What’s in a Screenplay Writer?

After finding out about Linda Woolverton yesterday, I did a quick and cursory count of Disney’s screenplay writers and found, courtesy of their Wikipedia pages, that of the Disney fairy tale films (I didn’t look at their other movies, just those few), up until last year Linda Woolverton actually was the last female screenplay writer – well, the only one credited for the screenplay by herself. On Mulan, it was three men and two women; and on Brave, two men and two women, one of whom was also Disney’s first female director and is solely credited with the story; so I think that film can definitely be considered a “woman’s movie”, too. But then this last year there have been two big Disney fairy tale movies with a woman getting the sole credit for the screenplay: Frozen and Maleficent.

Methinks I see a pattern: Beauty & the Beast, Brave, Frozen, Maleficent. Belle is the first Disney fairy tale heroine who does not pine for a prince (her dream is to find adventure). And the other three are movies about the relationships of women; princes, if they’re even around, are just sort of window dressing. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There was one point made in the article about Linda Woolverton that caught my attention: Woolverton definitely had to navigate a male-dominated field. “In one scene,” the article says, “the screenplay had Belle pushing pins into a map of the world–places she wanted to visit–while waiting for her father to return. When Woolverton saw the segment on the storyboard, however, she found her heroine decorating a cake.” Apparently both world map and cake were ultimately dropped in favour of a scene of Belle reading, but don’t you think that’s interesting? Even in 1991, an animator thought it was more likely a girl would be baking than travelling the world.

When we pick apart movies for their elements, feminist or otherwise, we tend to look through our here-and-now lenses and forget how much things have changed. Beauty and the Beast has been picked on for not being feminist enough – but look what it was up against.

I think Woolverton and everyone else did a pretty awesome job on this movie, and I’m not the only one: it was nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Picture” category. That’s up against every other movie out there that year, live-action and otherwise! If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. And I’d like to think that Woolverton’s screenplay had a whole lot to do with it.

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The Things You Can Find

I’m digging into the Disney Beauty and the Beast right now. And looking it up online, I found an interesting bit of trivia: the screenplay writer was Linda Woolverton, which made her the first woman to write a Disney animated feature (which definitely shows in the movie, especially contrasted with previous Disney movies). Now, the interesting thing? She also wrote the screenplay for Maleficent.

I found an old article from the Los Angeles Times from January 1992, just after the release of Beauty and the Beast. (I remember standing around waiting to be seated in a restaurant right about that time, and seeing the poster for the movie. The person I was with jokingly suggested we go see it, which I had no interest in as I had never heard the story and wasn’t really into cinema movies – I could count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in the theatre at that point. Later I watched the B&B movie on VHS, and absolutely fell in love with it; and later still I discovered that going to the movies is one of my most favourite things to do, ever. Ancient history… and entirely beside the point.) Anyway, that article: it’s called “Ms. Beauty and the Beast: Writer of Disney Hit Explains Her ‘Woman of the ’90s'”. What had me crowing out loud in triumph was this line: “Woolverton, fearful of being influenced by the imagery of the Jean Cocteau film version, decided not to watch it.” See, I just finished copying a line from Zipes where he calls Disney’s accrediting the de Beaumont version of the story as hypotext for the movie “outrageous”, as, he claims, most of the plot and characters of the Disney film are ripped off lock, stock and barrel from Cocteau. Haha. Of course, the fact that the scriptwriter purposely hadn’t watched Cocteau doesn’t mean that others who were involved in the making of the film hadn’t done so – the article quotes Woolverton as saying “‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a group effort, one in which 500 people wore pencils down to their nubs” – so, sure, the influence of Cocteau is in there. But as for the plot and characters being “copied” from Cocteau, nope.

Anyway, it’s all very interesting about Linda Woolverton. Now I’m going to look up who the screenplay writers for the other newer Disney movies were; it’ll be interesting to do a quick comparison of the ones written by men with those written by women (I certainly hope that Woolverton wasn’t also the last female Disney screenplay writer). I know the old Disney movies were solidly staffed by men; I remember watching an old “making of” featurette for Snow White from 1938 which proudly showed all the animators and technical people and storytellers and so on, and then at the end of the process the ‘girls’ in the colouring department – all women had to do with the making of those quintessential princess movies was to neatly colour inside the lines on the celluloid. It absolutely stuck in my craw. And what was most eye-opening about it was the tone of the featurette’s narrator – he seemed to think that was perfectly normal, the natural order of things. No wonder the movies are what they are, with their paternalistic attitudes and featherwitted princesses who can only pine for a man – that’s the world they were created in, and the people they were created by. We’ve come a long ways today – hurrah for Linda Woolverton!