We all know Hillary is counting on this being the era of the woman, but if she’s counting on Hollywood, her timing is off. All around are ominous signs that a long, bad season has descended upon what was once the Camelot for working women. It’s not quite raining locusts, and no one’s asking for a pity party, but this year has seen longtime female execs aced out in power plays, alleged to be in catfights, and struggling to find jobs in a tightening market where one woman I know was told explicitly that, though she was perfect for the job, the employer was looking for a guy. With the loss of respected studio toppers like Paramount’s Sherry Lansing and Disney’s Nina Jacobson, and of Gail Berman, former Fox TV scheduling genius, the numbers in the boardroom, as the New York Times recently pointed out, are worse than at any time since the eighties.
If there really was a Camelot, as I maintain (and I am what the trades alarmingly call a veteran), the eighties were its dawn, literally and figuratively. The era that saw Dawn Steel smiling provocatively from the cover of this magazine as the “Queen of Mean” ushered in a time when women not only ran studios and, like me, became producers in large numbers (we began our careers together with the chick flick Flashdance), but were also breeding up-and-comers to run them after they got fired—in Dawn’s case for going into labor while upstaging her boss. The first-generation dames created day-care centers on the lot, made it okay to leave the office to go to PTA meetings (I had to sneak; now the dads leave to cheers), and crashed doors so wide open that a generation of their protégées walked through. Dawn spawned Amy Pascal, who herself has spawned half a dozen more. Dawn greenlit Nora Ephron’s directorial debut (which I then produced), Amy made Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own. The breastbone is connected to the thighbone, and on it went until, it seems, now.
What happened? Attrition and the market. It’s too hard, and these days we have to make boys’ movies. It’s all about 300 and Silver Surfer and Pirates and lucky Laura Ziskin, the girl who’s got Spidey. Even our very own genre, the romantic comedy, once scorned by men, has, astonishingly, been taken over by them: The new romantic mythmaker Judd Apatow, of the genre-bending hits Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is making leads out of tubbies like Seth Rogen and nerds like Steve Carell. Be still my beating heart. The power of the vehicle is being subverted to tell us that man-boys are adorable and hotties like Katherine Heigl should be happy ending up with zhlubs.
It’s true that the women still in charge are among the best and most entrenched studio heads the town has seen for decades. No one wants to do anything about Amy Pascal or Stacey Snider but raid them. Beloved by their bosses, each trailing scores of hits—made for every gender—thank God for them, they make the very idea of a long-term future possible for many women still struggling in the trenches. There are terrific women running studio indies and ferociously talented female execs on the rise at major studios as well, many smart enough to have had husbands and babies on the way.
But this is the other big thing: It’s a Darwinian grind, and there is a huge dose of attrition killing the most normal of these women, as a superhuman kind of desire is necessary to deal with the hours, the lying, the incredible and increasing difficulty of putting a movie together—mixed with the apparently singularly difficult proposition of having both a life (and even sex) along with a big career. So the frequent bonding conversation among some of the best of the singles is that in the “glamour capital of the world,” they’re getting the short end of the stick.
And lately, much of the bonding has been over that quintessential male-bonding show, Entourage, straight from the Hollywood-guy id. This past season, when HBO gave us the ultimate fantasy chick in Amanda, the power agent who lands Vince after Ari blows it, we got by far the most illuminating insight into how men in Hollywood see powerful women.
Amanda, exquisitely played by Carla Gugino, is the cool, strong, hip-swinging, big-breasted superagent with the blow-job mouth who has weapons Ari doesn’t pack and isn’t afraid to use them.
She has to. It was never a fair fight. There is no series if Ari doesn’t have Vince as a client. So it was manifest character/narrative destiny that she should seduce Vince only to lose/fump (fuck and dump) him.
Brian Burns, a producer and writer of Entourage, remembers a dinner at Mastro’s, the Beverly Hills steakhouse, where he is pretty sure he was the one who came up with the idea of a woman agent to replace Ari (such is the chaos of writers’ meetings). “I thought … then it would be interesting if they had sex.”
In the early days of powerful women agents, while it was almost de rigueur for men to have sex with their stars and starlets, it was just about unknown, then as now, for it to happen the other way around. The great Sue Mengers married her love, director Jean-Claude Tramont, but she is an exception to everything. In general, the early agents were nurturing mommies not allowed to swing their sexuality around.
In their first meeting, Amanda is sexy, smart, and a bit scolding. The boys haven’t done their homework! She has given them long, hard scripts to read, and they haven’t finished. But that’s okay, she says, reaching for her love project—The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton. You can feel the excitement dissipate: a period chick flick. What could be worse? Didn’t she understand they liked edgy? Pablo Escobar? Hello???
Then, as soon as she gets stuck in a corner, she pivots, whips out some Laker floor seats for Vince’s birthday, and morphs into a boy. She’s modern, multidimensional: a girl who’s a boy who’s a girl. It’s why women like her as much as men do.
It’s at the end of the second episode that she makes her move: “I hate sexual tension, Vince. It always leads to confusion.” Should we take her at her word? Or is she managing her client? It’s a man’s move to defuse the tension and go for the conquest. Says Gugino: “I think what Amanda realizes is that [the tension] is what’s making Vince incapable of being an honest client. And sure, she’d like to have sex with him, too. It was her way of problem-solving in a pragmatic way, and she was going to embrace it and enjoy it and then move on.”
In other words, she was going to lose her client if she didn’t sleep with him, and she definitely was going to lose her client by sleeping with him. Might as well have fun.
All of the women agents I spoke with knew she would lose him from that moment, and they all loved her anyway—for being in every way Ari’s equal, for generally making the right moves (though I think everyone wished she hadn’t first pitched an Edith Wharton movie), but most of all for “not giving a shit.” It was very liberating for these women watching from Hollywood, because they’ve earned the right to not give a shit, and because as women, they so rarely can.
The point about Amanda is this, says one female superagent, “Imagine if they wrote a woman like Ari. You would absolutely hate her! And yet we have come to find Ari lovable, and Amanda his perfect foil.”
So our aggression is allowed through sex. On TV.
But everything goes wrong once the bubble baths begin. Amanda buys Vince a Cartier love bracelet that looks alarmingly to his buddies like handcuffs; the entourage goes nuts and busts his balls that she wants to keep him in town and that’s why she is subverting his love project; Ari weasels his way back in.
So here we have it, from the entourage’s POV: The powerful woman can destroy your love project, befuddle your mind, insinuate you into chick flicks, put handcuffs on you, make you miss your deadlines, and blow your cocaine epic. Stick with the guys.
And then, as a final parting gift from the guy writers of Entourage, Vince finds out he’s wrong. Ari was wrong. Amanda the chick is right. And she never wanted to keep him in town. “What do we do now?” he says to Amanda. “Now, Vince, we say good-bye.” And she dumps him, for all of us. And there she is, our heroine. Dumping a movie star. Moving on. As if.
In real life, no one is dumping movie stars. Movie stars date movie stars. The recent Hedge-Fund Fantasy seems to be on the wane, too, since those guys jet in from wherever their bat caves are actually located and crave stars and starlets, too (or women straight from the pole at Crazy Girls).
So what about the amazing women? The ones who haven’t settled down with the Seths and the Steves? The ones who grew up buying the Katharine Hepburn–Spencer Tracy paradigm of two sexy equals and the whole shebang. Whose boyfriends won’t go to Cannes with them because they don’t have enough to do there? Who grew up thinking that they would be attractive to this whole class of men that turned out not to exist—at least not in Hollywood (a subset of constant speculation: Where do they exist? New York? London? Paris? Dubai?). So many Katharines. So few Spencers.
Lynda Obst is a producer at Paramount Pictures and the author of Hello, He Lied. You can reach her at LyndaObst.com.