'Russian Doll' Co-Creator: Why the Auteur Myth Is Misogynistic (Guest Column)

Russian Doll Netflix and inset of Leslye Headland - Getty-H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix;Getty Images

Leslye Headland cheers 'Fosse/Verdon' for rewriting Bob Fosse's Hollywood legacy to show the importance of Gwen Verdon and decries the treatment given to Woody Allen's ex-wife, Mia Farrow: "Nobody gets anything good done alone."

It's time to take a hard look at the myth of the auteur — this idea that anyone in this business is doing it all on his or her own. Because, as a creator, I know that absolutely nobody gets anything good done alone. One of the many positive effects of #MeToo and Time's Up is this sudden acknowledgment of creative women who were overshadowed by the stories of the men in their lives. That struck me as I was bingeing Fosse/Verdon.

Bob Fosse's legacy is Gwen Verdon's as well, and the miniseries showcases what a lot of people forget — that Verdon made an invaluable contribution to her husband's career. No, she wasn't a choreographer, but she came to him having worked with Jack Cole and Michael Kidd, these legends in dance. The idea that Fosse molded her is crazy. The two were so clearly collaborators — but we call them husband and wife, or worse, she ends up being labeled "a woman scorned." Maybe Gwen Verdon defended Fosse for years and continued working with him despite his constant infidelities because his legacy was also hers.

Now, I'm not saying Bob Fosse didn't direct Cabaret. He directed Cabaret, and he deserved that Oscar. It's a fucking genius movie. It's an indelible, singular piece of art made by that man. I think the question that Fosse/Verdon does a great job of answering, one that I really relate to, is how informed an artist is by those one or two people in their closest orbit.

Women have always been major collaborators with men, yet we're often stuck with this story of a guy who came up with everything on his own, never ran it by anybody and didn't respect anybody's opinion. It's wild the stuff that we didn't put in the history books, but now we're taking a look at it.

There's no shortage of examples. There's a real dip in Peter Bogdanovich's work after he split up with Polly Platt. All you have to do is look at the filmography. Saint Jack is great. But look at those first films he made while they were together — The Last Picture Show, Targets. This was a partnership, a real working gestalt. But people just think, "Oh yeah, he left her for Cybill Shepherd. And since he's a genius, he's allowed to do that." We move on with our lives.

Look at the way the culture treated Mia Farrow. Does she not have any ownership over that legacy, or was she laying there motionless, Handmaid's Tale-style, while Woody Allen figured out what he wanted to say? If you know anything about making a film, a TV show or a play, you know that suggestion makes no sense. But in history, these women are the Galatea to the man's Pygmalion. They're a shapeless form that the male artist changes into something. Their collaboration is not considered Hollywood canon — just because they were sharing a bed at night.

So how do you keep that narrative from recycling itself? Like everything else, it comes down to hiring women and empowering women to take on more leadership roles. And if there's anything I've learned in my storied history of trying to make a fucking dollar in this business, it's that no one is going to do it if you don't do it yourself.

Ten years ago, I was the epitome of that person who got in the room finally and slammed the door behind her. I thought, "Now that I'm here, I'm not helping anybody." I only wanted to do well, get more autonomy and more power … now, the joy of this job is sending the elevator back down. The work is fulfilling, too — after the fact. While I'm doing it, it's exhausting. But the greatest pleasure I get is derived from giving notes on a play or advocating for someone to be a producer.

For every fancy, beautiful A-list actress whom I meet with, at some point in the conversation she says that she wants to direct. If I tell that A-list actress that she should be directing this or that project, there is a little voice inside me that says, "You're giving up a job." I have to tell that voice to calm the fuck down. As Liam Neeson says, "I have a very particular set of skills" — and if people are in need of those skills, they will come to me for a job.

Natasha Lyonne had only directed a short before she tackled helming the finale of Russian Doll, but you can't tell me that someone who's been acting since she was 7 years old doesn't have more experience than a 25-year-old out of film school. She's been on more sets. She's interacted with bigger personalities. She's had to deal with more underestimation and adversity. And she'll probably be directing everything now — as she should.

Hollywood runs on fear and scarcity. A lot of times, the prejudice of hiring practices doesn't necessarily come from sexism, misogyny, racism or homophobia. It's the fear that there won't be enough left over. "We didn't get it? Who got it this year? Fuck that guy!" Relax. It's a profession like any other, and we don't have to act like animals to get work done. How many TV shows are on? How many films are we making? There's so much content and so many opportunities for work — we can all be more magnanimous and altruistic.

Empowering another person doesn't take something away from you. It's not good enough that the industry is pushing for inclusion. You have to take a look at your own work behavior, your own Fosse-ism. You're not an auteur. You're another bozo on the bus. Send the elevator back down. 

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.