Very little in movies of the early 1970s prepared audiences--maybe even the filmmakers themselves--for the radical changes that were about to occur on screen, then ultimately elevate themselves, like a 3--D pop-up card, into a position of tremendous influence in people's lives. It was almost as if, like the backgrounds in those cards, the movies became the far less important item, giving way to the new role possibilities women film stars were embodying.
In the first part of the decade, films that were the most popular, and made the most money, were either without any female roles or else contained female roles that were superficial. A Variety headline from the era announces that family films did the most business in 1969, the top two grossers of that year being The Love Bug and Funny Girl. In 1970 Love Story swept all other contenders before it, and other big winners in the early 1970s were The Godfather, Fiddler on the Roof, and What's up, Doc? Of the top ten grossers of 1974, the year The Sting headed the list, only The Great Gatsby and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had major roles for women, and those roles were hardly progressive.
The year 1975 brought Lucky Lady, with Liza Minelli as a wisecracking bootlegger and in 1973 the usually serious Glenda Jackson won an Oscar for a comedy, A Touch of Class, in which she portrayed a married but separated dress designer having an affair with a married man, played by George Segal.
You would hardly know or guess that this was the tail end of the hippie era when free love, female anger, and bra-burning were the zeitgeist in many segments of society.
For though political and social events of the late 1960s and early 1970s encouraged independence and autonomy for women, paradoxically women's parts in movies were reactionary or even retrograde. Mia Farrow, for instance, carried a child against her will in Rosemary's Baby in 1968. Passively accepting the weird food--rats and the like--that her horrid neighbors give her ( Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as wittily evil oldsters who are stepgrandparents of sorts to the coming child of the Devil) and unquestioningly accepting the dictates of her possessed husband, John Cassavetes, Farrow is like a 1950s nightmare of wifedom.
On the other end of the role model spectrum, Jane Fonda brilliantly plays a prostitute in Klute ( 1971), a role for which she won an Oscar. As the ultimate symbol of female exploitation, this prostitute can find herself, and be liberated, only with the help of a man: a policeman played by Donald Sutherland. This film makes an interesting comparison with a 1985 movie about prostitutes, Working Girls, by the young feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden, in which the heroine is so autonomous that she manages to regard her work as simply that, something done for the money only, and never gets involved with the johns or feels degraded by them or by the work. Of course it must help that she is a Yale Ph.D., and that she is gay. Still, the issue of self-esteem never comes up, as it does in Klute, where Fonda's negative self-image, matched by her surroundings and circumstances, creates the movie's emotional mood.
Yet by contrast with these either lighthearted or negative role models, though perhaps a few light-years beyond what their real-life sisters were busy with, progressive women like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug were on public platforms preaching self-fulfillment and self-discovery, even if the cost was high. There was also their national mythical alter ego, the feminist superwoman who was beginning to be able to have, and do, it all. Or at least she looked as if she could. But women's images in films lagged langorously behind.
In fact, the gap was so apparent that two books of film criticism, Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape and Marjorie Rosen Popcorn Venus (both 1973) took this fact as their premise and made critical breakthroughs based upon it.
Even publications as straitlaced and venerable as the New York Times published pieces on the paucity of good roles for women. Panels on women and film proliferated on college campuses, particularly on both coasts, where film in general had a high profile because of the numbers of movies made there. The first Festival of Women's Film, held in New York in 1972, was composed of films by and about women, and concentrating on women's issues.
Middle age in women was also celebrated in The Turning Point ( 1977), with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. In this film the emphasis was on the mutually exclusive choices women of their generation had to make: career, represented by Bancroft, or marriage and motherhood, as embodied by MacLaine.
In 1976 there had been one prototype for a strong, elegant career woman in Faye Dunaway's portrayal of a ruthless TV executive in Network. But, while attractive, her character was simply too mean-spirited for American women to identify with in any way.
Soon others came along, though. There was, for instance, Jane Fonda's suddenly liberated wife in Coming Home ( 1978). Her liberation is signaled most clearly by the surface change from a prim and proper Marine's wife to a freer-dressing, freer-acting, and newly sexually enlightened woman. There was also Jessica Lange's attractive single mother, who never mentions the father of her child, in Tootsie ( 1982), and the possibly less romanticized portrait of Meryl Streep as a conflicted mother who also wants to fulfill herself as a person in Kramer vs. Kramer ( 1979).