The Lady From The Black Lagoon by Mallory O'Meara
Publisher: Hanover Square Press | Release Date: March 5, 2019 | Pages: 336 pages
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the 1950s, a young artist and background performer of various film roles designed what is easily the most visually arresting of the Universal horror movie monsters. Employed in the special effects shop at Universal Studios, Milicent Patrick created the Gill Man for the 1954 film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. While her creation would become one of the most recognizable and iconic movie monsters in cinema, Patrick would unfortunately become lost to history as her supervisor’s jealousy, rampant sexism in the film industry, and a total lack of proper crediting of filmmaker’s roles in 1950s, all worked together to obscure and all but eliminate her legacy.
Thankfully, film producer, author, Milicent Patrick fan, and Creature from the Black Lagoon obsessive, Mallory O’Meara has stepped in to unearth Patrick’s forgotten history and set the record straight with her wonderful The Lady from the Black Lagoon. Given the unfortunate state of obscurity Patrick fell into, O’Meara certainly had her work cut out for her. Luckily, she’s a dogged investigator and was able to piece together Patrick’s puzzling history through a whole lot of archival research, industry contacts, and interviews. Over the course of her writing, O’Meara notes the various confluences that have randomly, surprisingly, and unknowingly linked her to Patrick over the course of her life. There’s a certain sense of destiny at work in these moments that are quite charming and really make you root for O’Meara’s efforts to uncover and reveal Milicent’s buried history.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon is meticulously assembled and presents a candid and honest representation of O’Meara’s personal hero without being slavish or overly fannish. And make no mistake, O’Meara is most certainly a fan, one who even sports a tattoo on her arm of Patrick and the Creature. She is wholly devoted, though, to teaching us about Patrick’s life, warts and all. I knew hardly anything at all about Milicent Patrick going into this book, but it’s safe to say I’m certainly a fan now, too.
Patrick is a vitally important figure in film history, and not just because of what she’s created, but what she could represent for future generations of women in the arts. Patrick is the first and only woman to have ever designed an iconic movie monster. Think about that. In almost 65 years of cinema, there has not been another notable creature designed by a woman. And over those same 65 years, men and history have sought to completely eliminate Patrick’s role in designing the Creature, giving sole credit to her manager, Bud Westmore, who ran the special effects shop at which she was employed.
Throughout the course of The Lady from the Black Lagoon, O’Meara writes with firey passion at the injustices perpetrated upon Milicent Patrick. She’s angry, and rightfully so. Hell, I’m mad right now just thinking about all the various issues raised over the course of this book’s 300-plus pages. And if you have any kind of a conscious or sense of fairness, this book will justifiably piss you off, too.
While uncovering the history of Patrick’s legacy is clearly a passion project for O’Meara, The Lady’s focus is not limited solely to the special effects artist. O’Meara’s research places Patrick within the context of her time, but the author smartly compares those issues of 1950s sexism and male domination over Hollywood to the present day, within the scope of the #MeToo era. It’s sad and disgusting just how little has changed in six decades, and how fully sexist, male elitism still thrives within Tinseltown. O’Meara doesn’t bother hiding her anger and these injustices, and more power to her. She, too, has been objectified countless times, as has every other woman working in Hollywood. At one point she relates a personal story of, as a producer for Dark Dunes Productions, having cast a male actor to voice a character for one of their films. Upon meeting O’Meara and seeing her green-dyed hair, he immediately volunteers to help dye her pubic hair. Incidents like these are not rare in Hollywood, and O’Meara reports that every single woman she knows in the film industry has many, many, many stories like hers.
The toxic environment that defined the 1950s era of filmmaking is alive and well in present day, and 65 years later, O’Meara has found far too many similarities between her own experiences and those that utterly destroyed Patrick’s career. As O’Meara writes in her introduction, “It’s not just her story. It’s mine, too.” Sadly, it’s the story of every woman in Hollywood then and now, present-day, right now, right this fucking minute. The jealous claims to fame that Bud Westmore latched on to and used to ruin Patrick’s career and her future in special effects are hardly a thing of the past. In 2017 and 2018 we saw first-hand women finally speaking out, publicly and openly, about the sexist state of their industry, the decades of abuse they’ve had to endure from repulsive figures like Harvey fucking Weinstein. It’s a serious issue that demands exploration and rectification, as well a reclamation for the histories of women that were ruined solely to appease or protect powerful men.
How many other women have played vital roles behind the scenes in Hollywood, only to have their contributions covered up or credited to their male counterparts? How many women around the world have been denied representation, denied even the idea that they, too, could create horror icons or work in the special effects industry? The fact that all of the most well-known special effects artists are men “didn’t seem strange to me,” O’Meara writes. “It was status quo. … I had never seen myself reflected in the world of horror filmmaking. The possibility of it never crossed my mind.” When she began writing The Lady from the Black Lagoon in 2016, 96% of that year’s films were directed by men, only a four percent difference from the 100% of male directed films of 1954 when Creature from the Black Lagoon was released. “It’s harder for women to get into Hollywood than it is for us to get to space,” she writes, nothing that sixty women have been to space between 1983 to now, but that only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won an Oscar for Best Director in 2010. Their roles in front of the camera are little better, with the vast majority of speaking roles going to men, with the film leads being men, with the action heroes being men, with the monsters being men, and the artists creating the monsters being men. Characters like Ellen Ripley and Buffy Summers are not the norm; they are outliers and few and far between at that. When women are able to break through the male domination of Hollywood, they are routinely questioned on how they landed any given job, with the automatic assumption being that they slept with their boss rather than worked hard and were actually fucking talented. No, even then, the automatic default for a woman in Hollywood is to be reduced to nothing more than a sex object. It’s goddamned repulsive and infuriating.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon is a necessary read and a vital contribution to our society’s (sadly) on-going discussion on issues of representation and equality. It’s a much deserved biography of an important, and overlooked, woman and her contributions, but it’s also a hell of a lot more than just an accounting of Milicent Patrick’s history. O’Meara takes note of the historical injustices that beset Patrick and explicitly shows us how little we’ve progressed societally and with women in film, and by tackling these issues of rampant sexism in cinema, she’s raised the bar in terms of awareness and combating these issues with her outspokenness. Speaking as a man, if there are any male readers out there bemoaning all this, my only advice to you is to simply shut the hell up and listen, because you should be learning from these women and their experiences and working hard at being better.