by Paul Batters
‘The ladder of success in Hollywood is usually a press agent, actor, director, producer, leading man; and you are a star if you sleep with each of them in that order. Crude, but true’. Hedy Lamarr
The young actress was only 22 years old, naïve to the world of Hollywood and still a virgin when she first arrived in Tinsel town. Her mother ambitious to a fault dragged her talented daughter to the West Coast to turn her into a success. From the moment she was born, the mother-daughter relationship would always be a difficult one. But being a dutiful daughter, as well as being ambitious, she complied.
The young actress, despite her naivety, had already discovered something terribly unsettling – that the expectation of young actresses was to ‘put out’.
Not long after her arrival, she was asked to come along for an undefined screen test, with no specific role nor any brief to what the scene was about. Nevertheless, she complied and turned up for the screen test. Stepping onto the set, all that was present was a chaise lounge.
The young actress was told to recline on the couch and follow instructions. As she lay there, prone on the ‘casting couch’, a line of actors lay on top of her and went through a scene as the producer and crew looked on. One by one they played out a love scene, passionately kissing her, as she lay there.
One of the actors said to her ‘ Don’t worry, we’ve all had to do it’. By the time the test scene was over, 15 men had lay down on top of her and played out the scene. She remembered feeling ‘less like a woman and more like a mattress’.
The year – 1931.
The story has been told many a time and Davis herself often retold the story, sometimes trying to take the sting out of it with some self-effacing humour. Speaking of the actor who told her not to worry, Latin lover Gilbert Roland, Davis claimed that whilst being kissed by him she thought ‘actually this isn’t so bad’.
Bette Davis’ awful experience speaks volumes about the objectification of women in the world of Hollywood. It also outlines the sad reality that the treatment of women in such a way had existed since the earliest days of the film industry. Bette Davis, despite being a little naïve discovered fairly quickly what the expectations were. In fact, only a couple of months before her arrival in Hollywood, she found such expectations were also prevalent in the theatre. In Ed Sikov’s biography of Davis ‘Dark Victory’, he recounts the story when famed director George Cukor would dismiss her from Yellow, the stage production she was working in, because as fellow actor Louis Calhern said ‘she wouldn’t put out’. Not because Cukor, who was gay, wanted her out but because his producer, George Kondoff did. Davis would not give in to his sexual demands.
So how did Bette Davis get past this? She certainly had a will of iron and her battles with Jack Warner are legendary and well documented. She also faced down her humiliations. Not long after the aforementioned ‘screen test’, Davis took part in another Universal screen test for William Wyler’s ‘A House Divided’. Stepping onto the scene, with a low-cut dress, Wyler called out loudly: “What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?” (Wyler would work with Davis in a few short years time and also engage in a passionate and torrid affair with her).
Davis would also hear terrible comments from Carl Laemmle Jnr (whose father ran Universal Studios) about her lack of sex appeal and if not for her determination, her iron will, and support from those who saw her talent, her career may never have been founded or would have remained stuck in forgettable pictures. Initially, she struggled with her self-confidence and sense of worth, which wasn’t helped by comments from Laemmles Snr and Jnr, Wyler and many others. James Spada in his biography of Davis ‘More Than A Woman’, tells an interesting story. Prior to the infamous aforementioned screen test, Davis would be confused and disappointed by her first screen test with Universal where they wanted to focus on her ‘gams’. The cinematographer had to explain that ‘gams’ meant her legs. Davis asked what her legs had to do with acting. The response?
“You don’t know much about Hollywood, do you?”
Again, Davis would be mortified as they kept asking her to pull up her skirt to reveal more flesh before the cinematographer saw she was upset and ceased asking her.
But she would not only face such terrible treatment from directors, producers and studio heads but also from fellow actors and actresses, some of which were major stars. Again Spada shares a story that sums up the treatment of women in Hollywood. Some time after she had made a few films, Davis believed she needed to start acting like a film star and was sent by the studio to her first Hollywood soiree. She arrived in a ‘slinky, sophisticated, low-cut evening dress gown that would show these movie people just how sexy Bette Davis could be’.
At the party, Davis would recount her attempts to act and sound like a movie star by smoking and swearing. However, she was pretty much ignored and eventually ended up as a wallflower, wondering what to do. At that point, the dashing and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the recently estranged husband of her future greatest rival, Joan Crawford, approached her. They chatted amiably for a while but before she realized it, Fairbanks slipped his hand inside her dress and fondled one of her breasts, telling her ‘you should use ice on your nipples the way Joan Crawford does’. Mortified, Davis pulled herself away and fled the scene.
Bette Davis would say in later years that to survive Hollywood, you had to be ‘more than a woman’ (hence the title for Spada’s book). A number of actresses have gone on record that Bette Davis was one of the few actresses that didn’t have sex with men (or women) in the industry in order to make it to the top. Indeed, she fought the system for better roles and scripts, and would become one of the greatest actresses of her era.
Yet her story is still very reflective of what went on in the early 1930s, as well as long before and long afterwards.
In the light of actresses and some actors stepping forward today after the terrible revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein and others, the deep, ingrained culture of the abuse and objectification of women has become the centre of discussion. It seems to be the horrifically monotonous and repetitive story, that powerful men – directors, producers, agents and fellow actors – use their power to sexually harass and abuse women, as well as some men. These men are not anomalies but the norm and the system in place protects them, placates them and even rewards them. And they have existed in Hollywood since the first cameras were set up and a director called ‘roll ‘em’.
More and more revelations emerge as time passes, regarding the classic Hollywood. Whilst some may pass as reflective of values and attitudes of the time, such as William Wyler’s comments about Bette Davis, they still announce the ugly and toxic masculinity that has always been present and in some cases the treatment of women as objects has been far worse than a comment.
Only recently, an old newspaper article surfaced from 1945, featuring Maureen O’Hara, who starred in some of Hollywood’s greatest films including How Green Was My Valley, The Black Swan, Miracle On 34th Street and The Quiet Man. Her comments, made when she was 25, show that the culture of harassment and abuse is nothing new.
How many others felt this way but said nothing? How many others suffered endless abuse and harassment and remained silent, for all the reasons that actresses today are mentioning as their own reasons for previously staying quiet? As Maureen O’Hara points out, the reputation she soon received was one of being a ‘cold potato’ and having a puritanical outlook on sex, shaped primarily by her Catholic faith. O’Hara did claim that she did not want to shock her family back in Ireland by dressing provocatively and didn’t ‘look like Lana Turner in a bathing suit’. But again, her responses reflect that her own womanhood came under attack when it did not meet the demands of men in power in Hollywood.
But this culture of male dominance was not restricted to men behind the camera, in the editing booths or behind the desks in studio offices. Some of Hollywood’s most famous actors from the classic Hollywood era are just as complicit, not only from their exploiting of starlets but outright sexual harassment, sexual abuse and even rape. As difficult as it is to accept, some of our favourite stars have been implicated and their long-standing status as legends comes into question.
A perfect example of such complicity is Errol Flynn. Errol Flynn’s reputation as a ‘hell-raiser’ is certainly not a new one nor one that surprises anyone. Engaging in heavy use of alcohol and drugs, Flynn was well renowned for his ‘womanising’ and sexual exploits. I bring attention to the terms ‘hell-raiser’ and ‘womanising’ because they also reveal the culture of male entitlement and power in popular culture. There was, and in many cases still is, a hero worship of such behavior – it’s what ‘men do’, ‘conquering’ women and of course the term ‘womanising’ is suggestive of male prowess and an admirable quality. Errol Flynn’s well-publicised and infamous 1942 arrest for statutory rape of two underage girls saw him acquitted and whilst his career did suffer slightly, his contract with Warner Bros. was not terminated. Indeed, his screen persona was capitalized on by his lawyer and a host of supporters and helped his acquittal.
But was is most telling about Flynn’s reputation and behavior is the long standing euphemism for male sexual success – ‘in like Flynn’. Whatever the origins of the term, it is clear what is being inferred and Errol Flynn loved the term so much, he was going to title his autobiography ‘In Like Me’. Some have suggested that it was the self-effacing, loveable rogue that made the suggestion. Perhaps. However, the term is suggestive of male power and entitlement and becomes a victory call for ‘bedding women’. That’s all well and good – if the sexual objectification of women is a norm for you.
Another example of this long-standing abuse of power, showing Weinstein and other recently outed abusers are merely part of a long chain going back decades, is that of the former head of Columbia, Harry Cohn. Cohn was the head of Columbia from 1919 till his death in 1958. Cohn was the clichéd studio head – a nasty bully who treated people abysmally. Actresses signed to Columbia were expected to have sex with Cohn when he demanded it and even stars like Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak were not spared his harassment. Seth Abramovitch in an article on Cohn in ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ stated that ‘starlets in the mogul’s orbit were viewed as sexual commodities’.
Tony Curtis told a story in his autobiography regarding Cohn which also illustrates the power that the man had. Once when Curtis was meeting with Cohn, a young starlet entered the office, wanting to speak with Cohn. Curtis got up to leave but Cohn insisted the young lady speak openly. Nervously, she prodded Cohn for commitment to his promises or she would call his wife. Cohn without a blink of an eye, picked up the phone and said “Call her”. The starlet, confused and totally disarmed after playing her ace, left the office upset and defeated.
Famed head of 20th Century Fox, Daryl Zanuck, also took advantage of his power and was unavailable each day between 4.00pm and 4.30pm, as he was ‘in conference’. The powerful MGM head Louis B Mayer controlled the lives of contracted stars by destroying or encouraging marriages and even forcing abortions. Actresses such as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Judy Garland allegedly were forced to have abortions for the sake of their careers. One of Judy Garland’s biographers, Gerald Clarke, has alleged that the MGM mogul also sexually abused Garland during meetings with her. Thelma Adams in Variety points out that Mayer would threaten to destroy careers and hurt their families as well, if women did not comply.
Both Cohn and Zanuck are often cited as the ‘creators’ of the ‘casting couch’. But the truth is the practice had always been around.
Actors, too, have been perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. Fredric March had a horrendous reputation for groping actresses on the set and although some such as Sylvia Sydney waved aside his commenting about her breasts and body as ‘playful banter’, others such as Claudette Colbert complained about his groping and warned fellow actresses about his overt advances. Charlie Chaplin had a penchant for very young actresses and starlets, disturbingly stepping into the realm of under age relationships. Bob Hope was notorious for using his power to manipulate young starlets and actresses into sex.
One of the most disturbing stories emerged in 2015, regarding the ‘love child’ that Loretta Young had with the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable. For years the story was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets. However, in 2015, the story emerged that Gable had raped Young in 1935 during the filming of Call Of The Wild, with Young finally revealing her story before she died to her son Chris and his wife.
Anne Helen Petersen in her 2015 article in Buzzfeed raises an important point: Young, like so many from her generation, conceived of her role in “the game of sexes” as “the guy tries to get what he wants; the woman’s job is to fight him off.” The inability to fend off Gable’s advances constituted a failure on her part — not Gable’s. She spent the rest of her life trying to compensate for that failure, believing that the guilt was hers and hers alone.
I would add to this, that the feelings of failure and shame amongst victims are just as prevalent today.
Perhaps one of the most famed stars that endured the casting couch was Marilyn Monroe, admitting that she slept with producers to get ahead in the business. Although she dismissed doing so as ‘no big deal’, Monroe would exclaim after signing a huge contract in 1955 “I’ll never have to suck another **** again’.
It certainly echoes Hedy Lamarr’s earlier quote.
The terrible sadness is that the names in these stories could be interchanged with names in entertainment today. More stories will emerge which will disgust us and the names that come with those stories will shock us. For decades, men especially have been protected in Hollywood not only through their own personal wealth, power and entitlement but because toxic masculinity and misogyny permeates through society.
We are living in an age where an American Presidential candidate, who openly displays misogynistic views and even admits sexual abuse, still gets elected – and continues with that misogyny and language of hate against women. It’s a sad indictment of where we are at in the 21st century and it remains to be seen if the Hollywood swamp of abuse will finally be drained. However, by seeing how far the problem goes back, it may mean that there is real change for the future. It means that it needs to be confronted today.
So when a 22 year-old woman with great talent arrives in Hollywood, she will only need to focus on the quality of her work.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history