Why the Writer Who Turned Audrey Hepburn and Douglas Fairbanks Into Stars Never Won an Oscar

MGM/Photofest
Anita Loos (right) with Jean Harlow promoting 1932's 'Red-Headed Woman.'

Anita Loos also created the "crypto-feminist" Lorelei Lee in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' and penned 200 films, but the Academy's big prize eluded her.

By 1914, D.W. Griffith's studio for two years had been buying scripts from a mysterious writer known as "A. Loos." Griffith already had turned one, The New York Hat, into a hit starring Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford. Now he was poised to meet this person he would come to see as one of his closest collaborators and dub "the most brilliant young woman in the world." He could not have been more stunned when Anita Loos — elfin at 4-foot-11 and 90 pounds, with a penchant for pigtails and sailor suits — materialized before him.

Yet this curious pixie, then in her mid-20s, was already on track to become one of early Hollywood's greatest writers. She would pen some 200 screenplays and help turn Douglas Fairbanks, Jean Harlow and Audrey Hepburn into stars. During the Depression, she earned the then-astronomical sum of $1,000 a week at MGM. She also found time to write the best-seller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and to conjure up showstoppers for Broadway. For more than 60 years, Loos was revered, widely imitated, called a genius by geniuses — and yet never was nominated for an Oscar.

The 2017 Oscar writer nominations are, as usual, femme-light. The writing ballot names only one woman, Allison Schroeder (co- nominated for best adapted screenplay for Hidden Figures). Only 117 female writers have been nominated in Academy history, with 21 wins. And no woman has won a solo-credit original screenplay Oscar since 2007, when Diablo Cody took a statue home for Juno.

Given how little the gender equation evolved during her own long career, Loos likely would be unsurprised that the writerly film world remains a boys' club today, nearly 40 years after her death, and that her female successors still are having a near-impossible time getting elite recognition. "There are many prolific female screenwriters," says Cody. "But there's still a feeling that we're creating a niche product. I'm still alien in these rooms, even when I'm dealing with female execs."

Ironically, Loos and her female contemporaries initially had an easier time breaking into the film world than women do today. "The field was wide open," says film historian Leonard Maltin, who interviewed Loos several times. A crazy sort of democracy ruled Hollywood then: Anyone could turn up and make movies, and would-be writers, actors and directors materialized from all over the country and world. "To place in the limelight a great number of people who ordinarily would be chambermaids and chauffeurs," Loos later wrote, "[and] give them unlimited power and instant wealth is bound to produce a lively and diverting result."

Even within this circus, Loos stood out as an unlikely troupe member. Born in California in 1888, she was raised by her father, a newspaperman, theater owner and philandering scoundrel, and her housewife mother, who silently suffered through her husband's indiscretions. As a teenager, Loos already had wrangled her way into contributing to a New York City newspaper column about the social life there (despite living in San Diego). After teaching herself to write scripts, she pitched several to Griffith's Biograph Co. among other studios.

Griffith eventually hired her full-time, making her, she claimed later, "possibly the movies' first staff writer." The New York Hat had showcased what would become widely known as the Anita Loos aesthetic: sharp, wit-driven, female-centric plots, with barbs pointed at Puritanical humorlessness and hypocrisy. From the beginning, she embodied the modern woman to millions of readers — a work-driven, glamorous female success story in a man's world. Helen Gurley Brown later cooed that Loos had been busy "being sexy and having a fantastic career at the same time before anybody."

Loos helped Griffith write and title his films during this period; she was the first person he permitted to see his movie Intolerance. After parting ways with Griffith's studio in 1917, Loos was invited by Douglas Fairbanks and director John Emerson (whom Loos would marry in 1919) to join Famous Players-Lasky, then arguably the most prestigious film company in Hollywood. She wrote more than 10 films for the actor, including Reaching for the Moon and The Americano, that helped make Fairbanks the movies' first great action hero. "They turned out one delightful film after another, and many of them still hold up 100 years later," says Maltin. Not only was Loos helping to invent Hollywood, she was helping to invent its inventors.

The full extent of Loos' unique voice became apparent in 1925, with her first novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Her friend H.L. Mencken — then a feared literary critic — had revealed to her a predilection for "witless blondes," and inspired by his taste in ladies, Loos conjured up Lorelei Lee, the most vacant-yet-shrewd gold-digger of all time, in retaliation. "Menck" not only had the good grace to laugh at this private satire, but encouraged her to publish her sketch in Harper's Bazaar. The story reportedly tripled newsstand sales. It was expanded into a series for the magazine, and then a book; the book's first printing sold out overnight.

Literary giants such as William Faulkner and Edith Wharton praised her, and the book remains a critical favorite. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the three perfect vernacular books in English, the others being Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye," says Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, where Loos was a contributor. "The way Loos is able to instill canniness and naivete in the same sentence is a miracle of idiomatic writing."

Gentlemen was immediately adapted as a play and also a now-lost 1928 film. Loos was uninvolved in the 1953 film, but liked it anyway: Marilyn Monroe was the most "authentic" of the Loreleis, she later said, but Carol Channing's 1949 stage version was the funniest. With Lorelei, Loos created a prototype: "The caricature of the dumb blonde who knew how to navigate the waters of society and get what she wants for herself," says film historian Jeanine Basinger. "[Lorelei] is a kind of crypto-feminist type, done with humor."

In 1931, Loos was hired solo by MGM. "She was a very valuable asset for [the studio]," recalled Sam Marx, the studio's onetime story editor, "because [it] had so many femme fatales," including Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Loos was the perfect writer for such sirens. Among her many projects for the studio: Red-Headed Woman, which launched Harlow into the pantheon of fatale greats. Loos created juicy material for men, too, including Clark Gable (whom she once spotted washing his dentures in a studio water fountain) and Spencer Tracy.

Loos moved to Broadway in the '40s, where her successful stage projects included Happy Birthday, with Helen Hayes and a Rodgers & Hammerstein score, and Gigi, which introduced Audrey Hepburn to the masses. She wrote many books, including another novel and several memoirs, before dying in New York City of a heart attack in 1981 at age 93.

Loos' career now is exciting interest in new generations of her successors. Gillian Jacobs, who wrote about her for Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter and is interested in dramatizing Loos' life, sees her as an inspiration for young women in Hollywood. "Every time she hit a road block," says Jacobs, "she would write for a new generation and achieve relevance all over again."

For all of her success, however, Loos had to navigate plenty of obstacles as a woman in Hollywood. Yet she often managed to work sexist attitudes to her advantage. She crafted an idiosyncratic image as a sort of sexless Lolita and carried it off well into her 30s. For some, the M.O. verged on freakishness, but it also beguiled many in power, including Vanity Fair founder Frank Crowninshield, whose magazine covered her liberally (and also once encouragingly sent her a little sailor dress). She received so much press that it rankled some stars she'd helped create. A Ladies' Home Journal article that called Loos the little girl who'd made Fairbanks into a star precipitated the end of their partnership.

Loos had a complicated relationship with overt feminism. She could be dismissive of her talent and that of other women. "I had no pride in authorship because I never thought that anything produced by females was, or even should be, important," she wrote. Yet when Emerson received disproportionate public credit on their joint projects, Loos could be cutting. In her memoir A Girl Like I, she wrote, "one after another of the pictures I wrote for John was a success. Conversely, the movies he made without me were all failures." Carol Channing, who worked with her on the 1949 stage version of Gentlemen, says, Loos "didn't waste a great deal of time focusing on whether the men were happy with her or not. She just did what she knew had to be done."

Emerson's continued presence in Loos' career underscored her pragmatism: A husband-wife team might have access to better projects than a woman on her own, and he had other uses as well. When she locked horns with a difficult MGM director who wouldn't take script advice from a woman, she used her husband, who had signed on as a producer at the studio, to covertly convey her ideas. (It's a tactic that's familiar to Cody, who calls the approach Trojan horsing: "You definitely don't want to scare everyone with your lady mojo. They're afraid of Mommy, and they trust Daddy. When Mommy's assertive, it's scary. You might not get dinner.")

Loos' contemporaries acknowledged her talents during her industry tenure, but one prize eluded her: the Oscar. Her closest brush with a nomination came courtesy of the 1936 film San Francisco, on which she had collaborated with screenwriter Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins. The movie was nominated for best original screen story, a now defunct category. Hopkins received credit for the story, and got the nomination; Loos got credit for the screenplay, which was not nominated. When MGM chief and Loos comrade Irving Thalberg died later that year, and producer George Cukor left the studio, Loos became increasingly unhappy. "One of the reasons she stopped working in Hollywood was that she didn't fancy that role, helping to make other people's movies better," says Maltin. "When it went well, as it did with Harlow and Fairbanks, [the work] delivered great satisfaction, but she got tired of being a script doctor."

Film historians and cultural observers today puzzle over why she never was bestowed with an honor on par with the level of her achievements. Says Basinger, "Let's restore now [her] true legacy as a very important screenwriter … [who] proved that women's stories written by a woman writer and men's stories written by a woman writer can be great movies."

Basinger and other experts agree that the discouragement of female auteurs remains an unremitting problem in Hollywood. "I've been giving interviews on this topic for 30 years," says Basinger. "Culture is slower to change than we think it is. We do know that it's not an absence of talent or will. Why are there fewer opportunities for women? Is there any answer to this question? If so, let's figure it out."

Lesley M.M. Blume is the author of the New York Times best-selling Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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