Tuesday, April 07, 2020

TV: Tracking the progress of women in TV

Friends, TV watchers, country-persons, we come not to bury Marlo Thomas' accomplishments but to clarify them.  Marlo, because of the sitcom THAT GIRL (1966 to 1971).  Claims are made that THAT GIRL changed everything for women on TV.  WIKIPEDIA adds a qualifier ("That Girl was one of the first sitcoms to focus on a single woman who was not a domestic or living with her parents."); however, that's really a weasel way of doing it.


We'd argue that history is told better -- TV history -- via Sally Field.  But this notion that THAT Girl provided the first single woman who wasn't a maid or living with her parents?  We're glad "sitcom" is in there because Anna Mae Wong's THE GALLERY OF MADAME LIU-TSONG (1961) is only one of many drama shows that is overlooked when you don't include "sitcom" in the claim.  And "domestic" is added so that BEULAH (1950-1953) gets ignored (first played by Ethel Waters, then by Hattie McDaniels and finally by Louise Beavers).

However, even with those stipulations ("sitcom" and "not a domestic"), many shows are still overlooked.  On MY LITTLE MARGIE, true, Gale Storm was living with her father.  However, THE GALE STORM SHOW (1956-1960) found Gale working on a cruise ship and no father or mother around.  Ann Southern betters Gale in that Ann did it twice -- in PRIVATE SECRETARY (1953 to1957) she was a single working woman who didn't live with her parents and in  THE ANN SOURTHERN SHOW (1958 to 1961) she was again a single working woman who wasn't living with her family.  There's Eve Arden in OUR MISS BROOKS (radio 1948 to 1957, TV 1952 to 1956; theatrical film in 1956) as well.

Then there's Sally Field who followed up the teenage GIDGET with THE FLYING NUN (1967 to 1970).  Sally's Sister Bertrille lived with no husband or parent so no one was showing up for embarrassing moments of why-are-these-pants-here-these-man's-pants to which a woman responds,"Oh, Daddy" before adding she was washing, ironing or mending them.

Equally true, THAT GIRL was a variation on Deanna Durbin's 100 MEN AND A GIRL.  Marlo was pretty much on her own episode after episode when it came to women.  A female friend shows up on an episode but by the time you blinked she was gone.  If you're not getting how little screen time women not named Marlo got on THAT GIRL, the show ran for 136 episodes and her mother, played by Rosemary DeCamp, only appeared in 20 of those with Penny Santon adding one more episode to that total (Santon played the mother in the televised pilot).  Her father?  Harold Gould played him in the televised pilot and then Lew Parker took over the role.  Parker plays him in 63 episodes, add Gould's one episode and the father appears in 64 episodes while the mother only appears in 21.

By contrast, Sally's nun worked with Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood), Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), Shelley Morrison (Sixter Sixto) and Linda Dangcil (Sister Ana).

We were reminded of that as we watched FREE FORM's new series MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM.  We weren't eager to watch it because it had received some bad reviews, some really bad reviews.  Watching the first three episodes, we realized the series was being judged by something other than its own quality. 

The concept is that witches have been helping the US government for over 300 years.  Today, they help the government battle terrorists around the world.  Fort Salem is where new female witches can train for battle and the person in charge is General Sarah Alder (Lyne Renee).  Raelle (Taylor Hickson) is a young witch whose mother recently died in battle, Ashley Nicole Williams is a young witch who comes from a legendary line of enlisted witches and Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton) is a young witch who grew up around women only while Sgt Anacostia Quartermaine (Demetria McKinney) is the one training the young witches.

The show has a fast pace and there's always a lot going on in every episode and it's always entertaining.  So we were confused about the hatred aimed at the show.

Then we remembered the ingrained sexism of The Water Cooler Set.

Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE is a great book.  It made a fine film.  But a television series?

A four season (possibly more, the fourth season will be ten episodes) TV show?

That's creepy.  Especially when season one covered the book.

Remember CONFEDERATE?  Maybe not.  It was an HBO series.  Or was supposed to be.  It was going to an HBO series from two White men who worked on GAME OF THRONES.  It was going to be a show where slavery never ended in the United States.  The proposal resulted in widespread condemnation, as it should have.

But note that only a handful of people (we were among them) ever objected to an ongoing HANDMAID'S TALE.

The subjection of women is of no concern to The Water Cooler Set.  In fact, they rather enjoy it.

That's why they promote a show like THAT GIRL as a first, for example.  Daddy shows up in nearly half the episodes (47.06%) to reign everyone in.  THE FLYING NUN?  Like MOTHERLAND, you've got women in charge.

It threatens them.  The same way you'll find some who are threatened by BEWITCHED -- but they love I DREAM OF JEANNIE.

Sally Field, not just with THE FLYING NUN, better represents the arc of TV than Marlo or THAT GIRL.  Sally followed up GIDGET and THE FLYING NUN with TV guest appearances and TV movies.  There was traditional fair like HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS which (impossibly) found her playing Eleanor Parker's sister.  Eleanor's killed their mother and now kills their father and the other sisters.  Sally manages to survive and expose, with the help of two men (John Fink's Dr. Lindsay and Med Flory's Sheriff Nolan), that step-mom Julie Harris is being framed by Eleanor.  But Sally also did TV movies like MAYBE I'LL COME HOME IN THE SPRING.

That 1971 ABC TV movie featured two songs by Linda Ronstadt on the soundtrack and teamed Sally again with Eleanor Parker, this time as her mother.  In her memoir IN PIECES, Sally notes:

It attempted to look at the runaways of my generation, the young people who needed to escape the confinements of their families by vanishing into the world of hippies, only to find that coming home again -- if they ever did -- was not easy.  Obviously, this wasn't something I had experienced in my own life, but I did understand inarticulate, dysfunctional families and, saints be praised, I wasn't playing a nun.
Happily, Land Bradbury -- who had helped me with my homemade test [for I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN] -- played my younger sister, and since she'd been a member of the Studio much longer than I, we could confide in each other about the work.  Playing my troublesome mother was the beautiful Eleanor Parker, who was at the tail end of a wonderful career and to me, she was fascinating.  Never in my short time as an actor had I worked with anyone so frantic for control.  Every time a scene required us to hug -- which for some reason, happened a lot -- she would automatically turn my face away from the camera, making sure the only things on display were her glowing, tear-rimmed eyes and the back of my head.  But Lee [Strasberg] had always said, "The best acting is no acting at all," and since the mother and daughter had a contentious relationship in the text and I didn't feel exactly bonded with Eleanor.  I "used it."  As I watched this actress -- who had been extremely successful by anyone's defintion -- I realized that she was a cautionary tale for me, a blinking hazard sign.  True, she came from a different era of acting, and that was part of it, but as I sat quietly in a corner, observing how she worked, I realized that I never wanted to get to the point where showing my face on camera at just the right angle was more important than the work itself.  This work that I was just now trying to understand.

 Sally plays Denise who returns home after splitting with David Carradine.  As the movie progresses, she reflects on her life with David.  They lived via begging and rushing to eat someone's leftovers before the table got bused.  They had fun from time to time, swinging in trees, kissing, etc. But she wanted exclusive and he didn't.  So she returns home and her mother wants her to go to the doctor's and wants her to shower and the mother throws away the clothes she returned in.  Sally cuts her hair back the way she wore it as a child and plays with her dolls.  That's where her sister Susie (Lane Bradbury, who Sally mentioned above) shows up.  Is she high?  That's what Susie wants to know.  Susie thinks Sally's life was wonderful.  Susie's a pill head (downers) who calls Sally a "fink" when she thinks Sally was going to tell their parents.  As Sally adjusts to returning home, David Carradine is stealing every vehicle he can (including, in a comic bit of lunacy, an ice cream truck) in an attempt to reach her.

It's a delicate film, a moving one, the sort you rarely see on TV.  But in 1971, influenced probably by what was going on in theatrical films (Alan J. Pakula's KLUTE, Francis Ford Coppola's THE CONVERSATION, etc), a character study could be done.

TV would continue to evolve and, in 1976, Sally would co-star with Joanne Woodward in the groundbreaking mini-series SYBIL.  A groundbreaking film by any means, yes, but a TV movie also made at a time when women were largely absent in films featuring two strong roles for women was novel all by itself.  1977 would be a ground breaking year for theatrical films as Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave teamed up in JULIA and Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft teamed up in THE TURNING POINT.  Hard to believe today but the late sixties through mid-seventies found few women onscreen -- 'buddy' movies were all the rage -- and an actress acting opposite another actress rarely took place -- not among leading roles.

The power of a strong actress with an established name further changed TV and Sally was there in 1981 demonstrating.  ALL THE WAY HOME was her project.  She did it for NBC and she did the play live.  Jane Fonda in THE DOLLMAKER would follow but Sally got to the airwaves first. In 1995, she'd follow with the mini-series A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS.

A decade later, the move for strong, established named actresses would be guest spots on TV shows and Sally would go on ER to play Abby's mother for 12 episodes and win an Emmy in the process.  She would go on to win another Emmy while starring in the series BROTHERS & SISTERS.

With each major TV role (and that includes the much maligned FLYING NUN), Sally Field charts the growth of women on TV -- more so than any other actress.  Marlo's place in TV history is cemented but the reality is that Sally Field came of age during the birth of TV and it is Sally's CV that best tracks the progress for women in TV.
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