Why today's female screen 'legends' are less powerful than in Lauren Bacall's day

The death of Lauren Bacall (August 12, 2014) reminded me of a kinder, gentler time when actresses treated each other with respect. As when ‘Betty’ Bacall was asked how she liked working beside ‘screen legend Nicole Kidman’, after they had done two films.

‘She is not a legend; she’s a beginner,’ said Bacall. ‘What is this legend? She can’t be a legend at whatever age she is. She can’t be a legend, you have to be older.’

She had a point. Legendary status requires longevity, and she earned it with a career that spanned eight decades. Kidman had only been making movies for a bit over 20 years!  A mere child.

This started me thinking about the differences between great actresses then and now, and the worlds in which they work. Can we even compare modern stars with their luminous predecessors? To put it another way, do Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Sandra Bullock and Cameron Diaz (just a random selection) belong in the same company as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo, not to mention Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly. There are so many to choose from.

I’m not talking about talent. There’s never a shortage of great female talent. I am talking about opportunity, and whether the modern actress has the chance to become as great as the legends. It’s a complex thing, but it boils down to two questions. Does the modern actress have more or less freedom to do her best work, and does freedom actually help? 

The order in which I listed the first five, Kate Hepburn to Garbo, follows the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 stars of all time, 50 men and 50 women, from 1999. Hepburn and Davis at 1 and 2 among women is supremely ironic. Both had a difficult relationship with the American public, and both fought savagely against the power of the studios.

Hepburn was ‘box office poison’ in the 1930s. She won an Oscar in 1932 but most of her movies were flops – including Bringing up Baby! She refused to sign autographs and the press dubbed her Katharine of Arrogance. Yet still, RKO supported her, nurtured her and gave her good roles.

Bette Davis tried to break her contract with Warner Bros in 1937, because she felt she wasn’t being offered good roles. The court case took place in London, and it’s interesting to look at her grievances. Her counsel noted that she could be suspended without pay for refusing a role, and the period of suspension could be added to her contract; she could be forced to play any part within her capabilities and the studio could use and display her image in any way it liked. The studio contract was in effect, ‘slavery’, she said.

She lost the case and returned to Warners. Immediately, they gave her better roles, some of the best of her career: Marked Woman (1937), Jezebel (38), Dark Victory (39). Enslaved she was, but the work was fantastic. She was the highest paid woman in movies, and she mostly chose what she did. She even had her own production company in the early 1940’s.

Hepburn famously bought out her RKO contract in 1938 for $75,000. Her career took off when Phillip Barry wrote The Philadelphia Story for her, soon after. It helped that her boyfriend Howard Hughes bought the movie rights, which allowed her to dictate terms when MGM wanted to make the movie.

My point here is that the top actresses of the Golden Age were not powerless, even if they were often unhappy with their terms and conditions. Nevertheless, they helped to burn down the house, by striving for more independence from onerous studio control. The boys were just as unhappy, and probably did more to end it, but that’s another story.

To some extent, the studio system was already cracking, after David O Selznick left MGM in 1935 to become an independent producer – which led to the huge success of Gone with the Wind. For actors, a major breakthrough came in 1943, when Olivia De Havilland challenged the terms of the seven-year studio contract – specifically the part that said the studio could extend her contract because of periods in which she was suspended. She won her court case.

The modern actress signs no seven-year contract, and she usually has a degree of control of her own publicity, once she has achieved success. No-one forces her to do a movie. Most of the big stars have their own production companies and some generate successful projects. Some also become writer/directors, like Jodie Foster.

The question is, do they make better movies because of that freedom?  I wonder. The world is different. The market has changed. No actress has the hold on the public imagination that Bette Davis once did, because no-one has the same monopoly on our eyes. Women do have more power now as writers, directors and producers, but far less than men. Some actresses can greenlight a project – Angelina Jolie is one. But like the men, they often make bad choices, partly because the studios no longer weed out the stupider ideas. In fact, the studios actively pursue the dumb options, because big loud action is the only way they can think of to counter piracy and the internet. Imagine Bette Davis walking onto the set of Transformers 5: ‘What a dump!’