The Girls in the Picture
Ordinarily, I focus a review of a biographical novel on the lives and times of the characters, most often considering how effectively the author managed to fictionalize known facts and to extrapolate scenes and conversations. While I was reading Melanie Benjamin’s The Girls in the Picture, however, I found myself thinking more about Benjamin’s audience. Clearly, this author wrote a depiction of Hollywood in the early twentieth century for a twenty-first-century readership, emphasizing the gender biases and the never-spoken #MeToo issues facing women who wanted to break into an embryonic film industry. I might as well have been reading today’s headlines, rather than digging into the movies and magazine stories of yesteryear.
The Girls in the Picture explores the lengthy friendship between America’s film sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and her confidante, Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion. The two first met in 1914, when Mary already was starring in the “flickers” and Frances was a young divorcee with Hollywood stars in her eyes. Initially, they were complementary soul mates. Each was a perfectionist, with almost tunnel vision about her career and her craft. At the same time, each frets that her passion for the movies might compromise her relationships with men. Will Mary and Frances ever find husbands who admire their artistry rather than fear their successes?
In Benjamin’s novel, the two women at first collude endlessly. They debate about the kinds of movies they want to make in a male-dominated industry, plotting to forge their own narratives rather than rework those scenes and stories dictated by male directors. The unhappily married Mary and the twice-divorced Frances also agonize about their abilities to love. In effect, they shore up each other’s strengths and weaknesses, pushing each woman toward ever greater success.
Finally, they think, each finds the perfect mate, even honeymooning together in Europe. The grand tour, however, reveals a darker side. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford attract enormous fawning crowds, while anonymous Frances and Fred are treated more like attendants than friends. After that, the two women slowly drift apart, Mary finding fewer and fewer roles for a forty-something ingenue, Frances garnering increasing artistic recognition.
Benjamin does a superb job of tracing that sort of Hollywood transformation. In fact, that’s the conventional historical novel aspect I most appreciated about The Girls in the Picture. The scene showing Mary and Frances at the opening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is simply stunning. The young women come alive as they realize all the possibilities of feature-length films, rather than the silly two-reelers they had been making before. Later in the novel, when silent movies give way to talkies, Mary is no longer able to grow artistically, but Frances discovers a knack for writing dialogue and successfully stretches her craft. Benjamin shows how the entire industry changed—the camera angles, the microphones, the stage sets, and even the ways the production crews had to learn to behave. Total silence when filming a scene whereas, in the old days, sets were hubbubs of cacophonous enthusiasm.
Benjamin’s book definitely is a historic gem, but I still found it most remarkable for its presentation of century-old gender issues in terms of today’s gender struggles. Mary and Frances, together and apart, fight for their successes, defying double standards for their personal behavior versus their husbands’ while confronting the sexist assumptions of movie moguls and directors they disdained. Mary’s victory? Orchestrating the United Artists studio. Frances’s? The Screenwriters Guild of America. Their triumph together? The initial friendship that served them each so well. Their failure? That friendship’s fatigue, which Benjamin so keenly describes. I think, however, that the greatest triumph is Benjamin’s novel, The Girls in the Picture. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Melanie Benjamin: The Aviator’s Wife; The Swans of Fifth Avenue; Alice I have Been, A Novel; The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb; Reckless Hearts; Grand Central, Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion; Confessions of Super Mom; Super Mom Saves the World; Two Roads to Augusta; Grenshaw, A Feel for the Gamer; The Legends of Golf.