When we think of power brokers—the people who produce and direct movies or write the scripts, the names that come to mind are mostly males. Film critic Elizabeth Weitzman sets about changing all that in her new book, Renegade Women in Film & TV (Clarkson Potter 2019; $16.99). Told in short biographies, some highlighted with interviews, this wonderfully illustrated book is a gem to read as it highlights women in films who have broken the glass ceiling.
“There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how underrepresented women have always been in Hollywood, says Weitzman, who was named one of New York’s Top Film Critics by the Hollywood Reporter and who earned a master’s degree in cinema studies. “And although that’s true, it only tells half the story. The reality is that women have been essential innovators in entertainment from the very beginning. But they’ve been written out of history so consistently that few people were even aware of their enormous accomplishments.”
As just one of many examples, Weitzman writes about first female filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché who film historians believe is also the first person to make a narrative film–her 1896 short The Cabbage Fairy.
Deciding who to include in her book (we’re hoping for a sequel) wasn’t an easy process for Weitzman. If she’d gone with all the trailblazers, her book would have been hundreds of pages long.
“When my editor said we had room to honor fifty of them, I did panic a little,” she recalls. “I couldn’t imagine how to narrow down the list so much. But I really wanted to share stories that represent a broad range of experiences, while also showing how the industry has changed over the last century.”
Weitzman always wanted to change the image of female imagine silent film stars as damsels in distress, tied to railroad tracks and waiting to be rescued. That’s why she included the story of Helen Gibson, a silent-era teenager who quit her job at a cigar factory to teach herself trick riding—and then became the country’s first stuntwoman.
“And everyone should know the story of the gorgeous, gifted Dorothy Dandridge, who was both the first African-American to be nominated for a lead actor Oscar and the first person to integrate many of the places she visited,” she says. “But every story in the book is more compelling than any movie could be. Renegades don’t ever choose an easy path, so their experiences are all unique, and all fascinating.”
Contemporary icons like Barbra Streisand, Rita Moreno, and Sigourney Weaver also win Weitzman’s admiration.
“All of them shared insights that surprised me,” she says. “And I will admit I wasn’t expecting these great women to be so down-to-earth and funny and blunt about their experiences in Hollywood.”
Weitzman also includes a chapter called Essential Viewing, in which she suggests must-see movies and shows from each woman featured.
“Fans of old films will already know this,” she says, “but I think some people may be surprised by how modern and witty and fun so much of their work still feels today. I made sure to choose options that were all easy to find, so I hope people will discover some new favorites among them.”
Though she was familiar with the works of many of the pioneers in film, Weitzman became even more impressed when learned more about their lives, struggles, determination and how ahead of their times they all were.
“So often, pioneers are pushed aside or overlooked altogether,” she says. “These incredible women made so many sacrifices to create a better world for us. It’s our responsibility to learn their names and share their stories.”
What: A screening of The Hitchhiker directed by Ida Lupino, best known as a sultry film star, introduced by Elizabeth Weitzman with a post-film book signing of Renegade Women in Film & TV.
When: Monday, March 4 @ 7pm
Where: The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL
Cost: Tickets only $11; tickets and a book $24. To order tickets, contact The Music Box at 773 871 6604; musicboxtheatre.com
FYI: This event is an off-site presentation by The Book Cellar, for more information (773) 293-2665; bookcellarinc.com