Updated: Jul 16, 2020
ELIZABETH WEITZMAN, profound writer and film critic, has recently published her latest book – Renegade Women in Film & TV – Which is an outstanding tribute to women who have broken the glass ceiling in their fields of expertise. Elizabeth goes deep, highlighting trailblazing women from the past, including Alice Guy-Blaché and Ida Lupino, to current pioneers, which include Barbra Streisand and Ava DuVernay. We are privileged to have a conversation with her about life and work.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, we know you have a busy schedule on your book tour for Renegade Women in Film and TV. Before we talk about your new book, we would like to know a little more about you.
When did you discover your love for writing and which writers have inspired you?
When I was about 7 or 8, I read a book called She Was Nice to Mice by Ally Sheedy—yep, that Ally Sheedy, and she was only 12 when she wrote it. Once I found out that a story I loved so much was written by another kid, I realized books were something people created, rather than treasures that just sort of appeared. And then when I picked up Little Women soon after, and discovered Jo was a writer too…
Where did you begin your career in writing?
At Interview magazine. I read it throughout high school and college, and knew I wanted to somehow contribute one day as well. I sent in so many pitches that eventually the editor assigned me a single movie to review. I wound up covering film there for years, writing reviews, features, and Q&As. I learned a lot about how to watch, and write about, movies while I was there.
You have a wonderful series of children’s books, Let’s Talk About, with so many poignant, and often not talked about, topics. What gave you the idea for this series and how did you choose the topics?
That was another early job, and I really can't take any credit for the idea or the topics. They were assigned to me by another wonderful editor at an education-based publishing house. I was split between wanting to write about film, and wanting to write books that might be of some use in schools. I've been lucky enough to be able to do both.
How did you become a film and TV critic, and what drew you to that?
I loved covering film for Interview, and eventually got a degree in Cinema Studies. During that time I wrote about entertainment for several publications, including the Village Voice, Marie Claire, and Harper's Bazaar. And then I went to the New York Daily News, where I covered movies for 15 years.
There are vastly more male film critics than women, how do you feel about that and how can we change the needle? Also, do you have any advice for how more women can become film critics?
I think we are changing the needle. The bad news is that print publications are relying less and less on regular critics. But the good news is that the Internet has opened up the field to a far wider range of voices. There are so many sites that have great film coverage, and are always looking for new and insightful perspectives.
Obviously, you have a great love for film, when you watch a movie for pleasure are you able to enjoy it, or do you always mentally critique it? What genre do you enjoy watching the most?
I watch every movie for pleasure! I don't think you could do this job if you didn't. Some films are better than others, of course, but I always start by assuming I will find something to appreciate. And most of the time, I do.
I wouldn't say that I have one favorite genre; I watch all kinds of films whether I'm reviewing them or not. But I do really love pre-Code and screwball comedies from the 1930s and '40s, which often feature fantastic actresses and strikingly complex roles for women.
Aside from any women in film, which women inspire you in your life?
My daughter is my greatest inspiration, for sure. And my sister, my friends, and many of the amazing women I've been lucky enough to work with over the years. I also take inspiration from the women I get to interview. One of my favorites was Cher, who was so wise and witty and generous. More recently, I loved talking to Patty Jenkins and Sigourney Weaver and Jessica Williams, three brilliant women who are truly passionate about changing culture for the better.
Your book, Renegade Women in Film and TV, is a wonderful tribute to some incredible women, it is an absolute must read for anyone who wants to know more about inspirational women in film. Tell us how you decided on who should make it in the book and why?
Thank you so much! It was a very difficult process, because the actual truth is that this book could be 1,000 pages long. We don't hear their stories often enough, but there have been so many incredible women in entertainment.
When my editor told me we had room to honor fifty of them, I panicked a little. I couldn't imagine how to narrow down the list. But I really wanted to offer stories that represented a wide range of experiences, while also showing how the industry has changed over the decades.
What did you learn during the process of writing Renegade Women in Film and TV?
Where to begin? Though I was familiar with the work of these pioneers, I didn't know enough about their lives or struggles. I was awed by how persistent and ahead of their time they all were. For example, I knew that Alla Nazimova was one of the most popular and impactful silent-era actors. But she was also an openly feminist, queer Jewish immigrant who pushed every boundary she possibly could. In 1920!!
We know you couldn’t possibly choose a favorite interview but what are some stand out moments for you personally, was anyone different from how you expected them to be?
It's honestly true that every single one of the women I interviewed was wonderful. But, of course, how lucky was I to speak with two trailblazing EGOTS? Interviewing Barbra Streisand and Rita Moreno, and hearing their stories first-hand, was definitely a lifetime experience. I was a little surprised by how open each of them was about the obstacles they've faced, and I realized I hadn't truly understood how challenging their paths really were from the very start.
Out of all the women you write about, who are no longer with us, who would you choose to interview if they were still alive and why?
What a great question! And so hard to answer, because of course I would love to speak with all of them! But having read The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blaché, I know how smart and funny and observant she really was. Plus she was very blunt—which of course is a great quality for an interview! It would also be fascinating to hear from someone who helped create an entire art form.
What do you hope your book achieves for women and how can we keep pushing the boundaries for women to have greater stakes in the entertainment industry on all levels?
We know the names of so many great men of film, so how can it be that Guy-Blaché, the woman who pioneered it, has been written out of history almost entirely?
Screenwriter and producer June Mathis is virtually forgotten, but she was once so revered that the New York Times put her obituary on their front page.
Why do we still idolize Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, but not the equally gorgeous and talented Dorothy Dandridge, who worked so hard to move society to a more equitable place?
I really hope the book will help shift the spotlight, so all of these crucial trailblazers finally get the respect and gratitude they deserve. As for contemporary change, I do believe it starts by looking to the past: learning and being inspired by the ways women have always pushed boundaries. Nazimova, Dandridge, Hedy Lamarr, Ida Lupino: they all changed our culture in elemental ways.
From all that you have learned from the women in your book, what advice would you give to any women hoping to make their career in film or TV?
I think we can all take inspiration from pioneers, who find other ways inside when the doors are closed to them. For example, Lucille Ball and Ida Lupino shifted to, and revolutionized, television because they met so many obstacles in their film careers.
Another inspiration is screenwriter Frances Marion, who—like her mentor, Lois Weber—went out of her way to support other women. We see this today in game-changers like Ava DuVernay, who hires groundbreaking female filmmakers like Julie Dash to direct her show Queen Sugar.
During your book tour, what is the question you get asked the most?
"What's your favorite movie?"
It's a question that's impossible to answer, but I often mention two that I think everyone should see. The first is Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), in which she takes a familiar tale of competing showgirls (Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara) and turns it into a surprising exploration of class, culture and gender. I also love Robert Altman's epic Nashville (1975), which was written by Joan Tewkesbury, championed immediately by film critic Pauline Kael, and boasts a notably strong female cast during a particularly unwelcoming cinematic era for women. (Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley both earned well-deserved Oscar nods.)
After writing Renegade Women in film and TV, has it changed anything about how you critique a film that is women driven?
I've been a film critic for many years, so I've always tried to watch movies with an eye towards representation. But I do think about the women in the book more, and the ways their sacrifices continue to impact us today.
Please tell us what is your favorite inspirational quote?
From the great Alla Nazimova, who tried to redefine society a century ago:
"A woman living a creative life is bound necessarily to do things sometimes defiant to convention."
We have just had our first screenplay optioned and your book is invaluable, packed with so much insight into an industry that is predominately male. We thank you for highlighting all these women’s impressive achievements, by pulling back the curtain and giving us a greater understanding at a momentous time for the women’s movement.
Thank you for providing such an essential space for creative women! And congratulations on your screenplay; I can't wait to see the finished film!
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Renegade Women in Film & TV is an absolute MUST read – Order your copy today by visiting Elizabeth’s website
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