Guest Post: It’s a Wild Thyme for Women in 21st Century Hollywood

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by Sally Van Slyke
March 15, 2012 11:32 AM
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One afternoon during the marketing campaign for the film Fried Green Tomatoes I received a call from Betty Friedan, legendary feminist crusader, author of The Feminine Mystique and the first president of the National Organization for Women.  Betty had picked up on a remark I’d made to an LA Times reporter about the two leading females characters in the film. I described them as “not your typical Hollywood fare.”  I had carefully couched it that way because I frankly I would have had my head handed to me if I had just come out and said that they were lesbians. In 1990, Hollywood was still scared of tackling anything to do with this subject. To infer was one thing; to bluntly state it quite another. Betty thought I had “guts” and invited me to guest lecture to a class she was teaching at USC dealing with the struggling feminist movement.  Unfortunately. we were unable to make that happen.

The status and authority of women participating in various aspects of the film and television industry has made great strides in the past twenty years. Two years ago a woman actually was awarded the Oscar for directing a realistic action film about war. Who would have thought twenty years ago this was possible?

Frankly, when I began my “entertainment” career in the mid- 80’s as a page at a local Hollywood television studio, it was still a common perception within the male dominated industry that “women should be seen and not heard.”  The best deals were negotiated in the men’s room. The famous Universal “Black Tower” as it was called which housed all the male MCA executives was covertly nicknamed “The Boys Club” by women.  To be a woman with a point of view was treading on a slippery slope.

Less than ten years later I ended up as Senior Vice President of Marketing for Universal Pictures via a stint with a well-known PR firm, a gig as Steven Spielberg’s television flack and finally, grudgingly, the recipient of credit for conceiving and implementing some of the most successful marketing campaigns of the 80’s. All the while I worked 24/7 gaining confidence with each step I took.  It wasn’t always easy.  In fact, often it was a fight to the finish as I battled through some of the most hilarious, ludicrous, frightening, maddening, poignant and downright angst-ridden adventures imaginable.

I was at the top of my game with my lifetime Academy membership when I realized it was time to say goodbye to Hollywood. I’d hit middle age and realized I didn’t want to hang around and morph into Norma Desmond. Believe me, with all the compelling perks one grows accustomed to, the risk of becoming desperate to hang on to them is always hovering in the background.  It was time to find a partner and live a “normal” life. Eventually I planned to start a business of my own - one designed to amuse me right through old age

I was lucky. I found it all.

I now own and run an award-winning catering and event management company which certainly calls on all my former talents as a “suit” daily. I am the director and marketer of each project.  When asked, and I often am, what it was like to be a successful women in the entertainment industry I used to jokingly answer  “you’ll have to read my book someday”  but of course never really intended to write one.  Looking back is not my thing. I am a person who looks forward.  I enjoy the challenge of reinventing myself, something I will hopefully do until the fat lady sings.  But cliches are cliches for a good reason. For instance, never say never. That’s a good one because my husband continued to encourage me to hit the computer and now my first book Wild Thymes: Catering to the Egos of the Hollywood Elite was released on February 23rd.

I would like to think what I have written will serve in some small way as a humorous guide for the many talented women seeking to be a part of the wonderful and quickly changing world of the entertainment industry in the 21st Century.

I am amazed at the response the book has been receiving. One well-known young entertainment publicist ( a man)  recently wrote “ I loved your book.  I just hope I can remain as grounded as you were and that I too will be able to look back on my often horrifying experiences with as much humor as you’ve displayed.”

To be perceived as a person who possesses great humor is where it’s at for me because let’s face it -- laughter is always better then tears. If the schnooks knock you down, and they inevitably will, get right up again and fight harder. Make sure you have a great time and laugh a lot. I certainly did.  But when the game loses the spark and allure it once held for you, thank everyone politely for a lovely party and walk away. The fun isn’t in the being there. It’s in the getting there. Good Luck.

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Sally Van Slyke worked in Hollywood for nearly fifteen years and is the author of Wild Thymes: Catering to the Egos of the Hollywood Elite (Camino Diablo Press, February 2012).

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