I just love the old Hollywood movies! The Wizard of Oz, Easter Parade, Singing in the Rain, Gone with the Wind. Stars such as Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford exuded a sophistication that was breathtaking and memorable. Hollywood movies made a huge impact on audiences worldwide. These films made me want to perform, dance and sing before I ever thought of doing anything else. But there was another side to the glitz and glamour of the so-called Hollywood ‘Star System’. The classic studio system was adopted by five Hollywood Studios, Paramount, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), Warner Brothers Pictures, 20th Century Fox and RKO Production. Distribution was in-house and owning their theatres gave them a great deal of control. Their actors were bound into lengthy contracts with clauses around their public and personal lives and little or no agency around what films they made.
I have often wondered what it was like to be an actress back then. They seemed to exude talent and even the simplest of films made compelling viewing. It can’t have been easy being a woman in early to mid Hollywood, navigating you way through a male dominated system and being molded into pre-conceptions of what you should be. Like many actresses today, they dealt with sexism, ageism and had to fight for decent roles on top of personal struggles. Recently passed Doris Day may have outlived Judy Garland by more than 50 years but both lived through the instability of Hollywood life. Things were even farther away from rosy for black actresses. African American stars Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne dealt with both sexism and racism as well as role restrictions and they deserved far more from their careers than their personal stories bore witness to. Dandridge eventually became the first African American to be nominated for Best Actress Academy Award, following her starring role in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones. We now have Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson and my dream to meet, Angela Bassett serving excellence. In addition to an abundance of UK talent including Letitia Wright.
Today, the growing pool of women of colour working in Hollywood include director Ava DuVernay and writer and showrunner Shonda Rhimes. As a female creator at the helm of long running TV shows, Shonda is an inspiration to many. Joining writer and director Julie Taymor, who has enjoyed more than a decade long success with her adaptation of the stage version of The Lion King. As a black actress myself, I believe this will provide women from all walks of life and cultures with equal opportunities in the careers they love. The presence of emerging female talent in the film and media industries is also encouraging, many of whom can be found on social media collaborating on new and fresh projects. The beauty of filmmaking and being able to tell our stories is growing and thankfully the industry continues to shift.
By Lesley-Anne Miller
Lesley-Anne is an actor, writer and voice over artist. You can follow her on Instagram