A Conversation with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason
by Joey Stocks
In July 2015, at the Dramatists Guild’s National Conference in La Jolla, CA, I interviewed our keynote speaker—TV series creator, screenwriter, novelist, documentary film-maker, activist, and Guild member—Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. That summer, Presidential campaigns and allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby were in the news, and some of what Linda talked about precipitated her October 18, editorial in The Hollywood Reporter. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation which originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of The Dramatist.
Joey Stocks: I want to talk about your career and how you got started, but before we do, let’s start with current events. You just finished First Wives Club in Chicago. Your first musical?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Yes.
Joey Stocks: Congratulations! We have some playwrights in our audience today, who are also considering exploring the world of musicals for the first time. What was it like for you?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Well, it was a kind of a surprise that, you know, you have to stop writing to put the music in.
Joey Stocks: Yes. (audience laughs)
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: I found that, frankly, a big pain in the ass. (audience laughs) It was daunting because I very much liked Olivia’s novel, but the screenplay—while highly successful—was a bit broad for me. I just couldn’t marry the styles, so I started over, using the story and characters, but writing my own dialogue. I think it worked, but truthfully, we’re still making sausage. Hopefully, it will eventually get to Broadway. We’ll see what happens.
Joey Stocks: Would you do it again?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Oh yeah. I was already working on [a play] of my own called Women In Film. It’s about the marginalization and diminishment of women in our industry. The book involves five actresses in one Oscar season during which they have all been nominated. There is also an historical perspective, going back to Edison’s first muse, Annabelle Whitford, who eventually became a prostitute.
Joey Stocks: Let’s go back ourselves now. Did you always want to be a writer?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: I did. I wanted to be a woman named Shana Alexander. I was [from] Missouri and I stupidly came to California, because I didn’t know Shana was based in New York. (audience laughter) I wanted to be, you know, a serious columnist, but as young people so often do, my friends were coming to California so I came, too. And just on a lark, I met an actress named Mary Kay Place, (Mary Hartman, The Big Chill, Big Love) And we sort of teamed up and became the first women to write for M*A*S*H*. There were not many female comedy writers then and our mentors were—and yes, I know, this is absolutely ridiculous—Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, and Jim Brooks. (audience laughs) And that’s how we got started, with these three geniuses teaching us everything they knew. By the way, we were good girls. We weren’t casting couch types. (audience laughs) We were really working our little asses off and they just couldn’t have been better to us and in all candor, gave us our careers. Our first script for M*A*S*H* was nominated for an Emmy and we were off and running. Then one day, Larry Gelbart said, “How would you ladies like to be the Women of the Year in Comedy? They’re having a live telecast from Lincoln Center, and you guys can be the comedy people.” And we said, “Yes, of course, we’ll do it.” And we get there and on stage is Roberta Peters for opera and Lillian Hellman for literature. And Mary Kay and I are looking at each other, with our jaws on the floor but also thinking, “Hey, maybe we really are this good.” [Laughs.] I remember calling my parents and saying, “Mom, Dad, you told me life was hard—but that’s not true—it’s not hard at all.” (audience laughs) Of course, since then, I have been flattened by the steamroller many times, but that was how we got started and it remains for me such a lovely memory.
One of the best things I learned from Larry Gelbart is that it doesn’t matter where your work appears. I didn’t understand that a lot of people felt snobbishly about television. Larry did not. He had worked in all mediums. He said, I’m doing TV because more people will see one episode of M*A*S*H* than will ever see Gone with the Wind. Once I found that out, I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve often been doubted because I became known as a sitcom writer. Whether I was writing a novel, or making a political film for President Clinton, my credentials were always questioned by literary and political elites. “Oh, you’re a sitcom writer, you can’t write a novel. You can’t do a film.” Fortunately, I didn’t listen. My first film for President Clinton became The Man from Hope. My first novel was a New York Times Bestseller. You cannot allow people to stereotype you. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter if your work is presented in your backyard, if it’s good, it’s good.
Joey Stocks: That’s such good advice for all of us. This is a chicken or egg question. My friend Aaron Hartzler, who’s a writer and a huge fan of yours, asked a similar question that Eve Ensler asked in a roundtable for our Master Class issue. I’m going to steal it and ask you. Whether you’re writing about sexual harassment, racial discrimination, domestic abuse, or marriage equality, you have notably tackled both political and social issues. Do you like to begin with the issue that you want to write about? What’s your way in?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: It depends on the medium. I think you have to be very cognizant of your audience and your format. In television, yes, I start with the issue. I miss that so much. There are a few astonishingly good comedies now, but I think a lot of comedy has turned into those little colored sprinkles on cupcakes. I want more exciting things to occur. I want to hear something important being addressed. I want to see really strong, funny women, like Bea Arthur, Candace Bergen, and Dixie Carter. I really miss seeing actresses stand up and say something memorable. Again, I was very fortunate that when I was at CBS, the chairman, Howard Stringer, and the network president, Jeff Sagansky, had a huge affinity for mouthy, Southern females. They allowed me to address every important issue known to womankind. And I think we got away with it because those women were so funny. Also, I guess propaganda is the perk you get for being a writer. (audience laughs)
Joey Stocks: Would you say that comedy is how you keep from falling into the trap of becoming too didactic?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Oh absolutely, I think if you were just pontificating on your soapbox, no one would pay attention. I grew up in a family of lawyers. My grandfather and my four uncles were all lawyers. My father was a Japanese war crimes prosecutor. They were in this little town in the Ozarks, but by God they were wordsmiths. They stood on my mother’s furniture and made speeches about everything. Everyone had an opinion and if you didn’t, you were sent to your room. (audience laughs) So that’s the music of my childhood. I think that’s more of a Southern thing than perhaps growing up in the Northeast. You have to be very careful with Northern audiences because all that Southern verbiage can sound like proselytizing. But in my family, it was a virtue. My Dad was like Atticus Finch, with liquor. (audience laughs) He was a really good lawyer. And a really good man. We couldn’t belong to the country club because Jews and blacks couldn’t belong. And then later, when he died, I was telling someone this and my mother said, “Well, you know, he also didn’t want to pay the dues.” (audience laughs)
Joey Stocks: Last night, Marsha Norman, Julia Jordan, Rebecca Stump, and Lisa Kron revealed the numbers from a study we’ve done called The Count. It revealed that nationally, only 22.18% of professional productions in the past three years were written by women. You have been one of the pioneers for women in television where gender parity is also an issue. Would you tell us a bit about what it’s been like for you and where do you think we’re going?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: I can’t really complain too much about how I’ve been treated, because I’m pretty sure I’m an exception. As I’ve said, I started out with great male mentors and I’ve been treated well throughout most of my career. But I am acutely aware that this is not the case for many of my sisters.
It weighs heavily on me, the number of women who are not writing and are not in front of or behind the camera, I am also very angry at the way women continue to be diminished in film and on television. I know there are a lot of good roles right now for actresses, especially on cable. But the massive over-sexualization of women—the idea that women are rated for their fuckability and hotness—this offends me deeply. The Academy Awards haven’t really been around that long, but 25 actresses have already been nominated for playing hookers. If you’re an actress in Hollywood, you’re probably gonna play a whore at some point in your career. Personally, I don’t even know a prostitute. I bet a lot of you don’t, either. I just don’t think they’re that prevalent in everyone’s life. (audience laughs)
I started a scholarship foundation in my hometown in Missouri. It’s named for Designing Women. We took the money from featuring big-mouthed Southern women and gave it to girls in the Ozarks. One year, we asked a small group of them to track how many women were beaten up or raped on television. The results were staggering.
I believe much of the brutalization and many of the rapes exist only for entertainment. On several new shows like Halt and Catch Fire or Ballers, women are getting attacked at work and being forced to have anal sex. I mean seriously, is this some sort of new problem in the work place? (audience laughs) It’s really pretty ludicrous that sodomy can be presented so casually when a woman is involved, while men are still reeling, decades later, over the Ned Beatty scene in Deliverance. Apparently, that was their “’Nam.” But since then, literally hundreds of thousands of women have been raped on film. And if you look at the crime shows, whether it’s CSI or whatever, they are definitely ratcheting up the abuse. It’s not enough to just portray a simple rape, anymore. Now you will hear bizarre dialogue like, “We found playing cards in her uterus, Lieutenant. And her left breast implant is missing.” And on and on and on.
I honestly think of this as a hate crime.
It’s a creative hate crime. (audience claps) A manufactured hate crime, but a hate crime nevertheless. It makes me so angry. If African Americans, Asians, or Hispanics were being raped and brutalized and tortured on television because of their ethnicity, if any other group was being treated this way, they would stand up. They would not tolerate that kind of abuse. I’m not advocating censorship, I’m just saying we can do better. For some reason, women seem to accept this abuse and disrespect as their plight. Whenever I bring this subject up, women generally say, “I don’t like it either, but I never thought about it that way—that we could actually try to stop it.”
I encourage any of you to carry this idea forward. (audience claps) Maybe we should all act like Howard Beale in Network and say, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore.”
Joey Stocks: How do you think we get to a better place? What do you think we need to do as a group?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Well, it sounds like you’re already doing it. I wish I had heard that group last night. I understand that they were riveting.
Joey Stocks: They were fantastic.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Women like that really give me so much encouragement. Let me say, because we have all these illustrious writers out here, that I think theatre, despite these shocking inequities, still does the best job of providing rich and challenging roles for actresses. I’m sure that misogyny and ageism exist on Broadway, but it’s far worse in Hollywood. As for movies, it now takes three generations of women to service say, one Michael Douglas’s career. (audience laughs) Upon his retirement, Blythe Danner will have played his wife, also, Gwyneth Paltrow and I’m pretty sure Apple Martin is coming. (laughter) Broadway is a much more welcoming place for women of a certain age. So kudos to you for that. And all the more reason to address the remaining challenges involving female parity.
Joey Stocks: Let’s circle back. What made you say yes to working in theatre? First of all, had you ever written for theatre before?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: No.
Joey Stocks: Really?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: No, but I go back to what Larry Gelbart said about good writing is good writing is good writing. And theatre was something I really wanted to try, because I love the immediacy of it. That might stem from riding my bike to the courthouse as a child and seeing my dad defending murderers in front of a big audience. It was very exciting. I just love the idea of writing something and having people actually show up for it. I’ve imagined it for years.
Joey Stocks: You said to me on the phone, when we talked a few months ago, you said that Designing Women to you was like a little play every single week.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: It was. Have there ever been any more theatrical actresses on television than those four women? The heels start clicking and the mouths start moving and it’s like Dinner at Eight. Here they come! And on that soundstage, it felt like being in the theatre. You could feel the expectation and the excitement.
Joey Stocks: Let’s take a few questions from the audience.
Audience Question: You were talking about the statistics in terms of the way women are portrayed on TV. And yet, we hear all the time that this is the golden age of television. I was curious how those two things meet. Can you speak to that?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: I think it’s just a mixed bag that confuses people because everybody right now is saying that there are all these great cable shows for women and there are. But right alongside that is this absolutely degrading, hostile and over-sexualized programming against women. So, I think you just have to think very clearly and sort it out.
Is it enough that we have all of these great cable shows with females at the helm? I don’t think it is. I believe we can do better. I want women to be treated more respectfully in film and on television. Ballers is a great example. HBO says that they’re so supportive of artists and they’re so supportive of women and they have done some laudable female-oriented projects. But late at night they’ll be running The Mustang Ranch or gratuitously demeaning and humiliating women on Game of Thrones, while wrapping themselves in the cloak of authenticity and artistry. Did Tony Soprano really have to beat a naked woman to death? Did he? I don’t know. That’s a question for the writer. I don’t want to censor him, I’m just asking him to really think about it. That’s a big image. And we’ve seen it before. It’s denigrating. It’s hateful. Do we want to just keep repeating it? Or maybe we can think of something new.
On television in general, most of the writing is now being done by young males with very little life experience. If you go into any studio, you can see little groups of them walking around on their way to lunch. They remind me of first graders. I always think this is why comedy on TV is not as rich and interesting as it used to be. It doesn’t take twelve little boys to write a script. In the history of television, almost every good comedy was created by an individual. I’m not saying these young men shouldn’t be working, but maybe they shouldn’t be the only people writing comedy. (audience claps) Because comedy requires massive life experience. These are the same people who write comedy roasts. The roast of Joan Rivers was deplorable. Nothing was ever said except, “Your vagina is old and dusty. It’s been left out in the sun like an old leather purse. It’s repulsive. It’s dilapidated. It’s dried up. You’re dried up.” A few weeks later, Clint Eastwood gets roasted and he’s the golden boy. “Still a horn dog at 87!” And it’s just so misogynistic, that kind of little boy mentality where women past 50 are repulsive and every girl should aspire to be on the cover of Maxim. This misogyny permeates every corner of our industry. Our so-called entertainment shows never talk about better and more interesting roles for women. They just prattle on endlessly about who’s hot and who’s not, who’s bootilicious and who has cellulite. Who’s bikini ready? Who’s bleaching what? (audience laughs) And this is what little girls listen to and aspire to be like. There is no question that the media has played a colossal role in the low self-esteem of young girls.
I remember a few years ago when Sofia Coppola was nominated for best director and was photographed in Vanity Fair, bent over a bed, with her pants down. And I thought, would Ridley Scott, Alfred Hitchcock, (audience roars) or Clint Eastwood—would any of these men have consented to this? Somebody talked Sofia into doing that and that makes me sad, because I think she’s better than that. Women are better than that. (audience claps)
Joey Stocks: Do we have another question?
Audience Question: Thinking about writing for the theatre versus writing for episodic television, what are the plusses and minuses for you?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: When America had sort of a communal television watching experience, I’d say TV was the best place to be. It was like when the new cars come out in the fall and everybody knows what the models are, or when we all watch the Super Bowl, together. But all that’s changed now. There are like 3,985 channels and so even if you get a series on cable and you’re given ten episodes—yes, a lot of the elites are looking at your show and some of the public, but it’s not the same experience it once was. It’s not 36 million people watching the same thing at the same time.
So, you have to measure that. It was a lot more satisfying to me when you could write for television and it was a big national thing. You know, everybody at the water cooler the next morning talking about it. Now I think theatre is sort of the last bastion of that, where we’re all together, experiencing the same thing.
Joey Stocks: Is there a question right here?
Audience Question: I wondered if you talked to Hillary about this problem with the way women are portrayed on television. If she’s elected if she plans on doing anything about it?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Yes. I am going to be appointed the Czar of all Women in Hollywood. (audience laughs) I think Hillary is well aware of all the inequities involving women, in all professions. I think simply having a female president would go a long way toward elevating the self-esteem of young girls everywhere. But in the end, there is still nothing more powerful than the pen. It is astonishing that we continue to wield it in a way that damages over half the world’s population. We can do better. Your Guild is already committed to doing better. You are the ones who can lead the way.
Joey Stocks: Thank you so much Linda.