- Hollywood's Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship by Virginia Wright Wexman
Virginia Wright Wexman
Columbia University Press, 2020, 312 pages.
Virgina Wexman lacks no ambition in her newest book, Hollywood's Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship, which outlines an impressive range of objectives. First of all, she wants to show how the Guild created the idea of directors as artists. She moves on to how directors adopted the image of charismatic leaders and to how they are recognised. Wexman then looks at how the Directors Guild of America (DGA)—which was initially called the Screen Directors Guild (SDG)—constructed a narrative about the famous meeting on 22 October 1950 (detailed below). Finally, Wexman examines the ownership rights of the Guild.
The first chapter discusses the origins of the Guild and why it was determined not to be considered a union. From the beginning, the Guild members considered that they were protecting a craft like silversmiths. Wexman provides a sound survey of the Guild's origins, focusing on directors as a film's sole creative force. Surprisingly, she does not emphasize D W Griffiths and the forming of United Artists, which would only strengthen her case. She does look at the growing auteur movement headed by Andrew Sarris, whose views were adopted by the Guild.
Wexman builds on these ideas in the second chapter on charismatic authority, which discusses the pressures on directors from studio heads as they strove to become autonomous. The third chapter looks at the critical use of credits. The opening three chapters offer a substantial discussion of issues surrounding directors being recognized as authors. Combined with the fifth chapter on property rights, Wexman has written a perceptive and interesting account of the Guild's development and its underlying values.
Taking out the chapter on the SDG meeting, which will be discussed further, the book occupies close to 100 pages. This section is supplemented with five appendixes, notes and a bibliography, which takes up an additional 150 pages. The appendices are not particularly helpful, and the structure gives the distinct impression of bulking up a slender book. Even so, if Wexman had stopped at that point, her work would have been a valuable contribution..
The book's central weakness is the chapter that focuses on the famous SDG meeting called to debate Joseph Mankiewicz's reappointment as SDG President by Cecil B. DeMille. Wexman begins well by restating the DGA's version of events. The meeting was called after SDG President Mankiewicz opposed a mandatory loyalty oath introduced by DeMille. In the DGA's version of events, the conservative DeMille was triumphant until Ford cut him down. Wexman rightly disputes a great deal of the DGA's official history.
Unfortunately, the accuracy of Wexman's account must be questioned. Wexman begins with a short recounting of the HUAC hearings, which lead to protests from the SDG board. These protests caused a conservative membership backlash. Wexman mentions directors booing Robert Rossen for supporting the Hollywood 10 at a meeting held on 1 December 1947 (91). Wexman fails to mention the election of anti-communists Cecil B. DeMille and Sam Wood to the board at the same meeting, which stifled any further opposition to HUAC by the Guild. By a show of hands, the SDG membership overwhelmingly voted to have a mandatory loyalty oath for officials, which angered John [End Page 43] Huston. He ended his involvement with the Guild from that point.
In 1950, three years later, the SDG Board voted to extend the loyalty oath to all members, and the decision was presented to them through an open and signed ballot. Wexman describes John Huston looking on in amazement when a move to introduce loyalty oaths for "all members" was endorsed by a show of hands at a board meeting dated 18 August 1950 (91-92). Huston was not a board member in 1950 or even an active member, and Wexman has conflated it with the meeting in 1947, where Huston walked out in anger. The error is understandable...