The Girls in the Picture is the story of a friendship, a historical friendship that shaped Hollywood and film-making. Melanie Benjamin brings Frances Marion, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, and Mary Pickford, the world’s first movie star, to life and tracks their decades-long friendship as they rose together to fame and fortune until the end when they have allowed time and resentments to separate them and forget the strength they found in their friendship.
Melanie Benjamin had no idea the #MeToo movement would consume American culture and media when she was writing this book, but her timing is uncanny. She writes about the frequent harassment, disdain, and abuse women suffered in seeking Hollywood careers. That has a saliency that could never have been predicted when she began writing.
These are two interesting women. Mary Pickford bore the inhuman burden of supporting her mother, sister, and brother since childhood. The whole family rested on her adolescent shoulders, robbing her of a childhood or any form of real life. Her one rebellion was a disastrous marriage. She meets Frances who is ending her second marriage and seeking to create a life for herself, fascinated by filmmaking, though not seeking a career as an actress which made her an attractive friend to Mary. Films were made quickly and were silent, scrabbled together sometimes in an afternoon and on the fly. Frances helped writing scenes and was called a scenarist. In time, the two of them created their own film, “Poor Little Rich Girl” which was the most successful to date and empowered them to make many silent films together.
When talkies came, Frances went on to build a great career as a screenwriter. Mary, so strongly identified as a child in the eyes of the public, was never able to age successfully in her movies, no longer getting parts, but remaining part of the industry as a co-founder of United Artists. Both women had great loves, married them, and lost them and neither could comfort the other. Choices in life and love drove wedges between them, but a true friend is someone you can connect with after decades and still find a home.
The Girls in the Picture is an entertaining historical novel about two intriguing and powerful women who took control of their lives at a time when few women even tried. However, it feels like two books. There’s Frances story told in the first person and Mary’s told in the third person. I can understand that Benjamin identifies more closely with Frances–writer to writer. She seems to know Frances in a way she does not know Mary and she distances herself by writing about her rather than writing as her. That distance, I think, makes her interpretation of Mary a bit more facile and shallow than her grasp of Frances.
If you look at all Mary Pickford accomplished, I think she was much more than she is allowed to be in The Girls in the Picture. In some ways, by writing Frances in the first person, perhaps she internalized some of Frances’ sense of Mary as somewhat lesser. After all, Mary didn’t graduate high school because she was supporting four people instead of going to school, but when you consider that this woman not only supported her family since she was seven years old, she changed the early industry, formed her own studio, and acted and directed films. She was different, not lesser.
I question, too, the idea that anyone is ever culpable for other’s choice. Frances feels guilt because her husband becomes an actor at her urging and then steps on a nail. Seriously? He was not acting at the time, he was in the barn. Would he never walk in a barn if he were not an actor? There was something ridiculous and over-wrought about this. Sure, if in the moment Frances felt guilty, that’s survivor’s guilt. But feeling guilt for life or for any other person to ever make those connections and suggest that sort of guilt is just inane.
Nonetheless, the book is enjoyable. I enjoyed these women. I liked seeing women supporting women and reading the men they work with accurately. There was a feminist element to their story, though with mixed messages that are true to their era. It’s entertaining, emotionally involving, and sure enough it made me cry twice.
The Girls in the Picture will be released January 16th. I received an advanced reading copy from the publisher through a Shelf Awareness drawing.