of which Weinstein is only the tip of the iceberg. But I have to draw comfort from the female counter-history of rebellion and survival against the odds I was able to trace through my research: the warm, witty endurance of stars like Jean Kent and Diana Dors in spite of the reductive ‘bad girl’ label they had slung round their necks; the fact that unorthodox female stars like Rita Tushingham and Glenda Jackson bucked the prevailing trends of what a female star should look like (and were both erroneously dismissed as ugly as a result) and triumphed anyway; Emily Lloyd fighting against serious mental distress, and managing to survive into adulthood. There is much to celebrate in the long history of women on film in Britain and in the exhilarating possibilities created by its cultures of stardom, often giving a tangible presence to new and liberatory kinds of feminine embodiment. But there is equally a great deal to regret and to mourn, and to get angry about. It seems that we are only at the beginning of knowing the full extent of the masculine abuse that has delimited and defined the space in which women have been allowed to operate. But equally it feels like we might be at a crucial juncture for trying to change that culture forever – and we should demand nothing less.

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