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Pioneering Women in Screenwriting

By Michelle Donnelly · February 28, 2015

Female screenwriters have had great effect on film history. Some had long, illustrious careers, some would go on to direct and some would leave the industry to pursue other avenues of writing. As filmmaking evolves, there are fairly distinct and visible eras through which it’s helpful to frame their stories and their experiences. By no means an exhaustive list, the women mentioned here helped forge advances in the art of film.

Silent Film

It was during this era that, in general, opportunities for women in all aspects of film production abounded. In a time before big studios and a codified production process, there was much less formality within the whole operation. People chipped in when and where needed, during an often-haphazard approach to filming. Women screenwriters were viewed as workingwomen with a talent for telling stories, in a burgeoning field that allowed them the occasion. As with men, many early female writers were journalists. It was then that some of the most revered female screenwriters emerged, including:

Frances Marion

Marion enjoyed a fruitful career that spanned three decades and was topped off by her memoir, published in 1972. Helped by the mentoring of Lois Weber (who was not only considered to be one of the most important directors of her time, but also the founder of her own production company), Marion would go from being Weber’s assistant to penning over 300 scripts. In her early years, she also enjoyed a close association with Mary Pickford, writing such famous Pickford films as Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. At one point she was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood and in 1933 became the first Vice President of the Screen Writer’s Guild (the precursor to the Writer’s Guild of America). She is credited with helping to create the prison drama and won an Oscar for The Big House, the story of a young man incarcerated for vehicular manslaughter. She was the first woman to do so.

Anita Loos

Maybe best known for her novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos began her career writing scenarios well before she became associated with any studio. Along with her future husband and Frances Marion, Loos settled in New York. Films she wrote screenplays for include: Red-Headed Woman, Riff Raff and Saratoga. In 1920, she and then husband John Emerson wrote a book on screenwriting called, “How to Write Photoplays.” Throughout her career she would also write for Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker as well as writing for Broadway.

June Mathis

Around 1912, Mathis entered a screenwriting competition and although she didn’t win, the exposure brought her ample writing opportunities. Most famously, she discovered Rudolph Valentino and their friendship would last until his death in 1926. For him, she wrote The Sheik, Blood and Sand and The Young Rajah. She was known for her sharp narratives and careful preparation of a script for shooting, therefore creating great efficiencies for the studio. So important was she to Metro, that they allowed her significant input regarding casting and the director. In fact, she would become one of the first females to head a film department for a major studio.

Other distinguished female screenwriters during this time were Gene Gautier, Bess Meredyth, and Jeanie Macpherson.

The Studio System

After sound came to film in 1927, screenwriters became an even more integral part of film production. Dialogue meant lengthy and meaningful scripts. With women such as Marion, Loos and Mathis already well established in the field, it seemed natural that this trend would continue.

Little fazed by the Great Depression, studios were enjoying record profits. After Thomas Ince revolutionized the filmmaking process by insisting on a script in order to budget for a film, other studios were quick to adapt similar changes that would also make them more efficient. The studio’s reliance on a contract system for its actors, as well as its directors and screenwriters, is well known. The enthusiasm for contracting female screenwriters varied by studio, with some going out of their way to recruit women and many studio heads believing that only a female scriptwriter could appropriately render material enticing to its female audience. Unfortunately, as competition in the field grew and men came to regard women as rivals, gone was the courtesy men once disposed on their female counterparts. Although there were many opportunities, by the mid 1940s, women only made up 15% of employed writers in Hollywood. Significant names to come out of this period were:

Lenore Coffee

Coffee was quoted as saying, “If you can work forty years in Hollywood without getting your throat cut, you can count yourself lucky.” Although critical of the studio system, she was well aware they were responsible for her wealth. Having begun her career in the era of the silent film, she successfully transitioned to talkies, where she became a frequent collaborator of Cecil B. DeMille. Her credits include, For Alimony Only, Chicago, The Great Lie, Torch Singer and Four Frightened People.

Other mentionable screenwriters: Dorothy Parker, Zoe Akins, Lillian Hellman, Jane Murfin, and Salka Viertel.

World War II

Just as Rosie the Riveter become an icon for women working in factories, thus filling the labor force while men were at war, so too was the film industry affected. In addition to working in the business, their presence in the audience also took on greater meaning. It was a time when seductive femme fatales such as Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and Bette Davis reigned in Hollywood. It was a French critic who coined the term Film Noir to describe the dark American crime films that were flooding the screen and female screenwriters more than had their hand in their production. Studios saw it as a perfect association, where female screenwriters could do justice for its female stars.

Catherine Turney

A contract writer at MGM, Turney acknowledged the opportunity she was given because of the absence of male screenwriters. Not one to disregard such a break, she took full advantage and would come to rely heavily on actresses at the studio such as Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, who would pitch projects for her to develop. Notable Turney films include Mildred Pierce, No Man of Her Own and The Man I Love.

Leigh Brackett

Already a respected Science Fiction writer, Brackett’s association with legendary writer/director Howard Hawks began after her first novel was published in 1944. For Hawks, she would collaborate with Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner to write The Big Sleep. Later, she worked on his westerns Rio Bravo, Hatari and El Dorado. Sadly, she died in 1978 while writing the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back; George Lucas would bring on Lawrence Kasdan to finish the screenplay.

Joan Harrison, Virginia Kellogg and Ruth Gordon were also vital contributors to screenwriting in this era.

The Advent of Television

As televisions invaded American living rooms and audiences were less apt to go out to the movies, movie ticket sales plummeted; it was only one of many factors that threatened the film industry. The decline in the number of female screenwriters was stark during this period, with one author commenting that Hollywood had essentially “shutout” female writers and that only a “handful” actually found work.

One of few, but worth noting, is Betty Comden. Having co-wrote Singin’ in the Rain with Adolph Green, she would receive a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Written Musical in 1953 and would go on to write the screenplays for Auntie Mame and Bells Are Ringing.

The Aftermath of Social and Political Revolution

The Equal Rights Amendment had failed to pass, but it was clear that whole scale change had occurred in the aftermath of the 1960s social upheaval. Yet while advances had been made, there were still no equal opportunities for female screenwriters. During the 1970s, Jo Heims would be credited with the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty For Me and Jay Presson Allen would contribute to Cabaret, Funny Lady and A Star is Born.

Then the era of blockbuster films arrived. Jaws, Close Encounter of the Third Kind and Star Wars ushered in a new reality for Hollywood movies-high budget, but high return and every studio tried to cash in. Writer Melissa Mathison would make her mark by writing the screenplay for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which would earn her an Oscar nomination.

After an essentially unused rewrite of William Goldman’s script for All the President’s Men, journalist Nora Ephron’s name became known around Hollywood. Her first project, Silkwood, established her merit. After writing When Harry Met Sally, she would additionally take on directing duties in Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia. Known for her strong portrayals of women in her films, she often spoke out about what she considered the many feminist issues that plagued society. Her lasting legacy as one of the premier filmmakers is all but assured.

Other talented female screenwriters that warrant attention are: Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire, The Thomas Crown Affair), Callie Khoury (Thelma & Louise), Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes), Nancy Myers (Father of the Bride, Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday, It’s Complicated), Elaine May (The Birdcage, Labyrinth, Tootsie).

Female Screenwriters of Today

Women continue the struggle to find their place as screenwriters in the filmmaking business today. Never a wellspring of opportunity for women, the decline of spec script (speculative screenplay, written by a screenwriter with no promise of sale) sales only worsened the situation. Analysis by Susana Orozco showed that the percentage of spec scripts sold by women has decreased by at least 5% since the period between 1991-2000 and worse, between 2010-2012, female screenwriters only constituted 9% of their sales.

Yet, there are talented women, writing respectable material and making strides in filmmaking, such as:

Diablo Cody

Cody has achieved what few female screenwriters have: fame. While most screenwriters are tucked in the background and rarely receive publicity, Cody’s name is a known and familiar entity. Taking it all in stride, she has been clear about her appreciation and love for her work. Her Oscar winning script for Juno was punctuated with a quick-witted, cynical style of dialogue that was embraced by a multitude of different audiences. She has been vocal about the need for female screenwriters to support one another and recommends building a “fempire” with other female writers for support and ideas.

Gillian Flynn

Having been one of the few authors to adapt their own novel for the screen and having written a strong screenplay from a complex book for a critically hailed film, early on Flynn was considered a sure thing for an Oscar nomination. It was one of the many snubs this year that had critics speaking out over the lack of diversity in the Academy’s nominations.

Other notables: Diana Ossana (Brokeback Mountain), Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey), Philippa Boyens & Fran Walsh (Lord of the Rings), Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation).

There was once a time when women were considered giants in the screenwriting industry. At the time, filmmaking was in its infancy and as with other industries, the lack of structured processes made egalitarianism possible. Women were each others biggest support and their mentorship and collaboration helped to create some of the greatest and important films of their time. After suffering a tremendous loss of work in the years following World War II, the door has only slightly opened for women, even as their work has proven commendable. Many have found work in television, but many continue to struggle. The outcry over the lack of diversity in Hollywood is slowly gaining traction, but by no means has the idea flourished enough to see any real change.