Perry, Eleanor (1915–1981)
Perry, Eleanor (1915–1981)
American screenwriter and feminist. Name variations: Eleanor Bayer; (joint pseudonym with first husband) Oliver Weld Bayer. Born Eleanor Rosenfeld in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1915; died of cancer on March 14, 1981; briefly attended Sarah Lawrence College; Case Western Reserve, M.A.; married Leo G. Bayer (a lawyer and writer, divorced); married Frank Perry (a director and producer), around 1960 (separated 1970, divorced 1971); children: (first marriage) William Bayer; Anne Bayer.
David and Lisa (1962); Ladybug, Ladybug (1963); The Swimmer (1968); Last Summer (1969); Trilogy (1969); Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970); Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970); The Deadly Trap (1971); The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973).
Eleanor Perry entered the movie business when she was well into her 40s and within a decade had written the screenplays for nine remarkable films, six of which were directed by her husband Frank Perry. Divorced from Frank in 1971, she subsequently wrote three more screenplays, including The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), which she also co-produced. During production of the film, she encountered and contested so many sexist issues, however, that when it was over Perry was pretty much blacklisted from any future Hollywood projects. From that time on, she focused on changing the movie industry, crusading for better representation of women on screen and more job equity for them off screen, as writers, directors, and producers. Sadly, her campaign was cut short by her death from cancer in 1981.
Eleanor Perry was born Eleanor Rosenfeld in 1915 in Cleveland, Ohio, and received a master's degree in psychiatric social work from Case Western Reserve. She then went to work as a psychiatric case worker, also writing plays on the subject which were produced by the Cleveland Mental Hygiene Association. With her first husband, Leo G. Bayer, a lawyer, she co-authored additional plays and mystery novels. On a trip to New York in 1958, she met and fell in love with Frank Perry, who was then directing for the stage. She subsequently divorced her husband and married Frank, thus embarking on the second phase of her life.
Disheartened with the state of contemporary drama, the Perrys decided to take advantage of the French New Wave way of filming that was just reaching American shores. Their first movie, inspired by Eleanor's interest in mental health issues, was David and Lisa (1962), a dramatized case-history about two troubled adolescents. Since no studio would touch the project, the Perrys raised the money and financed the production themselves. The film, produced on a shoestring budget and using then-inexperienced actors, Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin , was named Best Picture of the Year by Time magazine and won an Academy Award nomination. "Tact, taste, insight and forthrightness make this one of the most incisive and original films treating mental problems," wrote a reviewer for the trade paper Variety.
The couple's next film, also independently produced, was Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), which explored children's fears of the nuclear age. (Eleanor based her screenplay on a news article about a nuclear alarm that went off in a school during the Cuban missile crisis.) The film's antiwar bias provoked strong feelings, both pro and con, from critics and audiences alike. "It's as if we have put our fingers on a sore spot, made people face things they would rather not think about," Eleanor said at the time. Despite the controversy, however, the film failed at the box office.
The couple would not attempt another film until their 1968 adaptation of John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer," an offbeat tale about a middle-aged Connecticut suburbanite (played by Burt Lancaster) who, finding himself stranded, swims home via the swimming pools of his friends. Although not a commercial success, the movie was produced by Sam Spiegel, giving the Perrys entrée into the Hollywood mainstream. It was followed in 1969 by an adaptation of Evan Hunter's novel Last Summer, starring Barbara Hershey , Richard Thomas, Cathy Burns , and Bruce Davison, and by Trilogy, an adaptation of three of Truman Capote's short
stories ("A Christmas Memory," "Miriam," and "Among the Paths to Eden"), all of which were produced separately for television, then edited for distribution as a feature-length film entitled Truman Capote's Trilogy. The television airing of "A Christmas Memory" received 18 major awards, including the Peabody as Best Television Show of the Year, the International Television Critics prize, and Emmys for Truman Capote, Eleanor Perry, and the drama's lead actress, Geraldine Page .
The Perrys' last picture together, Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), was Eleanor's adaptation of the Sue Kaufmann novel depicting the breakdown of a marriage, and was memorable for the performances of Richard Benjamin and Carrie Snodgress as the doomed couple. The movie both revisited the split-up of Perry's first marriage and signaled the end of her second. "Now, I would write the ending differently," she said three years after her separation from Frank, who had initiated divorce proceedings while the film was in production. "I would carry it one step further. I'd show Tina liberating herself, but not through a man. She'd get a job, or go back to school or whatever."
Following the breakup of her marriage, Perry wrote the screenplays for two thrillers, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970) and The Deadly Trap (1972). During this time, she joined a consciousness-raising group led by Susan Brownmiller and began to speak out against the shabby treatment of women by the movie industry. On a discussion panel at the 1971 New York Film Festival, she said she was "tired of seeing women portrayed as prostitutes or merely love objects" and "that women can be prolific in the field of literature because it is a monastic effort, but the collaborative nature of film-making allows for exclusion of women as undesirable members of the team, or relegation to assignment dealing only with female subjects." At the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, she led a group of women protesting the Federico Fellini movie Roma, and also in 1972, she scripted The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, the "first feminist Western," as she called it, based on the novel by Marilyn Durham . She then signed to co-produce the film with Martin Poll, who had arranged a deal with MGM for filming and had promised her equal control and input on the project.
From the onset, Perry realized that Poll had no intention of sharing authority. Relegated to a tiny office at MGM, "full of cracks, with a broken air-conditioner and a tiny desk," next to a bathroom, said Perry, she soon found that she had not been consulted about the casting of Burt Reynolds and Sarah Miles in the leading roles, or about changes in the script, which had been rewritten by a committee of male writers. In the new version, Miles' character was softened and a violent rape scene was added, Perry said, "Poll thought it 'turned men on.'" The final product bore little resemblance to what Perry had envisioned. "I saw the film as the African Queen in the West, a relationship between a man and a woman but an unlikely combination about a liberated woman in the 1880s who had the guts to run away from her husband. I never wanted to show her cooking, making biscuits, heating coffee, getting raped. Well, all those things are indeed in the film."
Although she objected to the final cut, Perry demanded and won solo credit on the popular film that critics hated. As it turned out, the project sullied her reputation, and she had difficulty interesting producers in her new projects: Clout, in which Cicely Tyson , as a congresswoman, was to star opposite George C. Scott, and a screen adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel Expensive People.
Disenchanted and angry, Perry helped other women in the industry achieve producer or director status. She set up workshops at the American Film Institute and testified before a Senate educational committee. In 1977, she made headlines when in an interview with former actress Grace Kelly , princess of Monaco, Perry abandoned the preplanned questions about flower collages to elicit instead comments about the princess' thoughts on the image of women in Hollywood. As it turned out, Kelly's opinions were straight out of the 1950s, which dismayed Perry but did not surprise her.
Perry's efforts to bring strong, independent female characters to the screen did not produce results in her lifetime, although, as Lizzie Francke posits, she may have sabotaged her own career. "She might have been better off sticking with the New York 'independent' mentality and continuing to write scripts for low-budget films over which she had control," she writes. "But that culture was also very director-oriented; this worked for Perry when she was in partnership with Frank, but she lost her foothold when she went solo." It may also be true, however, that in choosing to challenge the male-dominated movie industry, Perry sacrificed her career to the greater cause.
Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema. NY: Continuum, 1991.
Capote, Truman, Eleanor Perry, and Frank Perry. Trilogy: An Experiment in Multimedia. Toronto, Canada: Macmillan, 1969.
Francke, Lizzie. Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood. London: British Film Institute, 1994.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts