FILM / Women under the influence: Could it be that women had a better deal, and longer careers, under the notorious old studio system? Surely not: look at Susan Sarandon, past 40 and still the star of The Client. Look again, says Beth Porter

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Every so often, Hollywood's benevolent despots grant favours - like allowing an occasional three-dimensional female character to appear on the big screen. Take Susan Sarandon's nuanced portrayal of fortysomething Reggie Love in Joel Schumacher's The Client. In this adaptation of John Grisham's legal thriller, she gives convincing evidence of a lawyer's razor wit, intelligence and lateral thinking without sacrificing the woman's warmth and humanity. Reggie Love is a reformed alcoholic who's lost custody of her children, but the film offers no magic solutions either to her personal problems or to the intricately plotted story of criminal and political corruption that defines the action. For that alone it must be celebrated.

So what's that niggle still buzzing around The Client? Could it be that of the 19 women in a cast of 66, only two receive featured billing, and only three have anything resembling parts, including Sarandon? Back in 1949, the courtroom comedy Adam's Rib had a similar male-female total cast ratio but boasted three women in its top six roles, as well as featuring a woman doctor and a police matron, complementing Katharine Hepburn's astute lawyer and her client, Judy Holliday. And behind the scenes? The Client lists a female co-producer, who doubles as production manager, but, as usual, most of the key technical credits are men. Which, apart from co-writer Ruth Gordon, is also true of Adam's Rib.

So has anything really changed in the past 50 years? Could it even be that women had a better deal under the bad ol' slave-system studio days? D W Griffith ran one of the earliest, Fine Arts. Back in 1916, eight of his 15 top stars were women, including Bessie Love whose 118-film career spanned over six decades. Even before the height of her popularity in musicals such as Broadway Melody (1928), she was under contract to Vitagraph where she had editorial control over scripts, directors and leading men. The title cards on her films read, 'Supervised by Bessie Love'.

The first woman studio executive was not, as many think, Mary Pickford. It was the Frenchwoman Alice Guy, who produced and directed over 50 films, starting in 1896 for Gaumont, before moving to America where she and her British cameraman husband set up their own studio. In 1913 she declared: 'There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man and there is no reason why she cannot master every technicality of the art.' We had to wait till 1980 before Fox appointed former actress Sherry Lansing as president.

As for Pickford, dubbed America's Sweetheart, her income jumped from dollars 40,000 per picture in 1912, to dollars 1.2m per picture, including bonus and percentages, as co-owner of United Artists in the early Twenties. In the Thirties Mae West grossed dollars 300,000 each for pictures she scripted and over which she had almost total editorial control.

The only reason studios will shell out that kind of dosh is if they're getting more back at the box-office. At their most prolific in the late-Twenties and early-Thirties, the studios released nearly 800 films a year. As you read this, the number of US features in production, pre-production and development doesn't hit the 300 mark. (Admittedly, this doesn't include hard- or soft-core.)

Why is volume relevant? In the late-Thirties, Hollywood's heyday, the movies ranked 11th among US industries, boasting assets of over half a billion dollars. Not only were the majors making the films, but, before the US Anti-Trust laws broke them up, they were also distributing and exhibiting. They owned most of the cinemas and serviced them with their own product.

Bills were changed twice a week and featured an 'A' film, a 'B' film, cartoons, newsreels, weekly serials and coming attractions. There was no telly, no video, no computer games, no CD-ROM. People went to the movies. Over 50 million every week. And they went to see stars.

So studios owned stars. And writers. And directors. And a whole raft of lesser artists. Studio executives (on 19 per cent of the profits) not only needed to assure star loyalty, they had to create work for this great stable of employees. And that provided enormous opportunity for story-telling and for actresses.

On studio-system cast lists, a surprising number of sub-plot characters were witty, vibrant women - of all ages. Stories were commissioned and constructed to take best advantage of the talent on any studio's books. A-feature co-stars and B-feature stars like Eve Arden, Dorothy McGuire, Ann Dvorak, Billie Burke, Alice Pearce and Ann Miller fed into and upon a system that had to highlight their talents. Which meant meaty, non-lead roles for women of all shapes, sizes and ages. And remember we're talking about mainstream, genre pictures that ran 90 minutes.

Apart from a handful of stalwarts including Maclaine, Midler, Streisand, Goldberg and Sarandon, Hollywood's modern view of its leading ladies favours the young and the lithe, while its men can be picked from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Studios claim women can't 'open a picture', that is, lure an audience. Yet one of the early cinema's most popular stars was the brillant, hatchet-faced Marie Dressler.

Mae West, whose top-grossing films saved Paramount from bankruptcy, didn't make her first film until she was 40. Queen of the Bs was Ann Sothern, whose prolific but lacklustre career turned around overnight when MGM starred her in Maisie (1939); she was 30. Over the next eight years, the studio followed up with nine sequels, launching Sothern on to a rocket that only fizzled in 1953. Her middle age and ageing middle didn't stop her becoming a top-rated TV star, but it was 10 years before Hollywood let her play the big screen again, and then only as support.

Of course, the publicity went to the biggest stars. But exclusivity was bought largely at the expense of private freedom. And freedom was restricted, even for the lowliest starlet. Women were particularly vulnerable. Legendary, for example, were Harry Cohn's wallcharts of his actresses' menstrual cycles, so that shooting schedules could be arranged around offending water-retention. Starlet Inger Stevens committed suicide in 1970 after years of not being allowed to appear in public with her black husband.

Today, many of the ground- rules have changed. But the bottom line is still about lining the pockets of production, distribution and exhibition executives. And now that studios no longer keep a stable of stars, why should their stories reflect a complexity of human relationships? As they say in Hollywood, much simpler to keep the camera on the money.


The Client (1994)

19 women in a cast of 66; only two receive featured billing; only three have anything resembling parts, including Susan Sarandon (above)

A female co-producer in a very male crew

Adam's Rib (1949)

A similar male-female cast ratio; but three of the top six roles are played by women, including Katharine Hepburn (above right) and Judy Holliday

A female screenwriter in a very male crew

Beth Porter had her throat cut by Kirk Douglas (in 'Cat and Mouse') and co-starred in 'Rock Follies'. She is currently the London Editor of

'The Film Journal'

Photograph of 'Adam's Rib' courtesy of Kobal

'The Client' opens on 21 Oct

(Photographs omitted)