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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.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 19, 2013 at 12:47 am

7 Responses

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  1. I’m not too sure how much of a feminist argument this is, as the contributions of both men and women around Lucas are being overlooked. Like you mention Irving Kirshner made real improvements on Empire. This clip is a great take on how he improved the story from what Lucas put down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R66FvPTj2Yw

    I am curious to see what Abrams take on Star Wars will be.

    Like

    Grad Student

    June 19, 2013 at 3:52 am

  2. Grad Student: Overall, you are right that Lucas gets way too much credit. But don’t you think that people downplay Marcia in the collective memory because of gender?

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2013 at 4:16 am

  3. The conventional take on Leigh Brackett’s involvement in Empire is also ripe for feminist revision. She apparently wrote the first draft; Lucas said it sucked but her gave her script credit because she was dying (or was already dead) and he felt sorry for her. Lucas is basically saying she’s the opposite of Rosalind Franklin. Brackett’s draft has surfaced and some people argue that the final product owes more to it than Lucas lets on.

    (For the record, I think the feminists are right about the under-appreciation for women’s contributions, and that argument does not hinge on whether or not Leigh Brackett’s draft is good or bad!)

    Like

    joshtk76

    June 19, 2013 at 4:46 am

  4. Yes, you can access the original Empire script.

    http://scyfilove.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Star-Wars-The-Empire-Strikes-Back-Brackett-Draft.pdf

    Here’s my take: If you read it, you see that bits and pieces remain in the final, but there was a huge amount of rewriting. For example, in the final ESB, Hoth is evacuated because of the Empire’s attack. While Brackett has native creatures attack.

    BUT the details of stage direction are often identical to the Brackett script. For example, the Wampa attack is described pretty much in the way that it happens in the final film. Even small details remain, such Luke riding a giant white “lizard” and communicating via helmet radio (which was changed to a glove radio in the final). Another early scene detail – Leia hanging out in the rebel base hanger being all serious, which is a major character point in the final.

    So, Lucas rejected the plotting of Brackett’s script, but retained the “feel” by using stage directions provided by the first script. It’s a subtle point about Hollywood. Yes, sometimes scripts are just rejected, but what Lucas (or Kasdan or Kirshner) did was mix the feeling of the old script with a new plot. And in some ways, we should be thankful – Yoda was originally called “Minch!”

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2013 at 5:26 pm

  5. PS. Maybe Lucas didn’t give credit due to illness or pity. Brackett was an accomplished novelist of sci-fi, so maybe he was happy to work with her, even if the final product wasn’t great.

    PSS. Another improvement of Brackett’s is clean dialogue, which SW did not have, The plot wasn’t so great, but there is little that is clunky as some of the talk in the original.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm

  6. I agree that Lucas probably overlooked his wife’s contributions/suggestions because she was his wife. The fact that he was ignoring men and women suggests to me though that this is more about Lucas being a straight out jerk instead of limited to being a misogynist jerk.

    Like

    Grad Student

    June 19, 2013 at 10:13 pm

  7. Good point – maybe some sort instrumental variable model can tease this out…

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 20, 2013 at 3:07 am


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