It's early Saturday morning, and most people are still slapping their snooze bars when Beata Pozniak blows into a Beverly Hills delicatessen like a fresh breeze. A pastel vision in pink and white, she glides to the table and sits with a flip of her waist-length hair. Preliminary greetings exchanged, she launches into a discourse on women and their role in the entertainment industry, speaking with such honesty and earnestness that it's hard to believe she possesses the artifice to be an actor.
But acting is only one of the many facets of the Polish born Pozniak, whose boundless energy and intrepid spirit epitomize the modern day woman, in Hollywood and around the world. Though best known in this town for her film and television roles, including an acclaimed turn as Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's JFK, and stints on Melrose Place and Mad About You, she's also a sculptor, painter and, now, activist and Congressional lobbyist.
Pozniak currently has a resolution pending in the House of Representatives to designate March 8, International Women's Day, a national holiday in the United States. The bill, H.J. Res. 316, has the support of Maxine Waters, Gloria Molina and Dianne Feinstein, and has even won admiring comments from First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Three years after her crusade began, Pozniak still marvels that the date is acknowledged throughout Europe, yet when she moved to the U.S. in 1988, no one had ever heard of the celebratory day, inaugurated in Copenhagen 80 years ago. Pozniak and Women In Film International, for which she serves as chairperson, have for the past two years been promoting the concept with an annual awards ceremony, which has been a huge hit. Last year, attendees included director Jan Chapman and Stevie Wonder, while throngs including actor Dennis Hopper clamored for last minute admission and had to be turned away.
"The idea is to raise awareness about what's happening with women over the years. As recently as 100 years ago women were not allowed to study, attend universities, get a degree, belong to libraries, or belong to unions. So on this day, March 8, symbolically, women would go out and fight for their own rights. Say, the right to vote. The first country that gave women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893, but it wasn't until 1971 that the women of Switzerland received that right," she marvels.
When it comes to roles, television is acknowledged as offering a broader diversity of venues for actresses. There are female lawyers and homemakers, mothers and moguls. Pozniak proudly points out that the doctor-who was also a single mother and, to add further texture, recent immigrant-she played for a limited run on Melrose Place was the only one on the whole show who wasn't sleeping with someone!"
The feature realm, however, is more problematic. Women being bought and sold in films like Pretty Woman and Indecent Proposal have raised the ire of feminists and casual observers alike. More recently, True Lies became a lightning rod of controversy for what some perceived to be the "humiliation" of a dowdy hausfrau, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who is forced to "perform" for the amusement of screen husband Arnold Schwarzenegger and his buddy Tom Arnold. Critics say U.S. filmmakers too often position women as unsavories or accessories, and that the exceptions like Thelma and Louise, Aliens and The River Wild are few and far between.
In his noteworthy November 1993 speech to Women in Film entitled, "Movies Today: Where Have all the Great Female Roles Gone?", Turner Pictures President Dennis Miller noted that "the belief that girls' and women's lives are intrinsically boring permeates our industry, and has done so for a generation at least." Miller went on to point out that this wasn't always the case, and that "the phenomenon of the 'male driven' film is really rather recent."
From the turn-of-the-century to the '60s, "great actresses in great roles dominated the screen," from Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford up through Greta Garbo to Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Cinematographers such as Charles Lang, ASC, and James Wong Howe, ASC, and still photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair built whole careers around turning these women into icons. Miller says it was a confluence of two events which allowed men to co-opt all the important roles: the studios' abandonment of the adult audience in the 70s and the willingness of male stars like John Travolta and Richard Gere to step into "the sex-object roles formerly written for, offered to, and portrayed by women."
Now the popular refrain seems to be that actresses don't open films the way, say, a Tom Cruise or Clint Eastwood can. Meryl Streep didn't do it in The River Wild, also known as Deliverance with a dame, and even Julia Roberts, the one exception to that rule, failed to draw crowds with I Love Trouble.
"We look at a hero: a man. It's a man's world, a man's story...and a wife. His wife, usually a beautiful ornament there, just to sell the picture. It's easy just to put a woman there, like a flower in your garden. But it's a garden where nothing will grow," says Pozniak, expressing the frustration of the modern-day actor. A graduate of the prestigious Film, T V and Theater University in Lodz (whose most famous alumnus is Roman Polanski), her formal training was on the stage, in plays ranging from the classics by Chekhov and Stanislavsky to experimental fare by Beckett and Ionesco.
A prowess in sports that won her championship medals in speed skating didn't stop her from becoming the leading lady of the Polish stage and screen, but did lend the multitalented actress the mystique of a wonder woman. To have developed those skills in the repressive communist environment was no small feat.
Appreciative of the freedom of expressions offered to artists here, she is all the more disappointed that opportunities there for the taking are missed. Still, she feels the battle will be won one strategic move at a time. "It's tempting to work on a so-called B-movie or action film, with lots of sex and violence. One has to live somehow. But sometimes," she adds with a laugh, "it's good to be hungry. There are many characters I have to turn down, because I cannot support something very violent or just stereotypical. And being an immigrant only compounds the problem, because they are often portrayed in a very stereotypical way. Mexican women are often housekeepers, Arabs terrorists."
Pozniak admits her splashy entree into U.S. film-making as the Russian-born Marina Oswald in Oliver Stone's high profile JFK afforded her a better bargaining position than many other actresses. Stone himself lauds her "sensuous and different approach to womanhood," and says she brought a mythic quality to the role that, in a sense, "represents a middle Europe married to Lee Oswald." Beata says her goal is "to eventually just play a woman who doesn't have to be from somewhere. To be a woman who lives here and has some issues and some goals."
Queried on her attitude about the very term "actress," Pozniak ponders a moment, then says she does not object, but asks with a smile, "but would you call a writer a writeress?"
Pozniak feels that the real issue of women getting access in Hollywood gets down to who's making the decisions. "If you look at Hollywood, and who the most powerful people in Hollywood are, it's men. When you go to a studio to pitch a project, who do you pitch for? Men. Who makes those creative choices? Men. I'm looking for balance. It's not like we women say, 'let's get out there and tell our story! It's about balance."
"Raise The Red Lantern is such a great film, a wonderful woman's story about growing up in China, and the system, through a woman's eyes, yet it's directed by a man. It's great to work on projects together, to have partnerships and be equals. That's what I believe. I like that a film like that can be directed by a man, through a woman's eyes." Women are also becoming more adept at using men to bring their own visions into focus. Penny Marshall admits that after working together on her first directorial effort. Jumping Jack Flash, Cinematographer Matt Leonetti, ASC, became her confidant, providing practical advice as well as moral support through nightly phone conversations on her big budget follow-up Big.
Nothing that the industry is moving toward balance, Pozniak notes there's still a long way to go before real balance is achieved. "As a woman and as an actor I'm a little tired of getting scripts with nudity and violence. I think there are more important issues to get across, to get a message out there." Film, she points out, "is a powerful medium, and as actors it's our responsibility to portray important characters. I think we have a big chance to have a better world because the media is so powerful. Instead of inspiring kids with guns we can inspire them with great emotional issues about how to feel and how to look at life."
International Photographer, January 1995, by Paula Parisi. Photo: Richard Armas
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