Gloria Swanson: The women of early Hollywood who didn’t give a f**k
Starting next Thursday at BAMcinématek, Brooklyn is Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers. Manohla Dargis described the exhibition as “a corrective to our collective amnesia”.
The exhibition looks at the early, and often forgotten, women of cinema’s beginnings. Let’s take a look at some of the women from those early days of cinema who really didn’t give a flying f**k.
Pickford was one of the four founders of United Artists (along with the slightly more well remembered Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks) as well as one of the 36 founding members of the Academy for Motion Pictures.
She was known during her acting career as “America’s sweetheart”, while as a film producer she could handle herself as well as anyone else in the cutthroat world of early Hollywood. Pickford was raised by an alcoholic odd-job man and a part-time seamstress in a small town in Toronto, Canada, showing just how much Mary Pickford gave a f**k about people’s opinions on her ambitions.
Swanson was a star of the silent era as well as crossing over into the brave new world of “talkies”. She was also nominated for the first ever Best Actress Oscar (along with a middle-aged Estelle Getty.)
Swanson is no doubt remembered nowadays for her performance in Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. Her role as a self-effacing and/or totally insane version of herself took some pretty serious cajones. F**ks given: zero.
Norma Talmadge, a huge star of the early days of cinema, retired a wealthy woman and is said to have left the celebrity life with some relief. She’s said to be the influence for both Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and Lina Lamont in Singin in the Rain.
However, these comparisons are apparently way off the mark; Talmadge herself was once said to have told fans pressing her for an autograph outside a restaurant, “Get away, dears. I don’t need you anymore and you don’t need me.” The woman really couldn’t have given less of a f**k if she tried.
By her own admission, Joan Crawford came from a dirt-poor family in Texas. She also went on to be one of the most recognized faces on the planet. Either way she wasn’t going to let the fact that she might have done some stag films when she was younger – a claim she denied her entire life – get in the way of her career.
Numerous versions of what did or didn’t happen with Joan Crawford’s supposed porno are out there, but as no verified image has ever come to light, it’s hard to say if they did or didn’t ever exist. If there was any footage she made damn sure they were never seen by anyone, and if there weren’t, well, she didn’t give a f**k anyways.
Dietrich’s final words were famously said to be “Codeine . . . bourbon”. With a rock and roll lifestyle like that, including affairs with more actors and actresses you can imagine while traveling to perform live in places you’ve never heard of, it makes it even crazier to think she was saying those last words after nine decades of not giving a f**k.
In a 1932 interview, actress Tallulah Bankhead revealed: “If there’s anything the matter with me now, it’s not Hollywood or Hollywood’s state of mind . . . . The matter with me is: I WANT A MAN! Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!”
This led to Bankhead being placed in the Hays Committee’s “Doomsday Book” – which meant she was considered “unsuitable for the public”. The book was then presented to the Hollywood Studios. But they didn’t bank on Bankhead lacking any f**ks to give! The performer went on to have a career late into the 1960s, as well as having numerous affairs with some of Hollywood’s most legendary leading men and women.
Aside from having one if the best names ever, Butterfly McQueen was perhaps one of Hollywood’s great “lost” talents. Despite attaining world fame for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s maid Sissy in Gone with the Wind, McQueen quickly grew tired of playing racially stereotypical parts and early on left acting largely behind.
In 1975, at age 64, McQueen received a bachelor’s degree in political science from New York City College. In 1989, the Freedom From Religion Foundation honored her with its Freethought Heroine Award. “I’m an atheist,” she stated, “Christianity appears to me to be the most absurd imposture of all the religions, and I’m puzzled that so many people can’t see through a religion that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry.”
Ms. McQueen, you really did not give a solitary f**k.