RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
On Sunday, Hollywood will celebrate itself at the Academy Awards even as sexual harassment in the industry continues to make headlines. A hundred years ago, one of the most powerful stars in Hollywood was a woman. She would go on to become a producer, a studio head and a founder of the motion picture academy. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has the story of Mary Pickford.
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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: She was the darling of the silent screen - no talk, just title cards flashing fragments of dialogue and goopy live musical accompaniment like this. In her 20s, she got famous playing 14-year-olds. Her characters were always sweet, virginal girls, usually waifs.
SCOTT EYMAN: Eternally feminine, but wouldn't allow herself pushed to be around by anybody.
STAMBERG: Scott Eyman wrote "Mary Pickford: From Here To Hollywood."
CARI BEAUCHAMP: A girl with spunk, a girl with backbone.
STAMBERG: Cari Beauchamp, a resident scholar of the Pickford Foundation, describes Mary's roles.
BEAUCHAMP: She can be poorer than dirt and literally be covered in dirt, and yet she stands up for what's right. She stands up for her community. And she has a sense of self.
STAMBERG: America's sweetheart, they called her in her heyday in 1912-25 when she was the biggest star in the world - blondie locks with golden curls, sausagelike, down to her shoulders.
DOE MAYER: You know, her curls weren't real.
STAMBERG: Well, not all of them. Doe Mayer is Mary Pickford professor of film and television at USC.
MAYER: They bought hair from, ostensibly, prostitutes and built hairpieces for her ringlets.
STAMBERG: Pickford auctioned off one of her curls for the World War I effort. It went for $15,000. Eventually, tired of playing little girls, she cut the curls off.
EYMAN: You would've thought she'd murdered the American eagle.
STAMBERG: That's how much fans all over the world adored Pickford's little-girl image. They needed that image of sweetness and innocence. And at just 5 feet tall, she portrayed it so convincingly without speaking a single word that audiences could hear. In fact, when movies began to talk in 1927, Doe Mayer says Mary disapproved.
MAYER: She thought that sound was a terrible idea, that movies were an art in the silent form. And she said it was like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.
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MARY PICKFORD: (As Norma Besant) Well, I told you, I told you he made love to me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, and he was gentle and tender.
PICKFORD: (As Norma Besant) No, no, no.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you sure?
PICKFORD: (As Norma Besant) No.
STAMBERG: Her first talkie was "Coquette," 1929 - no curls, an unsuitable suitor, a murder, a new Mary and the Oscar. Four years later, she gave up acting but continued as a major force in the industry.
Look at the ceiling in here - just soaring.
A theater in downtown LA is a marvel thanks to Mary. In 1919, she and three other big movie pioneers - Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks - she married him the next year - and director D.W. Griffith - founded United Artists to make and distribute their own films and rake in the profits. They built a big office building on LA's Broadway. Today, it's the Ace Hotel. The adjacent theater - ornate Spanish Gothic with sculptures and lobby fountains and murals - was for showing their films.
MAYER: This is nice decoration, too, with...
STAMBERG: Mary supervised every inch. I mean, the toilets in the ladies' room are pink. It was a movie palace.
MAYER: And they called the actors the kings and queens of the industry.
STAMBERG: Before United Artists, Queen Mary had launched her own royal playground, the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio. She hired directors, writers, cast and crew, OK'd the scripts. She would be the envy of every one of today's industry women. How did she get that power a century ago? It started with her popularity as a star.
EYMAN: She leveraged her box office in a way that most actors didn't. She saw herself as a franchise, and she demanded more, and more and more.
BEAUCHAMP: Remember, this is a woman who in 1909 is making $10 a day. And in 1919, she's making $250,000 a film.
STAMBERG: Again, Cari Beauchamp.
BEAUCHAMP: Ten years - poof. But she didn't just accept being a star. She took that power and became a producer, became a company owner, and became an owner of the theaters themselves and of a studio lot.
STAMBERG: No casting couch for Pickford - she owned the couch.
BEAUCHAMP: You didn't mess with Mary. I mean, you can call her America's sweetheart or the little girl with the curls, but boy, you didn't mess with Mary.
STAMBERG: But by many accounts, she used her power with savvy grace. Say she clashed with her director.
BEAUCHAMP: She would never criticize a director on the set. But still, you can imagine - 1924, the man taking direction from his star. But she was very cognizant of this, and that's why she - whenever she criticized someone, it was in private.
STAMBERG: Grace, power and the heart of an angel. On every set, she hung up a bucket and asked everybody working that day to put some money in the bucket for industry people who had no work. She organized the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Her foundation supports film preservation and many charities - amazing, given her background. Born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto, there was no money. Her absentee father was alcoholic. She had to start working in theater when she was 6.
EYMAN: She was just very attuned to human misery, and I suspect because she'd grown up in human misery. And she didn't forget it.
BEAUCHAMP: But it wasn't just the poverty. It was that innate sense of empathy with other people.
STAMBERG: So what do you think she would make of today's women, the issues that women in the industry are raising? How would she look at all this?
EYMAN: I suspect she'd think they were silly.
STAMBERG: Biographer Scott Eyman.
EYMAN: I suspect she'd ask them, why do you need each other? Why can't you stand on your own two feet? I didn't need anybody else when I founded United Artists. I thought it was the right thing to do, and because it would give me more control over my life and my career, and incidentally, make more money. Why do you need protective umbrella of each other? Why can't you stand on your own two feet?
BEAUCHAMP: Oh, see, I so disagree with that.
STAMBERG: Pickford Foundation historian Cari Beauchamp.
BEAUCHAMP: I think Mary would be thrilled. In the early days of Hollywood, women were critical mass. Remember, up till 1929, half of all films are written by women. There was a very lively, committed group of women who took care of each other professionally, but also personally. And that, in so many ways - it's what's happening today.
STAMBERG: Mary Pickford put her success to work for her own benefit and the benefit of others. So much has changed, but today's stars and other women in the film industry might use Pickford as a playbook. In movie land, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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