Sandra Hochman's Astonishing 1973 Documentary About the Women's Movement

Roundup: Talking About History

Douglas Rogers, in the Guardian (April 16, 2004):

In 1973, Sandra Hochman's documentary about the women's movement, featuring Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine, caused a sensation. So why has it spent 30 years locked in a vault?

Warren Beatty looked bemused. This should have been so easy for him. He was the hottest film star in the world, the cameras were rolling and he was being interviewed by a gorgeous blonde who had the sexpot body of a 60s Brigitte Bardot. What's more, the subject was women. Or, more to the point, the women's movement. Perhaps he just wasn't prepared for the provocative questioning. When the blonde suggested to him that men might go to rehabilitation centres to be reoriented in society, his reply was rambling. She egged him on and he called her a female chauvinist. She calmly said she wasn't and he tried to sound smooth: "You think you've really licked it, don't you?" Then, his legendary charm really evaporated. "You've changed," he spluttered, as the cameras closed in. "When you came and talked to me at the Beverly Wiltshire, I liked you very much but I don't think you were very direct and very firm the way you are now." The woman deadpanned back: "Well, I was talking about something I didn't feel very firmly about. Which was you."
The woman was the 36-year-old poet, author and first-time film-maker Sandra Hochman. The year was 1972, and the interview was the opening salvo in Hochman's astonishing documentary, Year of the Woman (1973). The good news for Beatty and other men skewered in the film is that few people ever saw it. It has recently been screened at the Sarasota film festival in Florida, but has spent the past 30 years locked in a Manhattan film vault, too radical or too weird for distributors to touch.

The film is set at the Democratic political convention in Miami in July, 1972. The convention was the scene of the first meeting of the newly formed National Women's Political Caucus, which nominated congresswoman Shirley Chisholm as the first woman presidential candidate in American history. Hochman had gone to Miami with an all-woman documentary crew to make the first ever film on the women's movement and she returned with extraordinary footage. The film features a cross-section of American cultural icons, among them Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron and the radical black feminist activist Florence Kennedy. Germaine Greer even appears at one point, standing moody and alone at the back of an auditorium.

The hand-held camera follows Hochman as she prods male politicians, delegates and celebrities into sharing their views on women and the feminist movement. Like Beatty, most of them hang themselves. Future Democrat presidential candidate Gary Hart says no woman is "sufficiently qualified" to be president; a delegate from Alabama is bemused when Hochman calls him sexist for saying women should never be truck drivers. In one extraordinary scene, Hochman sneaks into a packed convention hall with a curvy blonde stripper dressed in a revealing gold sequin dress. The convention literally stops as men gawp at the woman like dogs on heat. "All because Liz Renay has breasts!" Hochman reflects afterwards from a beach chair. "But if a man walked into a convention with a huge cock, would women rush up and ask, 'Who is he, where is he, what's his name?'"

Interspersed with Hochman's poetry, fantasy dream sequences, and some hysterical ad-lib repartee with the beloved Washington Post political humorist Art Buchwald, the film caused a sensation when it showed for five nights at the the Avenue Cinema in New York in October 1973. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr told Hochman it was the greatest documentary he had ever seen and wrote that: "Hochman and Buchwald are the best new comedy team since Hepburn and Tracy." It sold out each night and women queued round the block to see it. And then it disappeared. It was bought in 1974 for $65,000 by a wealthy 23-year-old Filipino woman and her two brothers, who were convinced it was a masterpiece. Yet no film company would touch it. Before Sarasota, it had appeared only once since, at a million-dollar gala-night screening at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 1985. Today it is not on video or DVD and few people have even heard of it.

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Ben Allen Riley - 4/27/2004

As for Shirley Chisholm being the first woman presidential candidate in American history, Mr. Rogers should familiarize himself with Victoria C. Woodhull.