When you think about the history of Hollywood, famous names come to mind: Louis Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Clark Gable. But, if you limit your recollection to only men, you’re missing a large part of what made old Hollywood so alluring, so captivating and so influential.
Women like Mary Pickford, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jane Fonda, to name a few, were arguably as influential and powerful as their male counterparts—oftentimes even more so! Take Pickford for example. Many consider Mary Pickford the first true “movie star,” as she appeared in an impressive one hundred seventeen feature films over the course of her career—including an incredible thirty in 1909 alone! Pickford was so popular that by 1916 she could command a salary of $10,000 a week at a time when the average US household was earning $687—per year! No wonder movie stars then—as now—were viewed with envy! Her acting ability, in which she eschewed the often flamboyant gesticulations and mugging of the silent movie era in favor of close-ups depicting more restrained emotions, was matched by a remarkable business savvy. Pickford was one of the first stars to share in the profits of her films. Motivated by a desire to exercise greater creative control over her films, In 1919, Pickford, along with her future husband Douglas Fairbanks, the great comedic actor Charlie Chaplin, and the acclaimed director D. W. Griffith, formed their own studio, United Artists. Pickford was one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1927.
While some actors were so image conscious that they would refuse to play unsympathetic characters, Bette Davis excelled at playing bad girls. Davis cultivated a combative, confrontational persona on movie sets, but went against type as one of the co-founders of the Hollywood Canteen, which served servicemen during World War II. A ten-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner, Davis was also the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Many people share a perception of Marilyn Monroe as a “dumb blonde”—hardly! Like Pickford before her, Monroe captured the public’s attention—though not by playing the “sweetheart” next door. Monroe’s appeal was far more sexual, but then the times were changing. Gradually, Monroe’s acting ability caught up with her sex appeal as she starred in hit after hit. She formed her own production company in 1954 and won the Golden Globe in 1959 for her iconic role in Some Like It Hot.
Jane Fonda is one of only a handful of actresses to win two Oscars and she was nominated four other times as well. But for a time, Fonda was better known for her political activism. Fonda leveraged her movie stardom to marshal public opposition to the Vietnam War. Fonda had the courage of her convictions, but was subject to widespread criticism for her views and her methods of sharing them. Today, we’re fairly inundated with celebrities promoting political, charitable and lifestyle causes. Fonda was a pioneer in this regard.
Strong women characters add realism to any story, whether it’s on film or paper or an e-reader. Pickford, Davis, Monroe and Fonda, although each played romantic leads, were always more than just pretty faces. They were tough, courageous and smart.
My Pacific Pictures series of novels, the first of which, The Movie Star and Me, is now available at amazon.com, is filled with strong female characters modeled after these pioneers; characters like leading lady Vera Vance and columnist Joan Roswell. These characters pay homage to the strong-willed, trailblazing women who helped transform a sleepy village into the mythical, fascinating dream factory that we know as Hollywood.