January 18, 2001
Tough Dames in a Tough Game
Glamour, betrayal, influence and heartache, all in a day's work. In her first book, "Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women's Experience of Power in Hollywood," Rachel Abramowitz, a former writer for Premiere magazine, lays out in impressive detail what the first significant wave of women in the film trade, a wave that hit the studios in the 1970s, had to go through to get women to be taken seriously by the industry.
Abramowitz uses the stories of several women -- among them executives Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel, superagent Sue Mengers and writer-director Nora Ephron, along with production designer-turned-producer Polly Platt and actor-director Jodie Foster -- as tentpoles for her narrative, returning to their lives and careers at intervals throughout the book. Other Jewish women she spotlights include Barbra Streisand, Elaine May and executive Paula Weinstein.
What's striking is that so many of these female movers and shakers are Jewish, represented as disproportionately in Hollywood as Jewish men are, and that so many come from troubled family backgrounds, some with Holocaust connections.
Lansing's mother fled Nazi Germany as a teenager in the 1930s; Mengers herself arrived in the States as an 8-year-old refugee in 1939. Mengers' father committed suicide when she was 13, Steel's family dynamic went south after her father suffered a business failure and a nervous breakdown, Weinstein was a red-diaper baby whose larger-than-life mother was entirely too open about her emotional life, and Ephron's screenwriter parents were both alcoholics.
Abramowitz shows one woman after another crashing through the glass ceiling -- often getting cut up in the process by jealousy, competition and dysfunctional relationships with men, and, even in the highest reaches of power, cracking her head against a new obstacle placed by men.
"I thought they'd enjoy it a lot more," Abramowitz told The Journal, adding that many sacrificed relationships and even motherhood to their careers. "You're judged on everything; how you look, how you talk. You can't just do a good job. They were the most driven people you can imagine."
"Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?" is a fascinating examination of "a generation in transition," in Abramowitz's words, a group of women who made it more possible for younger female Hollywood executives to balance family and work. "They were the ones who stormed the barricades," Abramowitz said. "The proof of their success is the younger generation of women, who take the business as their birthright."
Becoming an entertainment reporter was "a little bit random," says Abramowitz, 35, who had been working for a business magazine in New York when Premiere brought her to Los Angeles. "I've been interested in movies not in a particularly intense way, but the way everyone is, in movies as a national pastime."
"Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?" began as a piece for Premiere back in the early 1990s that was supposed to be an oral history of women in Hollywood. "I was really young, and I just used it as an opportunity to meet everybody in town," Abramowitz said.
Abramowitz doesn't have a home town; her father, Morton Abramowitz, is a retired career diplomat who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Turkey. Her mother, Sheppie, who is about to retire from her work with the International Rescue Committee, an organization that aids refugees and victims of oppression or violent conflict, kept the family Jewishly affiliated among posts in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, London, and Vienna.
Their daughter managed to put together about five years of religious school but didn't have a Bat Mitzvah because the family moved to Thailand when she was 12. About all the half-Ashkenazi, half-Sephardi Jewish community in Bangkok could manage, Abramowitz said, was High Holy Days services in a private home, using old U.S. Army prayerbooks.
Abramowitz lives in Venice with her husband, a screenwriter, and their toddler son. Since leaving Premiere, she's been snowed under with freelance assignments and is mulling over ideas for another book. Although "Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?" is being developed as a film project, Abramowitz isn't interested in a career as a screenwriter or film executive.
"I don't really want to be in the business," she said. "I really like writing books. You have a lot of autonomy to do what you want to do, to say what you want to say -- unlike the business."