Unsung Heroines, Part 2: More Queer Women Who Deserve Their Own Biopics

Dorothy Arzner (1897 – 1979)

BIOPIC-WORTHY BECAUSE: One of the few female directors working steadily in the Golden Age of Hollywood (the late 1920s to the late 1950s) was also linked romantically with some of the biggest female stars; was the first person to be professionally credited as an editor onscreen; wore ties and vests to work on the set; and created the prototype for the boom microphone.

She was also the first woman to be inducted into the Director’s Guild of America.

And you thought Ellen DeGeneres was the hardest working woman in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner

THE SUPPORTING CAST: In her 15-year career as a director, Arzner made 17 films (three of them silent) and worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. She secured actress Clara Bow‘s standing as the “It Girl” as she transitioned from silent films to talkies in The Wild Party (1929), butted heads with Katharine Hepburn on the set of Christopher Strong (1933), became fast friends with Joan Crawford on The Bride Wore Red (1937).

When she wasn’t breaking ground for female directors (and editors) in Hollywood, Arzner was tending her 40-year long relationship with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan.

Dorothy Arzner and Marion Morgan

On the other hand, Arzner was widely rumored to have had affairs with some of the best known actresses in Hollywood, including Billie Burke (Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) and bisexual Russian star Alla Nazimova (most famously of Salome and herself a good candidate for a bio pic).

SHOULD STAR: In I Shot Andy Warhol, Lili Taylor as raging lesbian feminist Valerie Solanas proved she can rock butch clothes and attitude (not to mention a Newsie cap), and she excels at playing stalwart iconoclasts. It’s been too long since we’ve had the chance to see her in full force, and the Arzner biopic would be a perfect fit.

Lili Taylor

As she was largely regarded as a “woman’s director” (go figure), an Arzner biopic offers the rare opportunity to cast a feature with many supporting roles for women. Our casting choices include:

Brittany Murphy as sassy Brooklyn girl Clara Bow:

Natalie Portman as young and headstrong Katharine Hepburn:

Amy Adams as triple-threat superstar Lucille Ball:

The impervious Denise Richards as the impervious Joan Crawford:

PLOT POINTS: The film should open with some foreshadowing, with a young Arzner serving lunch to the celebrities who frequent her father’s German restaurant in Los Angeles. She goes to medical school at USC, but drops out to serve overseas in World War I, taking the only job permitted to women at the time: ambulance driver.

When she returns to the U.S., she meets film director William C. DeMille and is inspired to pursue a career as a director. She makes a few fortuitous connections, lands a job as a writer and is quickly promoted to the position of film editor by the age of 25.

Arzner impresses her peers and is promoted to director, directing two other hit films before helming Paramount’s first “talkie,” The Wild Party. The film stars silent film star Clara Bow, a beautiful starlet whose thick Brooklyn accent has never been heard by her movie fans. With her star terrified about making the transition from silent films, Arzner taps her handy dyke side and creates a portable microphone using a fishing pole. The invention (later evolving into the modern boom mic) makes Bow’s job easier, and the film is a huge success for them both.

Clara Bow expresses her gratitude to Dorothy Arzner

Depression-era pay cuts at Paramount incent Arzner to go freelance, and she lands a job directing Christopher Strong (1933). Arzner clashes with her star, Katharine Hepburn, who plays a very, um, androgynous looking aviator. Hepburn complains to the studio, they refuse to fire Arzner, and the two have to work it out. Was sexual tension the underlying problem? We’ll probably never know.

Arzner goes on to direct a slew of hit films, including Craig’s Wife (in 1936 and starring rumored lover Billie Burke), The Bride Wore Red (1937) starring Joan Crawford and Burke again, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), starring Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara.

In 1943, Arzner helps the war effort by directing training films for the (notoriously lesbian-heavy) U.S. Army’s Women’s Army Corps (WACs), but is soon is diagnosed with pneumonia. The illness takes her career off-track, and by the time she’s well enough to work again, the post-War employment drought for women has taken root in Hollywood too. Arzner is forced into retirement and adapts by teaching at USC, where one of her students is future Godfather auteur Francis Ford Coppola.

TAKE A POPCORN BREAK: In addition to teaching at USC, Arzner also supplements her income by directing Pepsi commercials thanks to the help of old friend Joan Crawford (then married to the chairman of PepsiCo).

While it might be fun to watch Richards as Crawford visit the set and terrorize production assistants (all the while sipping demurely from a bottle of Pepsi), it’s downright depressing to see that the feature film window closed so quickly (and unfairly) on the brilliant Arzner.

SHOULD BE DIRECTED BY: Mary Harron directed Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol and in another biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page. She has just the right blend of cynicism and admiration to capture the beauty, sophistication, and sexism of the Old Hollywood system.