The Lebanese-born French actress Delphine Seyrig (1932-1990) is best-known as the star of such French New Wave classics as Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968). A polyglot, Seyrig was celebrated for her beauty, talent and intelligence. In the 1970s, she joined the burgeoning women’s liberation movement in France, and met cinematographer-filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos at a feminist rally. The two artists later began a collaboration that lasted several years in which they interviewed leading female actors about their work in the male-dominated movie industry.
The resulting film, Be Pretty and Shut Up, released in 1981, is a rarely screened masterpiece of feature-length documentary filmmaking — and an historical and biographical record of women’s lives. It played to a full house this month at the Metrograph Theater in New York City. Seyrig begins with stills of each of the two dozen French and American actors she interviews, which she places in front of the camera. With each photograph, she speaks the actor’s name, putting a face to the name and breaking the usual pattern of disembodied naming in title sequences. Since it is clear from the title that the women will speak about the erasure of feminine identity, Seyrig immediately establishes it — and, significantly, identifies each of her subjects aloud.
Among the American actors Seyrig interviews are Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest), Jane Fonda (Klute, Julia), Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment, Postcards from the Edge), Mallory Millet (Tootsie), Maidie Norman (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank), and television star Cindy Williams (“Laverne & Shirley”). In November 2017, Millet accused Roman Polanski of attempted rape; she was 29 years old when the incidents took place. Among the French actors are Juliet Berto (Celine and Julie Go Boating) Marie Dubois (Jules and Jim), Rita Renoir (Red Desert), and Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris). The women represent a range of ages, and are at different points in their career; MacLaine and Renior, for instance, were long-established stars, and Fonda was in mid-career.
Seyrig’s first question is whether or not these women, had they been born male, would have chosen the same profession. All of the actors answer “no,” that they would be in another field, several pointing to work that would allow them to travel. Two say they would have become sailors. Renior, too, hoped that her career would allow her to see the world. A famous French ecdysiast and actor, she recalls her first trip abroad to Africa as a member of a ballet troupe; when the director discovered that Renoir planned to use her earnings to travel independently, her pay was withheld, and she was sent back home to France. Having established the imposed limitations on the lives of these women and, sometimes, the lack of self-worth that might have influenced their choice of profession, Seyrig moves on to the humiliations they have had to endure.
Several of the actors joke about their masochistic tendencies. Fonda describes her first screen test at Warner Brothers, presumably for Klute (1971). Jack Warner liked breasts, she says, and hers were not big enough. She describes the makeover she endured, after which she says she looked a bit like every other Hollywood star: “I felt like I was coming off an assembly line.” Louise Fletcher recalls that one producer requested a meeting with her 11 times, each time rejecting her because of her 5' 10" height. That made her difficult to pair with most male actors of the time. When the producer again called her to his office, she says that she stood next to a wall and marked her height with a pen.
Speaking about her frequent stereotypical roles as a maid, African-American actress Maidie Norman (The Hill) says that she does not mind playing maids; she observes that they reflect a certain reality for black women. The actor, who originated the first course in African-American literature and drama at UCLA, tells Seyrig that she is offended by black exploitation films. Norman complained to Robert Aldrich during production on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? about her maid character’s “slavery talk” and “yessum” lines. She reportedly rewrote them. In one of the most riveting moments in the film, Perkins speaks of her anger at having to act in a “wave of films I didn’t want to do,” apparently because they were sexist. Worse, she recalls, was when people she knew well would compliment her on those performances. Schneider remembers walking onto the set of Tango each morning and feeling that she had been shut out of discussions regarding the film that Bertolucci and Brando had had the night before.
Seyrig’s style is straightforward, and as objective as one can achieve in documentary filmmaking. There is no music track, and Roussopoulos’ camera is mostly in close-up or medium close-up. The film needs to be restored as the images are often blurred, and the dialogue is sometimes difficult to hear over ambient noise. Nevertheless, Be Pretty and Shut Up consists of one hour and 55 minutes of the most erudite talk any audience could wish for. While the names of offending male directors are rarely mentioned, several actors declare that they are simply not interested in women. Renoir says that is because most men are misogynists. One actor points to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the male characters “share a woman” as another way of eliding women. Several of the actors express annoyance with these male buddy movies that proliferated in the 1970s. Is it latent homosexuality or a way to eliminate women altogether? No issue that would now be discussed in a contemporary women’s studies class or a feminist filmmaking course is left unexplored.
Late in the documentary, Jane Fonda’s vivid account of the tension during production on Julia provides the most lucid description of 1970s-era sexual politics. In that movie, Fonda portrays writer and playwright Lillian Hellman; her co-star was the eponymous character played by Vanessa Redgrave. Fonda recalls director Fred Zinnemann’s consistent efforts to curtail any display of physical affection. At first, Fonda “thought it was funny,” until the director said she was not to kiss Julia in their final scene together. Julia and Lillian knew it was the last time they would see each other, and Fonda argued it would be impossible for her to do the scene. She observes that Zinnemann “needed to take it away from us,” in other words, to dilute the onscreen power of two strong female characters outside a male-defined space. That is still true today where few films pass the low bar of the Bechdel Test — that a movie consists of two women who talk to each other, but not about a man. While Be Pretty and Shut Up is entertaining talk, it is also a sublime articulation of institutionalized sexism — the biography of women the world over.