Wondrous Women of Hollywood
The number one movie this past weekend was WONDER WOMAN, skillfully directed by Patty Jenkins. I’ve read that its the highest opening weekend gross for a film helmed by a woman - the first distaff directed one hundred million dollar box office. The film’s stunning critical response and financial success make Patty Jenkins a woman of wonder in Hollywood.
Itake particular pride in this as a fellow alumnus of The American Film Institute, Center for Advanced Film Studies. Patty graduated in 2000 from the Directing discipline. I got my diploma as a Producer Fellow almost two decades earlier.
Graduating from an east coast liberal arts college, with no organized film program - and no film theory courses, I had to get my fill of movies by running the student film festival (Friday and Sunday nights) and enrolling in every American Studies class that listed film titles in their course description. CITIZEN KANE being screened in Aspects of The American Character with Professor Whitfield? Count me in.
Brandeis ended. The summer flew by, I arrived in Los Angeles and made my way to the stately Beverly Hills Doheny estate. He had left his massive Greystone mansion and bucolic grounds to the city - now being rented by AFI. It was like going to graduate school in Jed Clampett’s house or the one once occupied by Norma Desmond. You drove up tree-lined, winding roads with tony names like Hillcrest and Loma Vista, passing homes that could be hotels until you reached the immense wrought iron gates. Cement became cobblestone, as you snake up an endless driveway, the mansion looming above like the Witch’s Castle from Oz.
My burnt orange RX-7, with Massachusetts plates, would come to rest in a converted tennis court; my trek to campus taking me down ivy lined stairs, past carp ponds and rose gardens. The colossal entrance doors opened up to a spectacular foyer and down to a wide open space with a balcony that surveyed the whole property. Glistening black and white checkered tiled floors proudly reflected the imposing chandelier hanging above.
This wasn’t a campus, it was Sleeping Beauty’s castle from Disneyland. This wasn’t a graduate school, it was falling into Frank Capra’s Shangri-La.
My one year at AFI was filled with video projects, day and night classes with noted industry professionals, evening screenings, legendary Friday guest speakers and one epic film production. I was fortunate to be picked by one of five second year Director Fellows - a prime assignment that all twenty of the Producer Fellows chased upon setting foot at Greystone.
The director that chose me was Amy Rose Bloch. She was a bohemian, free-thinking, artist, chef and filmmaker. She had been educated at Smith and Berkeley and brought those environs with her. She had a round face always alive with a broad smile and a curvy figure regularly clothed in colorful, free flowing fabrics. She was a bubbling, whirling dervish of ideas, from a Hollywood family. In a roaring Alfa-Romeo two seater convertible, she would speed up to the Doheny stone edifice campus. If she was Katherine Ross from The Graduate, I would be lucky to call myself Benjamin.
Our film, CHILD’S PLAY, a Victorian era, moody, horror tale, was the first script to be approved for production. So, with little class time under my belt and even less experience making movies, I was thrown into the maiden production of that year. I hadn’t been on campus two months when we started preparing for the shoot, which would take place around Los Angeles. Our budget was over $10,000 and AFI was only giving us half. Part of my job was fundraising and I worked around the clock to send out letters and chase down leads. My funding journey took me from Aaron Spelling’s west side Love Boat offices to the mirrored bedroom (and circular bed) of Russ Meyer’s home below the Hollywood sign.
My mother was a feminist, before the movement had a name and women identified themselves that way. She went back to school when I was little, taught Art at UCLA when I was in Elementary School and fought for the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and abortion rights. My college education was at a university known for it’s politically leftist DNA. It was the home of Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis. As a senior I worked on a Women’s Programming Weekend and met feminist icons, like Representative Bella Abzug.
So, even though AFI was bucking the hiring practices of the late seventies film business, working with a woman director should have felt like a big deal - but influenced by AFI and my mother as a role model, it seemed natural. The school was merit based - she deserved the chance. AFI had chosen two women out of the five that year for second year film opportunities. Yet, Hollywood had yet to embrace the idea of women directors. Founded that same year, The Women’s Steering Committee at the Directors Guild of America, surveyed and discovered that women directors accounted for only 0.05 percent of total days worked by DGA members in 1979. Half of one percent? Yikes. (By 1995, the DGA estimated that the total days worked by women rose to 17% - but, sadly, that number isn’t much higher today.)
Amy didn’t seem deterred by the glass ceiling that loomed above her. She directed a great little film, got the movie seen by lots of studios and got herself hired as a Director’s Assistant on several features. She dashed off to Greece to work on Summer Lovers and then Germany for Black Sunday, starring her parents’ friend and neighbor, Bruce Dern. Meanwhile, the fates were not as kind to me, as I started off my career unemployed, followed by a stint in a mailroom. After a year I landed a job answering phones for a Casting Director and got to work on Rocky III.
A few years into our careers, Amy was getting ready for her next feature adventure, still trying to find a way to direct a movie of her own. I had finally landed a job reading scripts for a fledgling television company in the San Fernando valley. Both of us were still dreaming big and spoke often.
Just a few days before Thanksgiving in 1983, I was in my windowless office reading a script. Night was falling and there was the quiet hum of activity in the offices just beyond my door. A receptionist bounced into my cubicle to tell me that Amy was on the phone. I picked it up hoping to match the limitless enthusiasm with which she always greeted me.
“Hey. I’m at Cedars. Our doctor friend Elie checked me in. They wanna run some tests. He thinks I have Leukemia… Can you come by and see me?”
There’s never fanfare for when your world collapses. No headlines or notes passed in class to give you a head’s up. On an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon in November, the darkness descended as if a bottle of fountain pen ink had spilled over my life. I dropped everything and raced over to the hospital.
The chemo cost her hair, but typical of Amy she had a most wonderful set of scarves and looked, if possible, even more stylish as a cancer patient. Her boundless energy might have been sapped, but her smile never dimmed. She wore her optimism like one of her flowing kimonos. The first round of treatments didn’t provide enough remission - but they did find a bone marrow donor in her brother. The outlook seemed bright.
The week of the Super Bowl in 1984 I was working as a Production Assistant on a comedy pilot for the new TV company. They offered to send me to New York to help with an Open Casting Call. I went by to see Amy at Cedars and she encouraged me to go. She was feeling good and made me promise to bring her back chestnuts from a street vendor.
On Super Bowl Sunday I was hanging out in my hotel room watching the Raiders beat up on the Redskins and decided to call Amy and watch it with her. The phone rang in her hospital room and a nurse answered. “I’m sorry, Amy isn't in this room…”
Huh? I must have misdialed.
I rang again.
Same nurse. Same response. Curious.
When I reached the main operator, she said that Amy’s room had changed. I asked why.
“Are you family?”
Three little words that under under normal circumstances would seem banal, perhaps inquisitive. But not now. Not from someone at a hospital.
Amy died that day. January 22nd. Super Bowl Sunday. And a little part of me died with her.
Her parents never seemed quite the same after that - and how could they be? It would be several years before I would marry and have kids of my own. And now I understand.
Richard and Nancy Bloch honored their Amy Rose’s memory by endowing a scholarship at our American Film Institute for a female director (or other female Fellows, if no director qualified). For a couple of years I would reach out to someone at AFI for the name of the recipient, but eventually life flooded into those memories and I forgot to call.
Not long after Amy’s passing my career began to gain momentum. The television studio script reader job led to multiple promotions and then a chance to run a TV division for one of the most successful movie producing teams in Hollywood. Eventually I would even start my own company to produce movies-for-television. That too was a big success. Along the way, AFI left its lofty environs in the hills of Beverly and moved east to the former Immaculate Heart College. After renting from the 90210 they were now property owners, having bought their new campus from sisters - The Sisters of The Immaculate Heart of Mary. That must have been an omen for providing the launching ground for so many women filmmakers.
At some point in the late eighties, Jean Firstenberg, the new Chair of the American Film Institute, a striking, white haired, fierce defender of film and visionary, suggested that I teach at my former alma mater. I gave it a shot. At first I taught weekend seminars about developing projects for television in cities around the country. Eventually that led to becoming a member of the esteemed AFI faculty. My class became a staple for Second Year Producers and Screenwriters. Dozens of filmmakers have passed through my doors learning how to “pitch” their stories and sell their movies and pilots. I became so enamored with teaching that I couldn’t wait for the fall semester to start - often flying in from far-flung Canadian locations just to teach; then flying back. I even conducted a class from a hospital bed in Colorado, via Skype, after a skiing accident. With all the painkillers I was on, heaven knows what the students learned that day.
There are two great perks to being on the faculty of The American Film Institute. The first is that you get a perfect front row seat to the Commencement ceremony at the beginning of June. There are always amazing Honorary Doctoral candidates there from the pantheon of film and television. Three days ago I bore witness to Kristen Chenoweth bestowing a doctorate on Carol Burnett and even got to share in a legendary Tarzan yell from the television icon.
The second perk is being invited to sit at one of the faculty tables for the AFI Life Achievement Award. I’ve been in attendance for awards to Al Pacino, George Lucas, Mike Nichols, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks and more. If you love Hollywood, worship movies and can’t get enough celebrity sightings - this is the night for you.
AFI’s Commencement was three days ago at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (can you really get any more Hollywood than that?). As the faculty marched in, two by two, we each settled into our comfy seats. I grabbed the program for the day and skimmed through the pages in search of the “Faculty” section, wanting to be sure they listed me and spelled my name right. (Oh please - I’m a Producer, of course BILLING is important to me…)
In my search I landed upon a page with a list of all of the scholarships awarded. I scanned the printing and immediately spotted the Amy Rose Bloch Endowed Scholarship. I’m sure I had checked in previous programs, but don’t remember seeing it. Yet, here it was for the Class of 2017. And the recipient read: Stephanie Jackson Nilles. And beside her name it said, quite simply: Producing. Wait. Let me read that again. PRODUCING? She was MY student?!?
Perhaps the Amy Rose scholarship had been awarded to a female producer at some point in the past, but I had never heard of one. I couldn’t have been more excited. Amy and I had come full circle. We worked so closely together at AFI, and now I was teaching a future filmmaker who was at AFI thanks to her. I ran to find Stephanie after all the pomps and circumstances ended -as we all ended up standing together atop the hand and footprints of the stars of yesteryear. Stephanie and I took a photo together that I immediately sent to Amy’s parents.
Tonight I will don a rented tuxedo and with my wife head back to Hollywood, to the big theater that neighbors Grauman’s - the one where they hold the Oscars, to witness Diane Keaton becoming the forty-fifth recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. The actress, producer and director earning her rightful spot among the men she’s worked alongside - from Pacino to Beatty to Martin. She will add Annie Hall and Kay Corleone beside the pantheon of iconic film characters already in this hallowed award hall.
And, to my delight, it will be the first Life Achievement Award recipient who worked with me on a film. I was blessed to collaborate with Diane on a 2003 Lifetime drama entitled ON THIN ICE. Diane played a mom of two boys addicted to crystal meth, who went undercover to bring down the largest drug cartel on the east coast. A true story that Diane brought vividly to life.
Diane Keaton was a sheer delight to work with and get to know. On our last day of shooting, she even gifted me an autographed Annie Hall poster that hangs majestically in my office. I couldn’t be more excited to be in attendance as she’s presented this well deserved honor.
So, with Wonder Woman standing proudly as the Number One movie in America for the seventh straight day, I think of the wondrous women of Hollywood surrounding me - from my fellow alum, Patty Jenkins, to my student, Stephanie Nilles, to my friend, Diane Keaton about to be honored by the institution I love. I think about how far women filmmakers have come - and yet, how much work still needs to be done to make productions a level playing field.
But mostly I think of Amy Rose, who was a director before there were opportunities for women; Who was my true movie superhero, long before there was a Wonder Woman on the silver screen.
For more information on the Amy Rose Bloch Endowed Scholarship or the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, please visit: http://www.afi.com/dww/.