Notable actresses like Jessica Chastain and Patricia Arquette have joined the 21st century fight for women's equality in Hollywood, but sexism on movie sets has been going on since movies were first invented. Everything from harassment to fat shaming celebrities was common, even way back in the 1920s. Whether these horrible stories arose from the outrageous abuses of the old studio system or the out-of-control egos of leading men, sexism in old Hollywood was as commonplace as it was awful.
Behind-the-scenes drama on classic movies often came from scandals, many of which destroyed stars' careers. Some movie actresses never worked in the industry again after their experiences with male entitlement on movie sets. The stars who did continue on after dealing with sexism could expect the same type of treatment on the next set.
Women in movies are still fighting for equal pay, recognition for their work, and job opportunities, but systemic sexism in Hollywood clearly can't be solved overnight. Perhaps looking at the sexist experiences of these actresses from some classic films will help everyone in the industry move towards a fairer, safer environment.
Alfred Hitchcock worked with several blonde stars during his career, including Tippi Hedren. The former model was spotted in a television commercial by the director and cast as a lead in The Birds. Although Hitchcock's directing style was arguably abusive – he famously locked Hedren in a room with live, angry birds to get a realistic performance – she claims his attitude and actions towards her were much worse.
According to Hedren, Hitchcock made attempts to control everything about her life. Sometimes he had someone follow her, he creeped out her daughter, and he even took Hedren's handwriting to an analyst. The episode with the live birds caused her to have a mental breakdown and she had to be hospitalized. Hitchcock allegedly made sexual advances towards Hedren as well, and when she refused and asked to be let out of her contract after Marnie a year later, he effectively ended her career.
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Gene Kelly was classically trained in ballet and Donald O'Connor had been singing, acting, and dancing in movies since the age of 12. Although Debbie Reynolds had sung a hit song in a previous film, she had absolutely no dance training when she was cast in Singin' in the Rain and had to catch up quickly to her two co-stars.
Kelly wasn't happy about it, criticizing Reynolds's efforts and forcing the cast to perform take after take of "Good Morning." By the time they wrapped, they had been at it for 15 hours and her feet were bleeding. She had to be carried off the set and was placed on bed rest. At one point, she ran away from the set crying and had to be reassured by Fred Astaire in order to continue.
Reynolds also claimed Kelly made unwanted sexual advances on her during filming:
"The camera closed in. Gene took me tightly in his arms... and shoved his tongue down my throat. 'Eeew! What was that?' I screeched, breaking free of his grasp and spitting. I ran around frantic, yelling for some Coca-Cola to cleanse my mouth. It was the early 1950s, and I was an innocent kid who had never been French-kissed. It felt like an assault. I was stunned that this thirty-nine-year-old man would do this to me."
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According to one of Judy Garland's husbands, Sid Luft, the munchkin actors were quite a handful both on and off The Wizard of Oz set. He claims they would sexually harass and molest Garland, sticking their hands under her dress. She accused them of being drunks, and stories about gambling, prostitution, and orgies later emerged. It wasn't only the munchkins that allegedly got grabby; Garland remembers studio executives being sexually inappropriate with her as well.
Whether or not these stories are true, it is a fact that MGM gave Garland adrenaline shots to keep her going and were very strict with her about her weight. She was required to wear a tight corset, both to slim her down and to hide her developing body so she'd appear younger. In addition to a very strict diet, Garland was put on diet pills and required to smoke cigarettes in order to control her appetite.
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1972's Last Tango in Paris features one of film history's most infamous sex scenes, in which Marlon Brando performs a sex act on his female co-star facedown on the floor with the help of a stick of butter. The movie was seen as obscene by many and several countries even banned it.
Schneider revealed she felt manipulated by director Bernardo Bertolucci, and his frequent mood changes affected her deeply. The famous butter scene wasn't even in the original script, and Schneider recalled that Bertolucci neglected to tell her about it until filming was about to begin:
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I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can't force someone to do something that isn't in the script, but at the time, I didn't know that.
Marlon said to me: 'Maria, don't worry, it's just a movie,' but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears.
I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.