Book Review : The Girls in the Picture
By Melanie Benjamin
An intimate portrait of the close friendship and powerful creative partnership between two of Hollywood’s earliest female superstars: Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. An enchanting new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife.
Hollywood, 1914. Frances Marion, a young writer desperate for a break, meets “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, already making a name for herself both on and off the screen with her golden curls and lively spirit. Together, these two women will take the movie business by storm.
Mary Pickford becomes known as the “Queen of the Movies”—the first actor to have her name on a movie marquee, and the first to become a truly international celebrity. Mary and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, were America’s first Royal Couple, living in a home more famous that Buckingham Palace. Mary won the first Academy Award for Best Actress in a Talkie and was the first to put her hand and footprints in Grauman’s theater sidewalk. Her annual salary in 1919 was $625,000—at a time when women’s salaries peaked at $10 a week. Frances Marion is widely considered one of the most important female screenwriters of the 20th century, and was the first writer to win multiple Academy Awards. The close personal friendship between the two stars was closely linked to their professional collaboration and success.
This is a novel about power: the power of women during the exhilarating early years of Hollywood, and the power of forgiveness. It’s also about the imbalance of power, then and now, and the sacrifices and compromises women must make in order to succeed. And at its heart, it’s a novel about the power of female friendship. (Courtesy of goodreads.com)
Adult Point of View
The Girls in the Picture is a timely book that many will be drawn to because of the current scandals in Hollywood, with Weinstein and others men. As in life and literature, there is nothing new under the sun.
My two favorite chapters were the first and the last. They were gripping! To see the degeneration of a friendship and the feelings the old women experienced in their own viewpoint. I found the first third of the book riveting. I liked learning about both Mary Pickford and Frances Marion. It was interesting to see how women could make their place in a new industry, when they couldn’t have got a toe in the door in the established avenues of business. Both of these women fought hard for what they got. It was heartbreaking to see how the men with the money tried to break Mary and Fran by rejecting their female produced movie, Poor Little Rich Girl. What is even more heartbreaking is that too many women today play into the same role of allowing those with power (both men and women) define their business relationships.
It was also interesting to see how Fran decided she needed to go and film women during WWI, compared to Mary who sold bonds with her fellow actors. Fran’s relationship with her husband was refreshing, contrasting with the regular sleaze associated with Hollywood. Even in those first years of movie making, it has been a morally bankrupt industry – not holding any values sacred.
There appear to be two reasons for the flavor of Hollywood examined in this novel. One of the flaws associated with theater is money, the lack of money, doing anything to make money and not producing what you feel is right all in the effort to make money. The other flaw shown is the glass bowl mentality of self-importance. When Mary Pickford marries Douglas Fairbanks they are idealized by the nation and Europe. Their clothes are torn by excited fans, they are mobbed and have to escape with the aid of the police. How can life seem anything but humdrum when sitting at home with a cold and a bowl of chicken soup, when there are fans who are ready to accost you just to gain a glimpse or a touch of the glamour? This is the section of the book I found tedious. I couldn’t relate to the intense desires of the fans to have a piece of Mary and I hated Mary and Doug’s attitude. Even so, it is necessary to see the decline of Mary and Fran being close to each other.
I was fairly disgusted how Fran accepted the ill treatment from the men in power. She explains how she was harassed. At times, it was as simple as a comment about her looks, and other times the men felt they had the right to touch, grope or pinch her. What is wrong with women that their response is so polite? They ignore, try to transcend and know it is expected. Why do women allow themselves to be treated like objects? Isn’t the appropriate response a slap across the face and a lawsuit? It made me crazy how Fran, the more reasonable of the two women, accepted the way men treated her because she worked in Hollywood.
I happen to know great men, who would never treat women in this way. As witnessed by the news, there are still plenty of pigs/men who feel it is their right to treat women as objects. The author certainly shows how some men feel entitled to any woman they associate with to satisfy their whims.
If I were to give out stars for my favorite parts it would have been 4 stars. The long section about Mary Pickford’s decline into self-absorption drastically reduced my interest in the novel. It was still very interesting, and even though there is immorality, abuse and the unsavory side of Hollywood, it is handled with a delicate hand and doesn’t delve into all the sordid details. I would have liked to see more of the relationship of Mary and Fran, as the stars of the book.
3 out of 5 stars
If you enjoy historical fiction, one of my all time favorites is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.