From reverence to rape...
With the Academy Awards coming up, Breakthrough film critic Victoria Hodge Lightman interviews Molly Haskell, New York film critic and
author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies.
By Victoria Hodge Lightman
Lightman: How did you get started as a
Haskell: I started at the Village Voice as a
theatre reviewer in 1968. I'd always been
interested in both theatre and film, had
seen a lot of plays and movies and actually had wanted to write plays at that
time. Andrew Sarris was doing the movie
reviews then, but he wanted to expand
the coverage so he got me and several
others to serve as second stringers. So I
got into movies and I really felt that film
was a lot more interesting then, and still
is, than what's going on in theatre. I did
reviews for the Voice until last year when
I went to New York magazine.
Lightman: Did you always write feminist
Haskell: In the late 60s and early 70s I
became more and more interested in
feminism and the subject of women in
movies, particularly because there were
so few at that time. It struck me as ironic
that at the height of the women's movement, suddenly, there were fewer women
in film and worse parts for them. I was
interested in that, but at the same time I
was trying to-and still try to-be a film
critic first and a feminist second. That is,
not to introduce the feminist angle when
it's not relevant. Now that I'm writing for
New York magazine I have to be even
more careful what I'm writing because I
am writing for a general audience. At the
Voice I could indulge in more feminist
Also, once you feel that a move has
been made in the right direction you can
lay off a little. Now women have gotten
into movies as actresses and directors and
writers to such an extent that we don't
need to either make apologies for them or
bend over backwards to find something
good to say about them. I think now they
can stand on their own with the work of
men. Certainly this last year women have
outshone men by a huge margin in films.
Lightman: Do you see this reinvolvement
of women in films as a cycle repeating
itself, or something completely different?
Haskell: There are cycles that come into
vogue at one time, but it's never quite the
same. For instance, I think we've come
out of the whole thing of realism. Taxi
Driver was the final of the period of that
genre. One of the reasons there weren't
very many women was because the kind
of films and the kind of characters that
were popular were disaffected types like
Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert
DeNiro. There's a reason these kinds of
people come into fashion. I think they're
all brilliant actors, but you do begin to
see a pattern.
Now, I think there is a reconciliation
and I do think these things operate in
cycles. Maybe it means that men and
women are coming back together, in
some way; that there is a truce and there
will be male-female screenplays.
I really do think things are looking up.
I keep seeing women screenwriting credits. There's a film called Casey's Shadow, sort of a family film with Walter
Matthau as an old Cajun horse trainer. A
woman wrote the screenplay, Alexis
Smith plays this very strong horsewoman
and there's a girl jockey-back to National Velvet-so I think there has suddenly
been a turnaround.
There was a lot of talk at one time
about this male conspiracy in Hollywood.
I don't think it was really that as much as
people there not knowing what they were
doing. They were just going for broke—
for the blockbuster. The really adult films
about men and women are not blockbuster material; they're not Jaws and
they're not things that are going to scare
you and make you leap out of your seat.
The fact that Julia was so successful
is the best thing that could have happened. Whatever reservations I may have
about Julia, I was just delighted that a
film as serious and down-beat as that
could be a hit.
The Goodbye Girl is a hit because
it's back to the 50s and that to me is
retrogressive. I don't really mind it...
well, I suppose I do in a way, because
all those things that are good about the
An Unmarried Woman is my all time
favorite film. It probably hasn't opened
there in Houston yet. Well, it hasn't
opened here yet either-I jumped the gun
on that one. But it's funny, because
whenever I would lecture, people would
ask so what should there be? I don't
think there have to be positive films
about women or negative films or this or
that. Just write the roles, have films with
women and the positive and negative will
take care of themselves. But if ever I
would have to say what the film would
be, I think An Unmarried Woman would
You know from my review it was exciting and, in the end, she does stay with
her job. That's the thing that is going to
see her through-not the man. And yet
it's romantic, too. What's interesting
about films now is that it's suddenly all
right to be alone at the end, like in Annie
Hall. Even the most hopelessly romantic
people accepted that ending, accepted
them separating at the end. You somehow knew they really could love each
other better that way than if they lived
together. There is a realization that all
sorts of other arrangements-never
dreamed of by Hollywood or the Production Code—are possible between men and
women, men and men, women and
"I thought Diane Keaton was great in Annie
Hall, but I thought she was even just sublime
and extraordinary in Looking for Mr.
Lightman: Do you think that feminism is
in vogue now?
Haskell: Hollywood has always had a sort
of delayed reaction to things. You need a
little time to sift through the material and
let it settle and digest your own feelings
about it. I think that now they're ready
to deal with it.
I think films are going to have to be
about women who are working because
most women will be working. It's just a
matter of reflecting reality. I think that's
what is interesting about people liking
The Goodbye Girl, because it is a throwback; it's unreal. It goes back to a time
"Whatever reservations I may have about
Julia, I was just delighted that a film as
serious and down-beat as that could be a hit."
others are what's missing in The Goodbye Girl. There's no sense of reality of a
woman having to work. This is a woman
who's the old doormat. When a man
comes in, then her life lights up and then
he leaves and she mopes around. She
never really pulls herself together. Everything is all wisecracking and gags. So, you
never feel any of the pathos underneath
or any kind of 70s reality, the kind of
things An Unmarried Woman has in it.
when the woman was waiting for the
man. I think this is a generational thing.
The older men who are writing, because
of the way they were brought up and the
way they were conditioned, will see
women in a different way than the young
men coming along. This doesn't mean
there won't be misogyny and they won't
have problems relating to women, but I
think they will automatically accept
women working. This will not threaten
them. Inevitably, women will be playing
a great many more roles in the movies
of the future.
It comes down to individual directors
and their attitudes. I think Mazursky,
who made An Unmarried Woman, is still
very unusual because fundamentally there
is a great deal of hostility between the
sexes in America. It's disguised, but I
think it's there. There's a lot of fear and
there is bound to be fear on the part of
men now because they're losing that
automatic supremacy they once had.
Now there are all these actresses that
people want to see and projects will be
found for them, and this serves as a check
on what our director's instinctual misogyny is. If certain things are imposed on
him he can't express it as freely.
Lightman: What about the questions you
leave us with at the end of your book:
"Where, oh where, is the camaraderie, the
much-vaunted mutual support among
women? It was there in the twenties...the
thirties...the forties...and even the fifties.
But where, in the movies and out, are
their modern equivalents?"
Haskell: People criticize that paragraph
because you're supposed to say that now
sisterhood is everything and women really
were getting along better.
I think that is what was exciting about
The Turning Point,whatever you may
think of it, it's kind of classy soap opera,
a fun film, but at least you have these
Page 6 HOUSTON BREAKTHROUGH March 1978