Reviewed by Kai Jimenez
THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE
By Melanie Benjamin
448 pp. Delacorte Press.
The first thing Frances Marion learned about “movies” is that they – the people who appeared in the silent, flickering images on screen – were not allowed to rent the apartment she was trying to.
This was Los Angeles in 1914, a time when these “flickers” were cheap entertainment unworthy of the time and talent of the thespians in theater (and apparently, a lot of rentals too). Movies were a nuisance to the public when made, and barely worth a nickel when watched. Still, even then, this chaotic new artform already inspired the affection and imagination of Frances, a twice-divorced San Franciscan looking to escape her past. Frances wanted to be part of this burgeoning industry, and no, not as an actress, but as a “scenerist”.
More specifically, she wanted to be the scenerist of Mary Pickford, a prolific young actress who charmed America with her raw talent and iconic golden curls. Fortunately, when Mary’s good-for-nothing husband begrudgingly introduced the two, the connection was instant and electric. Soon, these two women would forge not only a friendship that permeated every corner of their lives – family, career, romance and all – but also the path that would turn the silly nickelodeon flickers into a multi-million industry that created a lot of art and a lot of money.
Frances and Mary are The Girls in The Picture, the protagonists in the fourth novel of bestselling historical fictionist Melanie Benjamin. The novel is a grounded take on Hollywood’s genesis, a peek into the lives of the women who fought for their rightful places in a table dominated by men – men who were crude and rude misogynists undermining women’s every move and waiting for them to fail, if only to prove that women had no place making decisions for themselves, let alone for big movies and even bigger companies.
Yet in spite of the mounting disadvantages of being ambitious and darn talented women at the turn of the 20th century, Frances and Mary triumphed in leaving their own marks on Tinsel Town. They succeeded in becoming the highest paid scenerist and actress of their time, and even found the great loves of their lives while they were at it. But the higher they soared, the more they had to lose, and each new victory in their careers meant a step back in other aspects of their lives. Ultimately, both women had to contend with the same perennial question we all face – can we really, truly have it all?
Frances and Mary may have lived a century ago, but their struggles remain relevant to this day. Their own war against the patriarchy unfortunately rings familiar, especially now when Hollywood – the same one the real-life Frances Marion and Mary Pickford helped build – is plagued with one scandal after another of grubby old men taking advantage of ambitious young women. Even beyond the entertainment industry, society’s expectations of what “real women” should be or do continue to hang heavy over every working lady’s head. Constantly, we are told that we can either be good and devoted wives or successful (albeit lonely) career women. Choose one, but never both.
In many ways, the lives of these girls were driven by the constant struggle between two absolutes, two seemingly irreconcilable things that somehow still existed simultaneously – career and relationships, increasing success and inescapable insecurity, femininity and empowerment, the true self and the public image, admiration and jealousy, and even two very different versions of the same moment. And it is precisely this constant struggle that makes two Hollywood Queens from the early 1900s – women I have little to nothing in common with on paper – still so utterly relatable today.
The Girls in the Picture is a delightful read that dives into difficult human experiences with prose that is light and easy to take in. The depth and detail with which the series of events were narrated show the extent of research that Benjamin undertook, not only into Frances and Mary, but everything and everyone that surrounded them as well. Even more impressive was Benjamin’s success in injecting humanity into history. This novel is a shining example of turning facts into stories, information into very human experiences. While she admits having concocted the motivations and emotions and words she ascribed to her characters (who were all living, breathing people after all), Benjamin developed them so artfully and was able to logically bridge their milestones with the right stories that her reimagination of history remained believable. Rarely have I come across characters that are as masterfully developed as those in this novel.
This one comes highly recommended for film aficionados, for the roaring twenties-loving flappers, and for any curious feminist looking for inspiration in these seemingly bleak times.
The Girls in the Picture is now available at Fully Booked stores. To reserve a copy, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kai keeps an infinite fondness for curiosities under her pillow at night. She finds narratives and tells stories for a living, and is in constant search for fascination in worlds both real and imagined. You can find her on Instagram @rustwithstardust and on Medium @kai.jimenez
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]