Makers Presents ‘Women in Hollywood’; ‘Maleficent’ Screenwriter Linda Woolverton on What’s Changed and What Hasn’t

nullTonight, the Makers documentary series continues with a look at women in Hollywood. There are some great interviews, including one with Jane Fonda, where she talks about how she was able to get her politics into her films and how 9 to 5 was made. 

Featured prominently are Ava DuVernay’s discussions of the future and how women of her generation are no longer waiting for the folks with power to give them permission to make a film — they are now doing it their own way.

Yet there is no concealing that the statistics are abysmal, and many folks in the doc attest to that. It must have been quite a challenge for director Linda Goldstein Knowlton to provide optimism when the reality of life as a woman creative in Hollywood is so bleak.

The revelation for me was Linda Woolverton, the billion-dollar screenwriter of The Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland, and Maleficent. She spoke about how she had to fight to keep Belle strong and not be a typical damsel in distress. That might not seem so difficult now, but this was the late 1980s, and she really went out on a limb to convince Disney suits to see things her way.

I asked Woolverton some questions about writing modern-minded heroines for Disney, whether Maleficent could have been made a decade ago, and her directing aspirations. 

Women and Hollywood: Talk about your fight for Belle in The Beauty and the Beast.

Linda Woolverton: I was asked to [do] my take on The Beauty and the Beast, and as I was
approaching the material, I realized that she was not a contemporary heroine.
She was passive. She transforms the beast through her beauty. I wanted to make
her a woman of that time. I am a feminist, and I didn’t think women would accept a
throwback heroine. I wanted to move her into the present.

W&H: I remember in the 1970s and 1980s, there were such great movies with women: Lily Tomlin, Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler. Men and women went to see movies together because they were called "movies," not "women’s movies." It seems that in the 1990s, after your movie came out and Thelma and Louise came out, things got worse for women with the rise of the blockbuster. The amount of women on screen decreased.  As a woman who has worked in
Hollywood since that time, do you agree with that? How did you keep going?

LW: I am still beating that door down. I don’t know what
happened. Was it politics? For the blockbusters, people were always telling me
that if you write female protagonists, the boys won’t go, so you have to put the
boys’ stuff in it to get everybody. I write for people from 8 to 80, and that’s not
easy. 

I really get fired up with female protagonists. I can
really feel the difference in myself when I am writing a script that has a
woman at the center. She can be weak and get strong. I know that my energy and
my excitement for the character is more.

W&H: You talked about fighting the good fight to protect Belle’s bookishness and bravery in The Beauty and the Beast. Do you still have to fight as hard now?

LW: I do. It’s a different battle. The character of Belle moved
us forward a few inches. She was a reader. She didn’t rely on her beauty to get
herself through the world. She wasn’t a victim waiting for her prince to come.
She was a proactive character. But that’s not good enough. We have to move
beyond Belle. My whole point in Alice was that you have to forge your own
path. You can’t go down anybody else’s [road]. It’s your dream; it’s your life. You
don’t have to be told by other people what to make of yourself. You decide.

That’s still one more step forward than Belle. And then Maleficent is a woman
of all different colors who struggles with the evil that’s inside her and how it
overtook her and being able to learn to love after she has been so incredibly
wronged. They are all stories of womanhood, but I hope that, each time, I am pushing us
a little bit towards being multicolored and multifaceted and all the things
that women are. And they are not always pretty and nice.

W&H: Maleficent it is such a
feminist movie. Do you think this movie would have been made ten years ago?

LW: I guarantee you that if I had pitched a protagonist who had her wings
stolen, basically just torn off of her in a metaphor for rape… I guarantee you
that would not have flown.

W&H: The rape metaphor in this film is so incredibly powerful. Do you think that we are able
to tell these stories differently now in our culture?

LW: I think so. I learned that, in writing family films, you
can go to the dark place. Don’t be afraid to do it. Walt Disney did it. You can go as long
as you can bring your audience back and don’t leave them there for too long.
Even the youngest kids will go with you if you don’t hang out there for too
long. I want to write uplifting stories, but life is horrible at times. You
can come back from it.

W&H: Do you feel a responsibility when you are writing these
films? 

LW: I feel enormous responsibility, especially when you are
working for the Disney company, because I know that these movies are going to be
seen in China and all parts of the world, so I take it really seriously. I look
at what the message is going to be for young, evolving
minds. I’m more interested in what the story is going to make young minds
believe and think because these Disney movies become a part of your soul when
you are a kid. They are in you forever. For me, that is an enormous
responsibility. 

W&H: How do we move things forward for women in Hollywood?

LW: There’s a boys’ club definitely, but I haven’t found the girls’ club. I don’t know where it is. I would like to join it. Even as I say I want to direct, you
can see the veil go over the men’s eyes. You can see it right there, like they are thinking, "That’s
never going to happen."

W&H: Do you want to direct? 

LW: Yes.

W&H: A male screenwriter with your track record would be
directing. 

LW: True.

W&H: The guy who directed Maleficent had never directed before.
Men are given opportunities women are not. This is a lack of opportunities.

LW: You have to take it, I suppose. Because it is about commerce and
it is a business of making money. And the reason we are feeling this great sea
change is that there is money there. Look at Frozen. These people are
business men and women. That’s what they are intertested. I think Alice
making a billion dollars and how that brought awareness to the fact that a film
with a woman at the center can make a billion dollars. People will go. So
there is money there. I think that’s great and fantastic. The more popular we
can make these films, the more they’ll create more opportunities.

W&H: And women cannot fail. 

LW: I spoke to a class at USC in the film program, and we were
talking about this. I was looking at the women, and I felt their fear. They all had this look of: "Who am I to
know how to do this?" And a male student just goes, "Well, I’m doing it."

Woolverton added that she got a note from someone up high in Disney during Maleficent screenings — Angelina Jolie was yelling too much for that person’s taste. So they had to cut some of Maleficent’s yelling because they were afraid she wouldn’t look feminine enough. Woolverton said she pounded her hands on the table that day, but in the end, felt that Maleficent yelled enough.

Yeah, she yelled her way all the way to a $750 million gross worldwide.

Makers’ "Women in Hollywood" airs tonight at 9 PM on PBS.