February 9, 2004
The Santa Barbara News-Press
Leading ladies are not
Six women share their stories
By June Rich
Dumb luck may start some of the most sensational film careers, but only fierce determination makes them last.
Six women titans of film spoke to a crowded auditorium in Victoria Hall with that message on Sunday, the last day of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. And their Oscar-nomination credentials were flashing.
Bookending the group were Denise Robert, producer of The Barbarian Invasions, nominated for best foreign film, and Ngila Dickson, who is twice nominated for costume design, in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and The Last Samurai.
Their starts in show business all bore a strange similarity: random secretary jobs turning into something more. A casual introduction to someone famous. Too much wine over lunch emboldening one actress to serenade a writer from "All in the Family" in a restaurant parking lot.
"I got to be on the show and sing that song," said Mary Kay Place, known for her roles on dozens of television shows and films, including an Emmy-winning performance in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and more recently, Being John Malkovich.
She has directed and written for shows such as "M*A*S*H" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
But pure moxie isn't enough to carry you through the inevitable catastrophes in film-making. Those take inventiveness, a willingness to find solutions.
Ms. Robert, working on her second movie, The Widow of St. Pierre, discovered that she wouldn't be able to finish the film in its original setting, on a bridge that crosses the River Seine in Paris.
"Five months later, we ended up rebuilding the Seine and much of central Paris in a field of corn flowers in Southern France," she said. "It was the worst experience. The director went berserk. It ruined four production companies in France. And we did battle with lawyers for four years. I did not sleep for four years, but I learned a great lesson. You have to do your homework before you start."
Most agreed they hadn't encountered the overt prejudice against older women often evident in casting on-screen.
But sexism, they said, had been a pervasive presence throughout their careers in an industry still dominated by men.
Several said they faced the assumption that they'd slept their way to the top.
Jeannine Oppewall, production designer on countless movies, including L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and most recently Seabiscuit, said she kept hearing stories about herself early in her career.
Exasperated, she finally buttonholed a colleague and said, "If I'd slept with half as many people as you say I have, I'd have had a much more interesting life!"
Ms. Place met the same type of assumptions.
"I think it does exist, but I just ..." she said, pausing for the right word, "proceed. I proceed as if it didn't."
The panel members agreed that the "cast" behind the scenes is just as important as the actors.
"I'll actually ask a director if he's fun and nice. If you're on set with a screamer, it's miserable," said Judianna Makovsky, costume designer for movies such as Seabiscuit and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
She said she had a standing agreement with Robert Redford, known as an extremely amiable director, to work for free.
On the set of The Lord of the Rings, Ms. Dickson found herself doing battle with Elrond actor Hugo Weaving's makeup artist, a zealous overplucker, she said. "There weren't that many big fights, but people take creative license when they shouldn't."
Over the years, most have held onto their sanity by clinging to passions outside of filmmaking.
Susan Jackson, another panelist who produces, markets and distributes independent films for her companies Turtles Crossing and ZenPix, said surfing and skiing were essential to her mental health.
"I'm so busy when I'm surfing or skiing that I'm just doing that," she said. "It's purely a joyous thing."
Ms. Robert listens to Gregorian chants. Ms. Place tours famous gardens.
Ms. Oppewall studies bugs to gain a better perspective of human behavior. The natural world can offer real ballast in a life devoted to fantasy.
"During the making of Ironweed I went to Niagara Falls," she said. "I watched the water go over the falls and thought, geologically, how many years has that water been going over those rocks, and how short my tour of duty on Ironweed was by contrast."