RIP Betsy Drake, may she one day get an obituary all her own

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Former actress Betsy Drake died Oct. 27 at age 92.

Former actress Betsy Drake died Oct. 27 at age 92.

One-time Hollywood actress Betsy Drake, a shipwreck survivor, psychotherapist, novelist and founding member of Elia Kazan’s Actors Studio, died Oct. 27 in London. She was 92.

Oh, and she was the third of Cary Grant’s five wives.

Guess which of those facts made the biggest news once word got out last week of Drake’s passing? If you guessed her marriage to Grant, you are just as aware as I am of how needlessly, blindly sexist my profession sometimes gets.

Before we go any further, let me just say that I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, and I understand the realities of writing a story so that people will read it. If you’re going to write an obituary about a one-time public person who has been out of the public eye for decades, you have to do what you can to get people to invest in the story. I also get the realities of Internet-age journalism, where you have to write a headline that’s going to get search-engine pickup and reader clicks.

So, I’m not saying Drake’s marriage to one of the most beloved actors in movie history shouldn’t be in the headline or lead, but several of the obituaries I’ve read in the past week are more about Cary Grant, who died nearly 30 years ago, than they are about Betsy Drake.

It’s appalling that a woman who lived such a full and interesting life should have her obituaries totally dominated by her ill-fated marriage that ended more than 50 years before her death, even if the it was a union with a famous cheater, er, actor. (Although rumors persisted then and continue to this day that Grant was actually gay, The Hollywood Reporter notes that Grant’s affair with actress Sophia Loren got Drake written out of the screenplay to Houseboat, which she had actually penned, so that Loren could be in the family comedy instead. Of course, IMDB has Drake listed as the uncredited screenwriter of 1958′s Houseboat, but I’m afraid we still seem to have a problem with society giving women much credit.)

The Hollywood Reporter’s Drake obit is 13 paragraphs long, and nine of them are dedicated to her marriage to Grant, with the focus on her husband rather than Drake’s achievements. The fact that the legendary Kazan selected her as one of the founding members of the Actors Studio in New York isn’t mentioned until the third graph from the bottom; the fact that she survived the deadly crash of the ocean liner Andrea Doria, one of the most famous shipwrecks of the modern era, only gets a brief mention in the very last sentence.

The New York Times obituary is much longer, but still, very little about her life is mentioned that doesn’t directly relate to her marriage and association with Grant, including three full graphs on how she met the actor.

The Los Angeles Times’ obituary is much more in-depth, with more information about her difficult family life, her second career as a psychotherapist and her 1970s novel, Children, You Are Very Little, about an 8-year-old girl growing up in a shattered family. It includes the intriguing tidbit that the manuscript for her second semi-autobiographical novel was lost in the sinking of the Andrea Doria. And finally someone gets around to noting her remaining survivor, her brother Carlos Drake, in the L.A. Times article

But L.A. Times writer Steve Chawkins seems to completely miss the irony of leading off with how difficult it was for her to become a housewife after she married Grant and then burying this quote at the very bottom of her story:

“All the women in my generation were brought up to believe that husbands’ careers and desires came first in every sense,” she told The Times. “I drank white wine because Cary liked white wine. And I ate well-done roast beef, even though I hated well-done meat.

“The freedom to eat rare meat, drink red wine and not watch television made up for the agony of divorce.”

To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe Chawkins was trying to bring her story full circle with this approach, but that doesn’t change the fact that he leads off the obit of a woman who studied psychiatry at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and at Harvard with her failed career as a housewife. And it doesn’t make his approach any less insulting.

It would be interesting to learn if Drake’s Associated Press obituary was written by a woman (the AP didn’t put a specific byline on her obit), since it mentions her marriage to Grant in the lead but doesn’t make that the focus. There is roughly as much ink about her experience on the Andrea Doria as to her celebrity marriage, and the concise obit also gives her more credit for being a reportedly fine actress rather than just some pretty young thing Grant got a job. It’s the closest thing I’ve read to a true obit for her – it even includes a photo of Drake without Grant – even if it leaves out several key facts about her life.

It’s also interesting to note that every Drake obit I’ve read, no matter how long or short, points out that she introduced Grant to LSD. The New York Times’ deservedly lengthy and in-depth 1986 obituary for Grant spent just one paragraph on his mental health issues, which included just one sentence about his LSD use. Grant’s NYT obituary is by and large devoted to detailing his accomplishments, not his marriages or his “indulgences” (as the AP describes his and Drake’s use of LSD in her obit).

The emphasis on this salacious detail (even though LSD was legal at the time) in Drake’s obit reminds me of Molly Beauchemin’s summer Pitchfork column contrasting Brett Morgan’s documentary Montage of Heck, about Kurt Cobain, with Asif Kapadia’s Amy, about Amy Winehouse, and her conclusion that comparing the two films “sheds light on how unequal the treatment of male and female artists truly is, even in death.”

“Even though both deaths were motivated by depression underscored by narcotics and celebrity, Montage depicts a context in which the public was willing Cobain to succeed, whereas Winehouse, when confronted with similar drug-addled obstacles, was met with ridicule and slander,” she writes.

“If Amy proves anything about the life and times of Winehouse, it’s that newscasters, tabloids, and even respected media outlets reported on her shortcomings with enough thinly-veiled aggression to weaken what little resolve the drugs hadn’t already sapped. Cobain’s struggle with drugs, meanwhile, was all but an open secret while he was alive, whispered about or written around in order to maintain good graces and access to the superstar and his band.”

Although Beauchemin acknowledges that Cobain died in the pre-TMZ era while Winehouse’s rise and fall happened right in the age of Internet ubiquity, the writer also goes back and compares the way the media covered the deaths of Janis Joplin vs. Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday vs. Keith Moon, Whitney Houston vs. Michael Jackson and finds an alarming consistency in the unfairness in the portrayal of women as recording artists. For women, their struggles and addictions are outlined in lurid detail, while their gifts – and Amy very pointedly reminds the audience of Winehouse’s gift as a songwriter as well as a singer – are undermined, or even worse, credited to the men in their lives or career.

“Women who succeed in a big way upset convention, and we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with that as a culture. When women succeed as Winehouse did, we anticipate their downfall and pounce hard, relish the sillage of failure when we get a whiff,” Beauchemin writes.

“We martyr our women because we fear their greatness. We do so because we fear women who are living out of bounds.”

Judging from the achievements Drake accomplished in her post-Cary life and the way her obituaries were written, successful women recording artists aren’t the only women in arts and entertainment who fail to get their due respect, in life or in death.

And it’s not just female entertainers who are given short shrift by reporters: Justin Wolfers published in the New York Times last week a sobering commentary on how journalists writing about the work of female economists, especially female economists romantically involved with male economists, often gave the women second billing, even if they were lead authors of studies or had more impressive credentials than their male counterparts.

The University of Michigan economics professor blames unconscious bias, which I believe is likely the culprit behind the second billing Drake too often gets in her own obituaries:

“(E)ven the world’s best female economists are given second billing too often. And none of this is intended to impugn the motives of any economic commentator. Rather, I suspect that there’s a simple unconscious bias at work here. Close your eyes for a moment, and picture an economist. Odds are you pictured a man. (Chances are, he was also white, most likely middle-aged, and probably fairly confident.) This same reflex makes it easier to recall those who fit this pre-conceived idea of what an economist looks like.”

It’s time we start making a conscious effort to battle unconscious bias. I believe it’s the only way to break from the status quo.

Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman appear in a scene from "Ishtar." Photo provided

Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman appear in a scene from “Ishtar.” Photo provided

Return of “the Ishtar effect”?

This weekend, we had an anomaly in theaters with three movies directed by women all opening Friday: A drama about the plight of the trapped Chilean miners titled The 33, directed by Patricia Riggen; a Christmas comedy starring John Goodman and Diane Keaton called Love the Coopers, helmed by Jessie Nelson; and the moody marital drama By the Sea, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and directed by Jolie.

“It’s extraordinarily rare to have three high-profile movies being released on the same weekend all directed by women,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with box office tracker Rentrak, told the Associated Press. “You can bet every single weekend there are at least three films opening directed by men. That makes this notable.”

According to the AP, women directed only 4.7 percent of studio films and 10 percent of independent films from 2009 to 2013, citing a study by the Sundance Institute and Women in Hollywood.

If “the Ishtar effect” is still in play, we could potentially have a problem in trying to finally gain a little ground in getting more women in the director’s chairs for studio films.

Rebecca Keegan wrote an incredibly insightful – and it increasingly seems omniscient — story for the L.A. Times about what she dubbed “the Ishtar effect”: The tendency of Hollywood to never let a female director work again after a flop.
Keegan named the phenomenon after the legendary 1987 Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman comedy Ishtar, noting that director Elaine May took the fall for box-office flop and never helmed another film. Meanwhile, the film’s two actor-producers, who shared final cut with her, emerged unscathed, with Beatty going on to make Dick Tracy and Hoffman Rain Man.

“A male director can have a series of failures and still get hired,” Anne Hathaway told Keegan last summer when the writer interviewed the Oscar winner and director Nancy Meyers for a story about their movie, The Intern.

“Sometimes movies don’t work, and I feel like if it stars a woman or is directed by a woman, the wheels can’t fall off the train. If this movie directed by a woman does well and this movie directed by a woman does well and then one doesn’t, it’s ‘oh, people don’t like movies directed by women.’”

Unfortunately, none of the three movies directed by women this weekend did big box-office business, with Sam Mendes’ James Bond movie Spectre topping the domestic charts again and Steve Martino’s animated The Peanuts Movie maintaining its second-place status, according to Box Office Mojo.

Of the newcomers, Nelson’s Love the Coopers fared the best, coming in third with an estimated $8.4 million from 2,603 theaters. The “B-” CinemaScore doesn’t suggest a strong audience response, but being the only such film in wide release it should have a decent holdover, predicts Box Office Mojo.

Riggen’s The 33, starring Antonio Banderas, opened at No. 5 with an estimated $5.8 million. Unfortunately, it seemed unable to capitalize on its “A” CinemaScore, but those who saw it—73% of which were over 25—reported enjoying it.

Although it was the first on-screen pairing of Pitt and Jolie since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, By the Sea failed to crack the top 10 and got its own Hollywood Reporter story today attempting to explain its floppiness. A nod to the European cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, the drama earned scathing reviews debuted to $95,440 from 10 theaters in eight U.S. cities for a dismal location average of $9,544.

“Had it been Mr. & Mrs. Smith 2, clearly the results would have been far different and naturally so. I think going limited was appropriate in this case and no matter what the marketing materials looked like, the results would have likely been the same for this decidedly small scale production,” Dergarabedian told The Hollywood Reporter.

By the Sea is clearly a passion project for Jolie and Pitt and given the subject matter and the very limited release, it certainly was never destined to be a huge hit and I don’t believe the box office performance in any way is a reflection on their collective star power, but rather a reflection of the nature of the film itself.”

Sounds reasonable. But will reasonable be enough to counteract “the Ishtar effect?”

It’s hard to imagine that a star like Jolie will find her directing career stonewalled by one underperforming arthouse drama, but will any progress in equalizing the number of women directors be halted. Will weekends when three movies directed by women continue to be an anomaly instead of the becoming the norm?

It’s been a tough fall at the movies, with plenty of flops sprinkled among the rare hits like Spectre, The Martian and presumably this week’s femme-led franchise capper The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. But Hollywood has shown that women directors aren’t given the leeway that male helmers are to underperform at the box office. Or as Punisher: War Zone director Lexi Alexander noted on Twitter after new movies directed by David Gordon Green, Christopher Landon and John Wells underperformed over the Halloween weekend: “This was a bad weekend for white, male directors. How will they ever find work again?”

Quick hitters

- Catherine Hardwicke reaches out to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Twilight and Thirteen helmer Catherine Hardwicke volunteered to share her story in the EEOC’s ongoing investigation into alleged gender bias in Hollywood’s hiring (or more accurately, failure to hire) women directors, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Why is my testimony so long? Because I have some very sad, disappointing, criminal details of slander and libelous and untrue statements that have been made about myself and other women,” Hardwicke told the trade publication.

More than 30 women have come forward to the federal agency tasked with administering and enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, reports THR, and have said the questioning has been extremely detailed and thorough, breaking down each step in the hiring process. The EEOC has set up a system so that female directors can report anonymously their own experiences of gender bias without fear of retribution.

Hardwicke said she believes our old enemy “unconscious gender bias” is to blame for the discrimination she has faced.

“I don’t want to blame anybody. I want the same exact people to change and be part of the change and lead the change,” she told THR.

- Target missing women in action in The Force Awakens pack: After releasing an exclusive The Avengers: Age of Ultron action figure pack without Black Widow or any other female characters, Target is adding insult to injury by releasing a Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens exclusive toy set with no women characters, reports Nerdist.com.

The exclusive set includes Finn, Chewbacca, Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, a First Order stormtrooper, and a TIE fighter pilot; no cool villain Captain Phasma (played by Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie) or intrepid Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), who seems to be the main character of the whole movie.

Nerdist.com’s Amy Ratcliffe notes that Rey and Captain Phasma toy options abound from Hasbro, The Disney Store and Hot Toys. But it seems to have become a habit for Target to release these toy sets with no girls allowed; it’s done the same with Star Wars Rebels and a Marvel hero pack (which included two different version of Iron Man but no female heroes).

“How many people agreed to this before it was manufactured? Why doesn’t a male-only set like this raise flags? Especially in a time when we’re finally seeing more gender diversity in the Star Wars universe,” Ratcliffe rightly asks. “Things in the realm of female action figures and fair representation in all merchandise are getting better. It has gotten better. But better isn’t good enough. Let’s aim for best.”

May the force be with this aim.

-BAM

 

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  • Tracy Granger

    Im Betsy’s God Daughter.. and I wanted to say THANK YOU.
    After she died I read each obit with disgust. Knowing that Betsy would also be disgusted, hurt and of course, very pissed off as Betsy wasn’t one to keep her feelings hidden.
    And Re: her marriage to Cary Grant? Betsy was the best thing that ever happened to him.. but he was just a bit too stupid to realise it when it counted.

    It was hard for working women then.. and its hard for them now. its hard for women to get the respect they deserve. I know Betsy would have really appreciated this article. Thank you for showing her this respect. Tracy

  • Tracy Granger

    PS Re Betsy’s LSD use: She took LSD over 100 times in therapy…not for “fun”. This was years before Timothy Leary took it. Betsy was courageous. She pushed the envelope. She was a fearless searcher and a true intellectual. I miss her.

  • Michael Schreiber

    I announced the news of
    Betsy Drake’s passing to the press and unfortunately every writer who
    interviewed me ignored my pleas to NOT overly focus their pieces on Betsy’s
    famous marriage to the neglect of covering her extraordinary achievements
    before, during, and after her marriage to Cary Grant (a relationship which
    accounted for just ONE of her NINE decades on this planet). I provided
    each reporter with ample information to impress upon them that Grant was but a
    footnote to the remarkable life story of this extraordinary woman, NOT the
    other way around. One writer heard all of this and said to me, “Well, but
    the Grant hook is sexy, and it’ll get readers to pay attention to the rest of
    her story.” He then proceeded to write an obit that essentially only talked
    about her relationship with Grant, not the “rest” of her story at all…as
    if her being Mrs. So-and-So supersedes all of her own incredible accomplishments.
    This is absolutely astonishing for 2015! Betsy Drake was no Mrs. So-and-So. She
    was an incredibly talented, accomplished, complicated, highly intelligent,
    highly independent, ever-exploring woman
    – a human being beyond measure. Many
    thanks to Brandy McDonnell for being the only true journalist to read the obits
    for Betsy Drake and to cry foul.

  • Mimi Holligher

    All this blather about how the mainstream press mistreated Betsy Drake in her obit yet you didn’t give me the proper obit I thought I’d get when I read this article. I still know nothing about her. I would have liked this article to be a corrective not an exegesis of what was published.

  • Tracy Granger
  • Michael Schreiber

    Thanks again, Brandy, for your call for a proper obit for Betsy Drake. I hope that the tribute I have posted opens up the conversation about this extraordinary woman and her achievements: http://thisamericanhouse.com/betsy-drake-the-last-lioness-2/

  • Raymond Austin

    I at one time knew Betsy very well and ​ will ​cherish​ the memory ​of her for ever; she was so much more that Cary’s wife ​, she was Betsy Drake, a woman that stood on her own two feet and never worried about letting the world know it.​

    • Michael Schreiber

      Mr. Austin – I would love to speak with you directly about Betsy, if you would be willing to share your memories of her. If so, I can provide my contact information. Many thanks!