Men still dominate showbiz – but from Mae West to Barbra Streisand, from Julie Taymor to Canada’s very own Ellen David, the times-they-are-a-changing.
By Richard Burnett
Every woman performer in showbiz I’ve ever interviewed – from Sandra Bernhard to Bonnie Raitt, from Anne Rice to Joan Rivers – has a story about battling the old boys' club.
Once, when I asked Lily Tomlin if showbiz is still very much a boys' club, she replied, “It’s a little better. Men still think they are the dominant figures in the culture. I mean, I’ve been in meetings where [my business and life partner] Jane [Wagner] or I would say something and then a young guy producer in the room working with us will say the same thing and suddenly everybody would understand it. [But] they didn’t get it when we said it! We’ve been through so much over the years that now we don’t respond emotionally. Now we laugh out loud. That moment is always ironic and funny and predictable!”
The story sounds familiar to two of Montreal’s favourite daughters, DJ/performer Misstress Barbara and rocker Melissa Auf der Maur, who both told me a couple years ago what it’s like for them to put up with sexist bullshit in showbiz.
|Bugs and Melissa Auf der Maur|
“In the DJ world, many people think if you’re a woman [DJ] you can’t be good,” said Misstress Barbara (a.k.a. Barbara Bonfiglio), who after 16 years spinning has become one of the most in-demand DJs on the planet. “I had to prove myself harder than any man. Then you get a reputation as being tough to deal with, but I had to be a tough cookie in the beginning.”
For Auf der Maur – who played bass for Hole for five years and is the daughter of my mentor, the late Nick Auf der Maur – it was more about putting up with local resentment and jealousy before the Montreal music scene exploded internationally.
“It was hard to go home but it’s very different now,” Melissa told me. “There’s nothing for anyone to resent now. Montreal was a very tight-knit hippie-boys club [back then], but today there’s so many active people. Montreal had been waiting for its moment [in the international spotlight] and the talent it breeds is very high end.”
Even rock icons like Heart’s Wilson sisters still put up with chauvinist crap today. “There is still a pretty big boy’s club in rock’n’roll and it’s frustrating because we’re out there working really hard, just as deserving of an equal amount of credibility,” Heart’s lead singer Ann Wilson told me last spring. “That’s always been a problem. Look at Nancy: [Journalists] still ask her questions like, ‘Wow, you’re one good-looking rocking chick – is that guitar really plugged in?’ Nancy grits her teeth and says, ‘Yeah, it’s plugged in.’”
As Joan Jett herself explained to me the summer I joined her onstage in Montreal, “I love rock’n’roll but the business – it’s like any business. It definitely qualifies more and more under ‘show business’ as this ‘reality’ mentality takes over the world. It’s not great. They still don’t give girls in rock any recognition. All these years after The Runaways and the business still hasn’t changed.”
Now, I love Joan Jett. To be honest, my favourite rock stars have always been women: Tina Turner (whom I’ve seen perform live 30 times), Chaka Khan, Heart, Cyndi Lauper, Janis Joplin (the first-ever female rock star) and Stevie Nicks. That’s because their narratives, in life, love and song, speak to me, whereas the lyrics and life experiences of most straight men rarely do.
It’s the same thing with Hollywood: My favourite all-time movie star is still Marlene Dietrich whom, I was happy to learn from Montrealer John Banks (he was Marlene’s personal assistant for 12 years, until 1972), was a truly remarkable human being, a genuine hero. “I think when Marlene said her war work was the most important thing she’d ever done in her life, she meant it,” John told me. “She loved performing for the soldiers. She liked being one of the boys.”
I also adore Mae West, whose 1927 play The Drag was the first Broadway play to deal openly with gay life and drag culture. Except that play never even opened on the Great White Way because after West’s first Broadway play Sex (which she also wrote, produced and directed) was closed down by the NYPD in April 1927 (West was sentenced to 10 days in jail for obscenity), the Society for the Prevention of Vice vowed to ban The Drag if West attempted to stage it.
West then moved to Hollywood where her movies literally saved Paramount from bankruptcy – just like Bette Midler’s string of hit movies in the 1980s saved Walt Disney from bankruptcy.
Then there is the theatre world’s unique all-women trifecta – British producer Judy Craymer, playwright Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd – who made Mamma Mia! the most successful musical in theatre history (read my Abominable Showman interview with Catherine Johnson by clicking here).
In other words, women freakin’ rock.
Another great talent is Montreal actor and director Ellen David who absolutely riveted audiences with her tour-de-force performance in playwright Yasmina Reza’s hilarious Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage, at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre last November.
Now, I’d never seen David in one of her many television roles (she has been a regular on no less than seven television series and won the ACTRA award for Outstanding Female Performance for her lead role in the 2007 film Surviving My Mother). But I have seen David act on stage in several terrific plays – including Mambo Italiano, In Piazza San Domenico, The Carpenter (all at Centaur); The Daily Miracle (Infinitheatre); and Equus (at the Segal Theatre) – and I have never seen her phone it in. After seeing her chew up the scenery in God of Carnage, I could not help but think Ellen David is one of the finest actors of her generation.
Turns out David is also an accomplished director (she wrote and directed her first short film What a Doll! which won the 2011 ACTRA Audience Choice Award for Best Film). She is now directing Infinitheatre’s upcoming English-language adaptation of playwright Francois Archambault’s play (translated by Bobby Theodore) The Leisure Society (La Societe de loisirs), about an affluent, shallow couple who invite their recently-divorced best friend to dinner for what they intend to be a final get-together since he no longer fits into their lifestyle. The play runs March 6-25 at Bain St-Michel.
|Cast and director, The Leisure Society|
“I studied directing many, many years ago when I also studied acting,” says David. “Directing more and more these days fulfills a different side of myself. Acting in Equus and God of Carnage in the past year was really fulfilling – they were really wonderful women’s roles. But now I have a chance to exercise this other part of my being.”
David cites Julie Taymor – who last week hit back at her former creative partners in the Broadway hit Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark arguing in court papers that she was the victim of a conspiracy to unfairly push her out of the production and that her one-time collaborators were secretly working on a rival script behind her back – as a personal hero.
“I respect and admire women directors like Julie Taymor – a little under the gun these days for Spiderman – for being a dynamic, powerful woman,” David says. “Statistically, the theatre world is still a boys club. [But] I think it has a lot to do with where you are in your own personal development as an individual. It’s difficult sometimes for women to step forward. The ability to manage groups of people is not traditionally…. like for me, it took a while to be able to stand up and say what I want to say without holding back.”
David adds, “Look at the work of Barbra Streisand, whom I admire incredibly. She has a perfectionist nature and when she wanted things a certain way, she was called all kinds of names.”
It is the historic double-standard that every woman knows first-hand. When a man speaks his mind, he’s just doing his job. When a woman does the same, she’s a bitch.
“It’s never happened to me,” David tells me. “Unless they’re saying it behind my back.”
Meanwhile, as far as I’m concerned, Ellen David is nothing less than a national treasure.
But ask David what she thinks about her being a role model for another generation of women coming up the ranks, and she says, “Years ago I remember going to the Centaur, seeing other actors and saying, ‘Wow, look at them!’ I was so in awe of these people. When a young actress came up to me after a God of Carnage performance, or when I go to a school and a student approaches me and says, ‘I loved you in such-and-such’ – it’s [still] surprising to me because I’m just trying to make a living. I’m just grateful that I’m able to do for a living what I’ve always dreamed about.”
Ellen David directs The Leisure Society (La Societe de loisirs), which runs March 6-25 at Bain St-Michel (5300 rue St-Dominique). Tickets: $10-20.
Click here for tickets and more info, or call 514 987-1774 ext. 104.