The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin is a historical novel of the very early years of Hollywood. It begins during the silent picture era and chronicles the careers and loves of Mary Pickford and Frances Marion as they attempt to transition into the talking motion picture era. Filled with the bigger than life people who ushered in the motion picture industry of America, it is more so about the friendship between these two women that lasted a lifetime. It is sad and tragic and at times cruelly intimate. But it is also a tale of love and triumph and loyalty.
“…Of course, I’d always attended when invited-or, rather, summoned-but I wasn’t fond of those formal evenings, when Mary and Doug sat side by side at an enormous table groaning with finger bowls and several different forks. Try as I might-and risking Doug’s wrath-I never could hide my amusement at these actors and actresses elevated to deities simply because of their looks, troupers with whom I’d once shared stale cheese sandwiches and glasses of beer who suddenly wrinkled their elegant noses if a servant happened to spill a drop of champagne. ‘The help’ they’d whisper scornfully, these gods and goddesses who had once been maids or gardeners themselves, and we all knew that it was only because of a fluke, a genetic lottery won or a benevolent mogul slept with, that they now wore tiaras and aped the regal characters they played on the screen. The characters I wrote for them…”
In 1914, fresh off her second failed marriage, Frances Marion finds herself in Hollywood. Having worked in the theatre, she is fascinated by the new fledgling artform of motion pictures. She quickly becomes friends with rising star Mary Pickford and together, the two women become a driving force in an industry controlled by men. Mary becomes the first actor to have her name on a movie marque and is quickly known as ‘America’s sweetheart’ and Frances gains fame with her screenplays. Together they are unstoppable but what Frances is slow to realize, is that it is never an even relationship. Celebrity becomes Mary’s weakness and with her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks, they become America’s first Royal couple. Mobbed by fans everywhere and holding lavish parties at their famed estate Pickfair. Frances finds herself thought of at times as no more than the help.
But the true test of their friendship would come when Mary’s star began to fade and Frances’ became more and more acclaimed for her work. The shift in their careers was more than the fragile ego of the actor could stand.
“…Once I was with them on the beach-of course, not just the beach, not with Doug and Mary. They’d set arranged for enormous tents to be set up, and a catered dinner on the Pickfair china. Remember the days when we used to go out to Santa Monica or Laguna? With only a blanket and a picnic basket, and we’d come home covered in sand? And think we were the luckiest people alive to live where we lived, and do the work that we did?’
‘We were. We are.’
‘Well, anyway, we were on the beach and on the drive back, Doug saw a sign for a dance marathon down on one of the piers and he wanted to go. But Mary said-I still can’t quite believe it, but she said in that way she has with him, ‘Oh, Douglas! You know we can’t be seen in those kind of places!’
‘I know. And so, I wonder. Even when-back when we were-‘ And I struggle to give voice to what I was really thinking.
Back when Mary and I were friends…”
Mary Pickford, in the early 1900s, was perhaps, arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood. She actually, alongside Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, started United Artists studio. Her motion pictures laid the groundwork for what was to become the industry of motion pictures in the United States. But she was also groomed by her mother to be the child actress and star she became. She was taught to not make friends or relationships and that they were simply tools to further her career.
Frances goes from starry eyed kid with little to no prospects to becoming a screenwriting legend and it all began with her relationship with Mary Pickford. A friendship, that though very many times one sided, provided her with opportunities she never would have ever had. It is only when Frances decides that she can no longer be blamed for Mary’s failings or put her life aside whenever Mary calls that their relationships begins to falter.
This is a novel about Hollywood and friendship between two powerful women. But in the end it is a novel about celebrity and the false reality of it. Also America’s obsessive compulsive need to have celebrities to see and fill our lives with. No matter how fake.
Melanie Benjamin novels are hit and miss for me. I did not really like or finish her last novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue. But absolutely adore The Aviator’s Wife and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. For me, The Girls in the Picture is an absolute hit.