Photos courtesy of "A Classy Broad"

One of Hollywood's First Female Execs on Competition, Beauty, and Sexism

In 1974, Marcia Nasatir became the first female vice president of production at major Hollywood studio United Artists. We sat in on the 89-year-old pioneer's hair appointment to talk about her 40-year career in advance of the release of the new...

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Mar 21 2016, 7:45pm

Photos courtesy of "A Classy Broad"

Marcia Nasatir knows how to make a first impression. When I meet the 89-year-old film producer for the first time at her Santa Barbara hotel, I am struck first by her handshake. As the first female vice president of production at United Artists in 1974, Nasatir didn't just "pave a way" for other women to enter senior executive roles in the entertainment industry—she pioneered a career trajectory. Her time as a creative decision maker at an influential film studio set a precedent for what a woman could be, at a time when Hollywood was even more male-dominated (and overtly sexist) than it is today. So it's fitting that when I make the mistake of giving Nasatir a weak hand, she prods me to be a little more professional, holding my hand in a powerful grip until I straighten up and give her a solid greeting. I knew Nasatir had a reputation for being a tough-love mentor to women, but I didn't expect her to hold a reporter to the same standards two minutes into our acquaintance.

I'm joining Nasatir for her hair appointment at a tasteful place in Montecito, California, to talk about a new film about her life, called A Classy Broad. Directed by the longtime film editor (and Nasatir's friend) Anne Goursaud, A Classy Broad traces Nasatir's life from her roots as a Jewish girl growing up in San Antonio to her 40-year (and, with four projects in the works, still counting) career as a Hollywood executive and film producer with credits on Three Days of the Condor, Carrie, Rocky, Apocalypse Now, and The Big Chill, among many others. Screening at film festivals this year, a documentary about an assertive female trailblazer in the entertainment industry could hardly have come at a better time: In 2015, women constituted only seven percent of directors, 11 percent of writers, and 27 percent of producers on top-grossing films. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began probing the industry to determine whether it should take action against alleged discrimination against female film and television directors. The New York Times, Buzzfeed, New York Magazine, and others printed testimonials from women in the industry detailing discriminatory practices and their feelings of isolation. "Hollywood's toxic brew of fear and sexism has kept women even more confined than those in legendary male bastions like Silicon Valley," Maureen Dowd wrote in November in the New York Times Magazine.

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Being outnumbered in the film industry is something Nasatir knows quite a bit about. By the time Nasatir got to Hollywood, the women's movement had been dominating American media for at least ten years. But the movement only arrived in Hollywood in 1973, when the Women's Committee of the Writers' Guild of America surveyed how many episodes of primetime television during the 1972-1973 season were written by women—confirming most shows had no women writers. Hiring women as vice presidents was one of Hollywood's belated responses to the growing cultural question of "what to do about the women," and Nasatir was one of the first.

One thing to know about Nasatir is that she has a very wry sense of humor. Almost as soon as she settles into her salon chair, she starts making fun of herself. When she asks Julie, a blond, bespectacled stylist with a British accent, for "spiky" hair—mousse and gel only, she specifies, no washing or cutting—she peers at me through the salon mirror in front of her. "Women's vanity is very complicated, don't you think?" she asks. Behind her, Julie snickers as she begins to massage Nasatir's head.

Goursaud, an elegant French woman with auburn hair, sits cross-legged at the back of the salon. She looks unfazed by Nasatir's easiness with total strangers; Goursaud herself became Nasatir's mentee when she wandered onto her Beverly Hills yard sale 35 years ago. Within weeks of meeting Nasatir, Goursaud received a call from Fred Roos, a legendary casting director and producer for Francis Ford Coppola. Goursaud didn't know who he was then ("I was a complete ignoramus") but can now trace some of her most famous editing projects—including three of Coppola's films (Dracula, The Outsiders, and One From the Heart)—to that connection. Nasatir's phone call to Roos, says Goursaud, "really brought down the Wall of Jericho and made my life possible." She says Nasatir was like her "good fairy."

Goursaud got the idea to make a documentary about Nasatir after it came to her attention that several women in Hollywood could trace their big breaks back to her. In 2013, Goursaud and Nasatir were entering a screening at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences when they were stopped by Susan B. Landau, a producer known today for her work on Cool Runnings and An Ideal Husband. Landau had been a production assistant on Nasatir's 1975 movie Breakheart Pass whom Nasatir had once invited to dinner with the film's director. Landau was beside herself to see Nasatir again. On a Hollywood film set, Goursaud explains, "you never do something like that—it's so hierarchical... I thought, 'Wow, if she did this for me, if she did this for Susan, I mean, how many other people has she done this for?'"

Nasatir is humble about her own start in the industry. Growing up in the 30s and 40s in Texas, Nasatir tells me she only knew one woman who worked, and that was because her husband had died and left her his insurance business. Nasatir learned about women's careers, instead, from the movies. She watched Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle, and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Like Russell's Hildy Johnson, Nasatir began her career as an aspiring reporter. But after one newspaper internship required her to call fallen soldiers' families during World War II to ask for anecdotes and pictures for their obituaries, she dropped the journalism idea.

Nasatir started her working life in New York advertising after she divorced her college sweetheart Mort, with whom she had had two children. She climbed the corporate ladder in publishing, eventually handling movie tie-in editions at Dell Books and Bantam Books as a single mother. "It was tough," she says. "I don't recommend it. I think it's better to have children brought up by two parents." She pauses. "Is this an anti-feminist thing?"

It took some moxie for Nasatir to land her historic position. She moved to the West Coast in 1969 to work in movies, first as a literary agent with Evarts Ziegler. But she got her break when she met a new UA executive, Mike Medavoy. At a workday lunch in 1974, Nasatir cheekily asked him when he was going to offer her a job. After a brief interview, he did.

Medavoy wanted Nasatir to be a story editor, a typical job for a woman in the 70s. But Nasatir negotiated. She told him she would take the position if she was named a vice president of production. Being a vice president meant finding scripts and other so-called "properties" to turn into movies like a story editor—but it also meant wielding decision-making power and a seat in executive meetings. How was the all-male executive team at UA convinced? Nasatir credits Mathilde Krim, the wife of the head of UA. A prominent research scientist at the Sloan Kettering Institute, Krim allegedly convinced her husband to hire Nasatir on the grounds that a woman vice president would be "good for the company."

Krim's gesture was significant to Nasatir, and she has paid her favor forward at UA and after. In A Classy Broad, Goursaud interviews several women who got their breaks thanks to Nasatir, including Lucy Fisher (who got her first job as a reader through Nasatir) and producer Dorothea Petrie (who Nasatir put in touch with Along Came a Spider producer Joe Wizan). But the network is apparently larger than anyone but her really knows. "If I'm ever asked where I got my start, I would say, 'Marcia Nasatir is the person who got me started,' and then somebody on the other side of the room goes, 'Well, Marcia Nasatir was the one that got me started,' and then somebody else pipes up, and there's like this gigantic network of people," Fisher says in Goursaud's documentary.

What accounts for Nasatir's generosity? "She has the belief that it's incumbent upon women to create opportunities for themselves and other women," Scott Feinberg, Nasatir's co-host on THR's "The Geezer and the Kid" podcast, tells me. "And that you can't necessarily compel or legislate change, so the way it's going to happen, perhaps fastest, is to expect if from other women." We might also look to the female activists of Nasatir's generation, who believed it was necessary for women to help other women in order to support the feminist project. Second-wave feminists like Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem famously demanded that women support other women in order to produce a larger cultural change. That approach was alive and well in Hollywood. The establishment of formal women-centric networks like the National Organization of Women and Women in Film galvanized the shift towards more women in the industry in the 1970s and 1980s. "As long as women were isolated, then nothing seems to change. Once women get together, and have communications with each other, and start sharing their contacts, then change continues," Mollie Gregory, the author of Women Who Run the Show, a history of women in Hollywood from the 1970s to the 2000s, told me.

Younger women in the industry today have called for a similar sense of solidarity. Women executives aren't hiring women for fear of rocking the boat, Girls creator Lena Dunham told the New York Times in November. "I believe a lot of these women were like, 'I'm here, I worked my ass off to get this job and I'm not gonna make hiring women directors my mission because then I'm going to get [expletive] fired."

Rebecca Miller, the writer and director of the Greta Gerwig–starring spring release Maggie's Plan, has said that women "have to embrace the idea not to be worried about there being other women in the room." In July, Anna Farris told The Hollywood Reportershe wanted to start monthly brunches so that actresses might get to know one another "instead of ... being pitted against one another." Relatively new women-founded production companies focused on women-driven production companies—including Reese Witherspoon's Pacific Standard, Jessica Chastain's Freckle Films, and Broad Street Pictures—and initiatives like Meryl Streep's Writers Lab and the Women in Film Foundation Mentoring Program are premised, too, on this decades-old value of female solidarity.

The way Nasatir sees it, mentoring people who haven't broken into the industry yet was, and continues to be, good business strategy. "Why not [help someone]? What does it take? What does it cost you to help someone?" she asks in one scene in A Classy Broad. "I believe that if you really do something important for someone, they owe you a favor back."

And real change is slow, as Nasatir reminds me during her appointment. About 20 minutes in, Julie has fluffed Nasatir's hair into a fierce look befitting a Hollywood executive, a halo of white and grey with airy body and small curls in the front. Nasatir gives a low whistle. As she admires the look, she tells me, "Some things can't get fixed. You work in an atmosphere where the guy beats up on women or doesn't pay you the right amount or whatever? Move on," she says. "You shouldn't devote your time to being a whiner and complaining... It's not as important as the work you do. You've got to believe that the work you do has value." I can imagine she's said this many times to other women sitting across from her over the course of her 40-year career.

Goursaud glances up from her phone. She tells me it took her too long to figure this out for herself. Early in her own career, she says, she realized women were routinely denied jobs because whomever was hiring was concerned a girl might be too pretty, or the director might be attracted to her, or, simply, the production team wanted an all-male group. Occasionally a woman might penetrate one of these all-male teams, but then she would be the "token girl." "It's really one of those Catch-22s," Goursaud says. "They discriminate against you because you're a woman and you're pretty and sexy and what have you, and then if you succeed they say you succeed because you're sexy and a woman and pretty and all that."

It strikes me that it's never just been women who have been tokenized in Hollywood. People of color have long been shunted into roles that gesture towards Hollywood's inclusivity, whether as actors or as members of the industry. Equal opportunity still remains elusive, however, for these "diversity hires," who face the additional pressure of dealing with the perception that they were hired for the multiplicity of experience they bring to the studio campus, or the set, or the writers' room.

Goursaud remembers what that felt like. She says she would have directed so much earlier if she hadn't been burdened—literally, she emphasizes, burdened—by negative thoughts about how she was perceived. "Men don't have distractions like that! They don't hear, 'This girl's too pretty—don't bring her on because the director will fuck her.'" She says she tells every young girl in the industry she knows now that they have to focus on their work and, as much as they can, push the "bullshit"—caring about being pretty, having a boyfriend, being nice—away. "[Men] bond. I've watched the men supporting each other and I think, Wow, I wish I had that! I wish I was bonding with the women here! Because they support each other, they love each other. How many times did I see that and think, Oh, I wish this was my world, but it was not?"

Sitting in styling chairs turned towards one another, forming a small circle flanked by hair dryers and bottles of organic Italian hair products, we take in Goursaud's words, weighing them against our own experiences, and against her current circumstances—which are markedly better. In a few hours, Goursaud will premiere her seventh directing project at an event that will feature Piper Laurie (the mother in Carrie, a role that Nasatir landed her) in the flesh. It's Nasatir—first Goursaud's mentor, and now her documentary subject—who breaks the brief moment of silence. "There weren't enough women giving you a job," she tells her.

Photo by Kate Kilkenny