Hollywood Memoir: A Young Woman's Intro to Filmmaking in The Golden Age
By Tova Laiter
It was 1973 when I arrived in Hollywood with all the usual hopes, dreams, and expectations.
I was producing TV commercials and taking Film Production classes at NYU Extension at night. I just assumed that I would come to LA and jump directly into producing feature films at the studios.
As soon as I arrived, though, it became clear that women did NOT produce films nor did they hold any executive positions in the business. Secretaries, Script Supervisors, Associate Producers, low to mid-range talent or literary agents, yes, but as the French say, c'est tout!
What was a young girl to do? I applied to the secretarial pool at Paramount studios even though I had not the slightest clue how to type. And shockingly enough, a few weeks later, I was sent to the production offices of "The Godfather: Part II," which filmed on the Melrose lot for a month before moving on to the Dominican Republic for the Cuba sequences.
I did somehow get the gig. But soon it became apparent that I was useless as a typist but reasonably skilled for phone and people duties. And so I became a ‘"liaison" (okay, runner) between the production office and set.
What a tough job! Get up in the morning, go to a real studio lot, check into the bustling production office, go to the set and interact with the likes of Francis Coppola, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall. And on a lucky day, witness Pacino transform from a young, bouncy, floppy-hat wearing New Yorker to Michael Corleone-- once he put on his costume and make-up. Beguiling.
I noticed how calm Francis was in the midst of the chaos of a big set prepping for a shot and somehow, in between, still being able to interact with his three female employees named Mona (yes!). I recall the early Friday evening when Pacino, tired after a grueling day of takes and re-takes in the stuffy Senate-hearing set, walked outside the stage door and exclaimed: "I can no longer function without liquor"(a declaration I've since adapted verbatim for similar circumstances).
I realized for the first time the price of artistry--the hard work behind the glamour.
But my favorite moments were reserved for when Pacino and De Niro sat around between takes amusing themselves and us with improvisational conversations in jibberish, fake Italian.
Oh the fun...
At around the same time, on the same lot, they were also shooting "Chinatown." One evening, my cinephile PA colleague Phil and myself were walking to the set when we saw Roman Polanski gesturing animatedly with his hands in what seemed like a heated argument with his editors just outside the editing rooms.
Brimming with excitement upon seeing his idol, Phil could not contain himself and ran toward Polanski, breathlessly bowing to him: "Excuse me for interrupting, Mr. Polanski...but you are my favorite director, the greatest, really ...you are a genius of cinema!" "Thank you," said Roman, pointing toward his editors. "Do you mind telling those fuckers this?"
Another movie shooting on the lot was John Schlesinger's "The Day of the Locust" with its massive cast of extras portraying Hollywood in the 30s.
All of these pictures were period films. Everywhere you looked on the lot, from the stages to the commissary, were thousands of actors and extras in period costumes and makeup. It felt like we were transported to the glory days of the studios of the 30s and 40s, humming with activity and creativity. I was fresh enough and romantic enough to think that it would always be like this.
Within a few years, the first wave of women broke through to become studio executives (Marcia Nasatir, Nessa Hyams, Sherry Lansing). And not long after, some women did become producers, often with a male partner (Julia and Michael Phillips), and then on their own (Tamara Asseyev and Alexandra Rose). Eventually, many other women followed, myself included.
We all sat now in big offices selling each other movies, talent and ideas in a way that I imagined executives in other businesses sold their wares: "I have a fabulous dress for you with a zipper in the front…No? We can put the zipper in the back, no problem."
It was largely great fun for many years. But my fondest memories go back to my magical introduction to Hollywood on the 1973 Paramount lot. It was the Golden Age of Cinema indeed.
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