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Lynda Obst saw first-hand the results of a gender-discrimination lawsuit like the one against Newsweek in 1970 that inspired the new Amazon series Good Girls Revolt.
Now an executive producer on Good Girls Revolt whose credits also include Sleepless in Seattle, Interstellar and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Obst worked for The New York Times after women at that outlet won their lawsuit, filed after the Newsweek suit, and saw that she benefited from the bold action they took.
“I came into a newsroom that had a whole group of women who were sidelined because they won that lawsuit. They were being retaliated against very subtly for suing the paper,” Obst explained, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter at the Good Girls Revolt premiere in New York last month. “The head of the paper wanted to show that he could be great to women, so he was great to me. And I had a great career there, and it took me a while to realize why there was a bunch of unhappy women there. And suddenly I realized I was having a great time because of them. So I wanted to make a series for them to thank them for the opportunity to be able to be a journalist equal to the men, which I never would have been if they hadn’t sued and for the women that Lynn wrote about. And also obviously for my granddaughters and all the women journalists who never would’ve had a chance if the women who were stuck in the corner at The Times hadn’t sued the paper for discrimination.”
When she read Lynn Povich’s book, Good Girls Revolt, about the Newsweek suit and subsequent efforts to get media outlets to hire and promote women, she was compelled by Povich’s account of what Obst calls a “secret history” and confident that she would get the rights to nonfiction work.
“I thought this is what happened,” Obst said. “I knew Lynn knew me and knew I had worked at the paper and I would do it authentically and I would do it right.”
Despite her extensive background in film production, Obst felt a TV series was the best format to explore the issues affecting women in media more than 40 years ago.
“Movies end. TV series don’t end,” Obst said. “First of all, it took a couple of suits before this worked. Second of all, we could get to know how relationships between men and women continued to change, because I experienced that, how marriages broke apart that shouldn’t have and relationships broke apart. You wanted to see how intensely women’s liberation, and feminism, because I lived through it, really screwed up the workplace and excited the workplace, so every relationship was core. And you can’t see that in one movie. You have to see that over time.”
The series, which is streaming now for Amazon Prime subscribers, is fictional but oriented around the real discrimination suit and features actors playing a number of real people, including Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant) and Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer). Created by executive producer Dana Calvo, Good Girls Revolt also stars Jim Belushi, Anna Camp, Hunter Parrish, Chris Diamantopoulos, Erin Darke and Genevieve Angelson. The show follows a group of young female researchers at the fictional News of the Week magazine as they seek to be treated fairly, revealing how this effort upends relationships and careers.
The real Eleanor Holmes Norton approved her scenes, Calvo said, and also served as a resource for Bryant, with the actress conducting extensive research before she met with the ACLU lawyer turned congresswoman. In the case of the late Nora Ephron, Obst is close with her family and consulted with them.
“They sort of allowed us to play a little fast and loose with our portrayal of Nora Ephron,” Calvo said.
Both Bryant and Calvo say they hope they “did right by” the real Norton and Ephron.
As for the other characters, Camp and Darke said they read the book and investigated the period, through movies and the CNN documentary series’ The Sixties and The Seventies, even talking with their parents and others who lived through the era.
Diamantopoulos also investigated the real person on which his fictional character is based, Newsweek editor Osborn Elliott, reading Elliott’s book and what was written about him.
“I looked at what was happening news-wise, journalistically in 1969, 1970, definitely the fashion of it all, socio-economically,” Diamantopoulos said. “And what was most fascinating was how similar things are now to how they were then.”
Indeed, this lack of a dramatic change from almost 50 years ago, was something that other castmembers pointed to as well.
“Sad to say but I don’t think we’ve come far enough obviously,” Camp told The Hollywood Reporter. “I was at a sexual discrimination panel the other day and I didn’t know where to start because it is consistently happening to me. I don’t want to villainize men in this industry, but Hollywood is a very objective business.”
Darke took a more balanced view but acknowledged, “there’s still some way to go.”
“We’ve had huge shifts and women have the opportunities for these jobs and are seen by a great deal of people as equal in their abilities,” she said. “I think Roger Ailes and Fox News proved that we are not quite there yet. But there have been huge improvements.”
Darke said Obst helped her realize how much had changed.
“When she talks about what it was like for a woman to be in the newsroom, she was like, ‘It was like you were in a war, a gender war, all of the time, and you just had to bear with it or you would not have your job.’ I think it’s so valuable that now if something happens women can stand up and say, ‘No.’ We know what sexual harassment is now and we can call it out and we can stop it,” Darke said. “I think that [awareness] is a huge thing that actually creates equality in the workplace.”
For her part, Obst admits she’s an outlier but insists that as bad as things are for women now, even in Hollywood, they’re better than they’ve been.
“I know people think things are terrible for women but having been in a truly terrible time for women in movies, I’m always the one to say, ‘Wait, it’s better.’ We have a lot of studio heads. We have a ton of producers. Women are making tons of money as actresses. Our biggest problem is directors and in one year, in response to the suit from the ACLU, more women have gotten jobs than in the past 10. So we have a very reactive industry. So I think it’s better,” Obst said. “There’s not an equitopia, it needs to be an equitopia. It’s not, but it’s so much better. I’m always going to be the one that’s slightly different than the younger people. They see how far there is to go, and I see how far we’ve come.”
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