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110 min. French, English.

In the 1960s and 70s, Delphine Seyrig stood before the camera for the big names in international cinema. With the rise of video technology, she began to make her own feminist works together with fellow filmmaker and activist Carole Roussopoulos. In 1975 and 1976, the pair asked 24 of their colleagues in France and the United States – including Juliet Berto, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine and Maria Schneider – about their experiences as women in the film business.
The interviews with the actresses are a shockingly unsurprising record of the era, creating a sobering assessment of working in an industry busy maintaining the machinery of male fantasies. Seyrig asks: “If you’d been a man, would you still have chosen to become an actor?” or “Have you ever acted in a scene with another woman and if so, was her role that of a competitor or a confidante?” – thus initiating a process of reflection. What’s astonishing is not the answers – a similar lack of nuanced roles and appropriate representation is still very much apparent today – but rather the fact that here, for once, someone was asking the right questions. (Marie Kloos)

Delphine Seyrig was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1932 and spent her childhood by turns in the Middle East and the United States. In 1952, she began an acting career in France. In 1956, she trained at the Actors Studio in New York. For her first film role, she acted in Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (USA, 1959); in the 1960s and 1970s, she acted in films by Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, and Chantal Akerman. At the same time, Seyrig joined the women’s movement that formed in the aftermath of May ’68. In the early 1970s, in the milieu of Carole Roussopoulos, she discovered the possibilities of working with video; among other things, in 1976, she and Roussopoulos shot the feminist film S.C.U.M. Manifesto. Together with Ioana Wieder and Carole Roussopoulos, in 1982 she founded the Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, and served as its president until her death in 1990.

The lousy roles they are offered: women in the film industry

‘You’ve never seen women for their own causes, never for their own reasons’…

The phone just rang. My friend Denise has left her husband and is back after three months. She is 50 and has no profession. In old photos, she looks like Arletty. She wanted to become an actress. This article is dedicated to her.
In my ears, I can still clearly hear the voice of all these actresses who would never have taken up this profession if they had been a man, like Juliet Berto and Rita Renoir, who would have become sailors and gone off on adventures. I read what they say in detail. They have a profession that could earn them money, even lots of money, but what a profession!
Just as we women are still the secondary contradiction and the second sex, so the reality of these film actresses is also that of supporting roles. Leading roles are only possible in horror films or otherwise in films that now, surely influenced by the women’s movement, focus on personalities (like JULIA, VIOLETTE NOZIÈRE, etc.).
But this is an exception that has only emerged of recent. The rule looks like this: Maria Schneider (LAST TANGO IN PARIS) says, ‘I only play schizophrenics, lesbians, crazy women, murderers.’ An actress from Canada, about 50 years old, says, ‘I always play prostitutes, alcoholics, abandoned women, women who are through with life…’ A young American film actress: ‘I am a 24-year-old girl, woman, female animal... Well, I’ve been up for 16-year-old parts now and I can’t do them... There’s no way that anyone else sees me as 16...’ These are the experiences of some, though they are certainly representative of the profession as a whole.
How does it start? With selection criteria:
Jane Fonda: ‘I will never forget the first time I went to Warner Brothers for make-up tests. Imagine a chair like at the dentist’s, lots of light on your face, and all the men around you acting like surgeons, men who made up stars like Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich… Well, they played around with my face and said, ‘Look at yourself now!’ I could not recognise myself… I had to dye my hair blonde, and they wanted to break my jaw to give me sunken cheeks… Jack Warner could not stand women with small breasts, so for 10 years I had to wear fake breasts, blonde hair and fake eyelashes…’
These selection criteria, of course, are not exclusive to the acting profession. In every profession you have to nicely package your appearance and sell it, too. No secretary can allow herself to wear what she likes, and age also plays a big role.
When you consider the compromises that the young and beautiful Jane Fonda had to take on even though she came from an acting family, and a well-respected one at that, when you consider that she accepted them because as a commodity she had to have a good rate of return, then you can understand all the better why in this profession so many, and surely not the worst, are destroyed by the discrepancy between role and identity.
‘I feel so exploited and reduced... reduced in the image of myself.’ Jane Fonda speaks of an unendurable alienation. We are familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s fate.
The roles they have to play, which the fewest of them have influence over, obey racist and sexist criteria: black women always play maids, nannies or slaves…
As in JULIA, it remains and will continue to be presented as normal that the 45-year-old man gets his 25-year-old partner. (Maria Schneider: ‘I’m 23 and I act alongside Marlon Brando… Nicholson is a little younger…’)
These clichés recur again and again, even in so-called ‘leftist’ films.
During the shoot of Fellini’s CASANOVA, many newspapers described the reclusion of the American giantess, who is bored everywhere and cannot do anything without being stared at like an animal in the zoo. If she were to choose a short man, would she be anything other than ridiculous?
That in the meantime the roles have changed somewhat surely has little to do with the actresses’ own ‘struggle’. As already mentioned at the outset, this is the indirect effect of the women’s movement, which even Spiegel accurately observed: ‘Hollywood is catching up on emancipation. As long as the money’s right.’ (Spiegel 1/1978)
Nonetheless, we unfortunately cannot share the conclusion hastily drawn by the same magazine: ‘A farewell has been said to the demeaning image of women as nothing but sex objects wearing nothing.’ Ibid. If only.
Delphine Seyrig is herself a great actress who first acted in theatre for several years before appearing in films. She regards this work (20 hours of videotape recordings) as an act of revenge against her profession. That is extremely interesting, because the viewer discovers that most actresses have not, or have only seldom, reflected on their work in a male society: ‘les hommes dominent tout dans les arts, dans les affaires, dans la politique...’ (‘men dominate everything in the arts, in business, in politics’). They have only noticed what lousy roles they were offered.
We note once again that here, as in all other professions, women take very few decisions, that they do not necessarily have a critical stance towards the celebrity hustle, that if they want to receive roles, they cannot afford to be critical.
‘The interviews are from 1975. Of course, the stories these film actresses tell also say something about me. For me, video is a kind of revenge against my profession. The videotapes show the extent to which the whole film industry is controlled by men. In my profession, others make decisions on my behalf. It is especially hard for a woman to assert herself here. Films cost lots of money; videotapes allow for real conversations that can last half an hour or more. Our reality (as an actress) surpasses what anyone can imagine. My hope for SOIS BELLE ET TAIS-TOI ! is that something in cinema changes between the female viewers and the actresses.’ (Delphine Seyrig)
(The videotape SOIS BELLE ET TAIS-TOI ! can be borrowed from Mon Oeil: Mon Oeil, 20 rue D’Alembert, 75014 Paris, tel: 331 6900. I thank Delphine Seyrig and Claire for putting the tape’s text at my disposal. All rights reserved, Delphine Seyrig.)

(Heike Hurst, Frauen und Film, No. 18, Berlin, December 1978)

Production Delphine Seyrig. Director Delphine Seyrig. Cinematography Carole Roussopoulos. Editing Carole Roussopoulos, Ioana Wieder. Sound Carole Roussopoulos. With Juliet Berto, Jane Fonda, Maria Schneider, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Steele, Telias Salvi, Anne Wiazemsky, Viva, Rose de Gregorio, Marie Dubois.

World sales Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir

Photo: © Carole Roussopoulos

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  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
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