feminist star wars
There is a strand of feminist discourse that highlights the under-appreciated contributions of women. Consider this post my contribution to the genre.
If you talk to a really, really hard core Star Wars nut, like I used to be, you’ll hear the standard story of George Lucas’ decline. He was a nerdy avant-gard wannabe film maker. He finally decided to go mainstream, to great success, making three outstanding films in a row, American Graffiti, Star Wars, and Empire Strikes back. However, released from the pressure of Hollywood, he didn’t have the discipline to rein in his weaknesses, resulting in a slide from Ewoks to Jar Jar.
The feminist view of Lucas argues that this doesn’t go far enough. The feminist interpretation is that George Lucas was never a good film maker at all and that most of his success is really attributable to the unacknowledged work of the women around him. Consider, for example, Marcia Lucas – George’s fist wife. There’s an easy case to be made that Marcia was the person responsible for making Star Wars a great film.
Of course, the idea of the space opera belongs to George, but a lot of evidence suggests that it would have been a Phantom Menace style disaster without Marcia. The reason is that George had originally planned for Star Wars to be this insanely complicated movie with lots of interwoven plots – just like Phantom Menace.
Who saved the day? That’s right – Marcia Lucas. By the time George was working on Star Wars, Marcia had acquired year of experience working as one of Hollywood’s great film editors. In other words, she was one the best people in the world in terms of converting a mangle of film into a well paced movie. She edited, or supervised editing, for American Graffiti, Taxi Driver, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and New York, New York.
Consider the following quotes from the Marcia Lucas essay from the web site, The Secret History of Star Wars. Marcia could tell that George simply made cold films:
“I like to become emotionally involved in a movie,” she says. “I want to be scared, I want to cry, and I never cared for THX because it left me cold. When the studio didn’t like the film, I wasn’t surprised. But George just said to me, I was stupid and knew nothing. Because I was just a Valley Girl. He was the intellectual.”
She knew first hand about Lucas’ weaknesses:
“After THX went down the toilet, I never said, ‘I told you so,’ but I reminded George that I warned him it hadn’t involved the audience emotionally…He always said, ‘Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.’ All he wanted to do was abstract filmmaking, tone poems, collections of images. So finally, George said to me, ‘I’m gonna show you how easy it is. I’ll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.”
Seems American Graffiti was the first film she rescued for Lucas’ inhuman approach to cinema:
Marcia argued George out of his original approach to the structure of the film, which depended on a more rigid construction of cross-cutting the different narratives, and she also was crucial in giving scenes longer time to breathe, as Lucas then insisted on cross-cutting much more frequently (as seen in Attack of the Clones–Marcia’s criticism was that the scenes either never developed or they lost their dramatic momentum by aborting so quickly).
Cross-cutting narratives? Scenes that need more time to breathe? Sounds familiar.
Meanwhile, Marcia was become a better and better artist. Consider the reaction to Taxi Driver:
Taxi Driver, to everyone’s astoundment, became a commercial hit when it was released in 1976, and it is today considered one of the greatest American films ever made. Marcia received a BAFTA nomination for her editing work on the film, and was later featured, at Steven Speilberg’s recommendation, in an ad by Kodak hailing women in the film industry. John Milius remembers:
“She was a stunning editor…Maybe the best editor I’ve ever known, in many ways. She’d come in and look at the films we’d made–like The Wind and the Lion, for instance–and she’d say, ‘Take this scene and move it over here,’ and it worked. And it did what I wanted the film to do, and I would have never thought of it. And she did that to everybody’s films: to George’s, to Steven [Spielberg]‘s, to mine, and Scorsese in particular.”
In other words, while George never quite got the hang of basic directorial duties, like coaching actors, working on dialogue, and pacing, Marcia became one of the world’s leading editors of popular film, working with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorcese.
Ok, let’s get to Star Wars. This clip sums it up:
Marcia, along with many of George’s friends, critiqued which characters worked, which ones didn’t, which scenes were good, and Lucas composed the script in this way. Marcia was always critical of Star Wars, but she was one of the few people Lucas listened to carefully, knowing she had a skill for carving out strong characters. Often, she was a voice of reason, giving him the bad news he secretly suspected–“I’m real hard,” she says, “but I only tell him what he already knows.” [l] Pollock notes, “Marcia’s faith never waivered–she was at once George’s most severe critic and most ardent supporter. She wasn’t afraid to say she didn’t understand something in Star Wars or to point out the sections that bored her.” [li] She kept her husband down to earth and reminded him of the need to have an emotional through-line in the film. Mark Hamill remembers: “She was really the warmth and heart of those films, a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of.”
There we have it – just about everyone in the film industry knows the truth about the Lucases. While George isn’t half bad at some technical things, he’s really a bad director in most respects. The studios know it, the other directors know it, and even the actors know it.
Fortunately for action film fans, Marcia was able to rescue the film by holding marathon editing sessions. Other folks even pitched in. Even Brian DePalma helped out, by helping rewrite the famous opening scrawl so the movie wouldn’t be so cheesy.
This leads me to the another strength of the feminist interpretation of Star Wars. It easily explains why the Academy did not reward George Lucas with either a best director prize or a best film awards, but Marcia Lucas did actually get the best editing award. Basically, it’s clear to people who know film that Star Wars was fun and a great technical breakthrough, but it had a lot bad dialogue and some real awkward moments. It’s also clear that despite these problems, the film is smooth and has a real emotional impact, the sign of outstanding editing.
I could go on about how Empire was saved by Marcia, Irving Kirshner, and the new script writers – but I think I’ve said enough. But it’s notable that once Marcia and George parted ways, most of George’s output was really, really bad. Now, all I hope for now is that Disney will release the original Han-shot-first version of Star Wars.