This weekend I am one of the very few male speakers at the “Doing Women’s Film and Television History” international conference being hosted by Maynooth University, Dublin, on July 10-11. Naturally it is a virtual conference but it is packed with speakers from all over the world who have been researching issues relating to women working in film and television. I am not an academic so it is signal honor for me to be invited to speak at a university-run conference.
My topic is “When Women Ruled Hollywood” which looks at female salaries in the movie business from 1910 to 1970. Although most people think women were hard-done-by in Hollywood and generally considered as second-class citizens, I found this was not at all the case. In the 1910s, Mary Pickford earned double the earnings of Charlie Chaplin. In the 1920s, the top earning star of either gender was Corinne Griffith.s
At the start of the 1930s, Greta Garbo was the dominant figure when it came to salaries. In 1935 Mae West was the second-highest earner in the whole of America, beaten only by William Randolph Hearst, immortalised as Citizen Kane.
In the annual salary league for the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s, Claudette Colbert (twice), Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Deanna Durbin all topped the rankings and in the years when males came out on top the female stars were not far behind.
While female salaries dipped in the 1950s, by the 1960s women were again beating the males at the salary game, Elizabeth Taylor way ahead of everybody, Audrey Hepburn on $1 million a picture, Julie Andrews out-earning Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and newcomer Barbra Streisand reaching unheard-of commercial heights.
I had written a couple of business histories of Hollywood, the research for which took me back to 1910 and in the course of writing those books I discovered information about salaries that would have been out of place in those works, so I dug around some more and came up with the information for this talk.
If you want an idea of my speech, you can check out this short sample on Youtube.
Reputations were made and broken on this tale of a jaded artist returning to his homeland to rediscover his mojo. Director Michael Powell had, in tandem with partner Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most acclaimed films of the 1940s – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) just remade by the BBC and The Red Shoes (1948) – but the partnership had ended the next decade. Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960) was greeted with a revulsion from which his career never recovered. Age of Consent was his penultimate picture but the extensive nudity and the age gap between the principals left critics shaking their heads.
For Helen Mirren, on the other hand, it was a triumphant start to a career that has now spanned half a century, one Oscar and three Oscar nominations. She was a burgeoning theatrical talent at the Royal Shakespeare Company when she made her movie debut as the muse of the artist played by James Mason. It should also be pointed out that when it came to scene-stealing she had a rival in the pooch Godfrey.
You would rightly be concerned that there could be some grooming going on. Although 24 at the time of the film’s release, Mirren played an under-age nymph who spent a great deal of time sporting naked in the sea off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But there are a couple of provisos. In the first place, Mirren’s character was not swimming for pleasure, she was diving for seafood to augment her impoverished lifestyle. In the second place, she was so poor she would hardly have afforded a swimsuit and was the kind of free spirit anyway who might have shucked one off. Thirdly, and more importantly, Mason wasn’t interested. He wasn’t the kind of artist who needed to perve on young girls. An early scene showed him in bed with a girlfriend and it was clear that he was an object of lust elsewhere. Mason was an artist, fit and tanned, as obsessed any other artist about his talent, and was in this remote stretch not to hunt for young naked girls but to find inspiration. As well as eventually painting Mirren, he also transforms the shack he rents into something of beauty.
Mason is as vital to Mirren’s self-development. The money he pays her for modelling goes towards her escape fund. Her mother being a useless thieving alcoholic, she has little in the way of role model. And the world of seafood supply was competitive. She is lost in paradise and the scene of her buying a tacky handbag demonstrates the extent of her initial ambition. Although her physical attributes attract male attention, it is only on forming a relationship with the painter that Mirren begins to believe in herself. There’s not much more to the central story than the artist rediscovering his creative spark and helping Mirren’s personal development along the way.
And if Powell had wanted to make an erotically-charged movie, he need look no further than his own Black Narcissus, in which two nuns are brought to the brink of lustful temptation in a convent in the Himalayas. Powell, himself, had form in the erotic department, having previously been the illicit lover of the film’s star Deborah Kerr and at the time of making the movie had switched, in similar illicit fashion, to her co-star Kathleen Byron. There is no question that the young Mirren in a beauty, but it is not lust that guides Mason.
Mason is a believable character. He is not an impoverished artist. Far from being self-deluded, he is a questing individual, turning his back on easy money and the temptations of big city life in order to reinvent himself. He isn’t going to starve and he has no problems with women. And he is perfectly capable of looking after himself. A more rounded artist would be hard to find. Precisely because there is no sexual relationship with Mirren, the movie, as a film about character development, is ideally balanced.
The movie is gorgeously filmed, with many aerial shots of the reef and underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor.
What does let the show down is a proliferation of cliched characters who over-act. Jack McGowran as a sponging friend, ruthless seducer and thief heads that list closely followed by Neva Carr-Glynn as Mirren’s grandmother who looks like a reject from a Dickens novel. There’s also a dumb and dumber cop and a neighbor so bent on sex that she falls for McGowran. It’s not the first time comedy has got in the way of art, but it’s a shame it had to interrupt so often what is otherwise a touching film.
At its heart is a portrait of the artist as an older man and his sensitive relationship with a young girl. In later years, Powell married film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and after his death she oversaw the restoration of Age of Consent, with eight minutes added and the Stanley Myers score replaced by the original by Peter Sculthorpe.