Succeeding in a sexist Hollywood: Secrets from a Best Picture Oscar winner

63 year old Lili Fini Zanuck knows a thing or two about being judged by appearances. The third wife of one of Hollywood’s most successful producers (Richard D. Zanuck was behind the original Jaws)  she was disadvantaged by three factors – she was younger than him by two decades, she was blonde, and she wanted to be in the film industry.

Nevertheless, Lili Fini Zanuck was only the second woman in Hollywood ever to walk away with a Best Picture Oscar, for Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. How?

 I am able to take rejection,” she explains, ‘and I never for a minute thought they were right. When I would have a meeting where someone would turn down financing Miss Daisy, I would think to myself , ‘what is wrong with them? They are crazy.’ If you are the kind of person who doubts yourself, you’re sunk as far as this industry is concerned.”

“Success comes from an innate sense of confidence that you have , I know I have fought to do things in my career and it was my presentation and confidence and competence that determined it." Lili Fini Zanuck

Lili Fini Zanuck:the second woman in history to win a Best Picture Oscar

Lili Fini Zanuck:the second woman in history to win a Best Picture Oscar

   “He was afraid he would die and the bullshit version be put out,” Lili Fini Zanuck on Eric Clapton 

The kind of personality that sweeps in like a tidal wave into any conversation, New England born Lili has taken the chances offered to her.  The Oscar gave her the opportunity to direct a film, Rush, immediately after her win. The score was done by one Eric Clapton. A quarter of a century later,  73 year old Clapton (nicknamed ‘god’ by most of his fanbase) came calling to his friend, insisting that she be the only one who would direct a documentary about his life.

As she puts it, “he was afraid he would die and the bullshit version be put out.”

Eric Clapton:Life in 12 Bars doesn’t spare any of the agonies of this talented man’s life. The addictions, some nasty racism, and the dreadful accidental death of his young son (leading to the Clapton song, Tears in Heaven) are all dealt with. Some overriding information about Clapton comes out – one, that he is an intensely shy man who didn’t want any of the publicity that comes with the music industry, and two, at this end of his life, he’s both likeable and humble.

Eric Clapton: Courtesy Getty Images 

Eric Clapton: Courtesy Getty Images 

“I didn’t censor myself in any way, “ Lili reports. “Whatever I uncovered, I used, and after seeing it, Eric didn’t ask me to change or dilute anything,

“He is a lot happier now despite the tragedy. One thing I admire about him is that he’s 73 and his desire to continue to improve is so strong, I am filled with admiration that someone is still on their quest. I used to like him, now I love him.”

Nevertheless, she went through agonies “trying to find pictures. Eric didn’t like to be photographed and he didn’t like taking photographs. I would stare at periods of his life and sometimes say, ‘there is literally no footage.’” That, and doing a documentary for the first time meant “there was no script, no schedule, no DOP to make things easier. Our structure was yellow slips stuck to the wall of the office which we would move around daily.”

Eventually, she got a taste for it: now she says she’d do another documentary “as long as it challenged me and interested me the way this one did.” Producing’s back on the cards as well, she’s in the UK to have meetings about the possibility of a period piece mini-series.

Lili and husband Richard D. Zanuck 

Lili and husband Richard D. Zanuck 

"You know, thirty years ago, women were still complaining about the numbers of women in positions of power and they haven’t got much better. Things have been slow to change in such a sad, sad way."

For someone who was utterly judged on her appearance, saying with the fondness of hindsight, “ I was never taken seriously for the first ten minutes of meeting everyone until they got past the way I looked,” – what does she make of the year of #metoo, and the clamour the women of Hollywood are making about the way they have been treated?

“Well I certainly thought the Golden Globes carpet was very effective in some ways ,” she says. “It sends out a huge message to men about their behaviour, I think it will do a lot in terms of people behaving better because when they see what happens to a career with just an accusation, then there will be change.

“But I am not confident it will affect change in the numbers in Hollywood. You know, thirty years ago, women were still complaining about the numbers of women in positions of power and they haven’t got much better. Things have been slow to change in such a sad, sad way.

“I heard Meryl Streep says she fears there will be a backlash and I’m inclined to agree with her. I fear some women moving up but men backfilling their roles. We need woman to start grooming other women to take their place.”

The secret of making it against the odds?

“It’s from an innate sense of confidence that you have , I know I have fought to do things in my career and it was my presentation and confidence and competence that determined it.

“Everyone has to be a little crazy to succeed in this industry. We all have this creative hole inside us to fill, and we are selling you an idea that we can’t even back. We are expecting you to put millions behind it, and you have to be a salesperson – and go in and sell something that doesn’t even exist yet. Everyone’s got to be mad, including me."

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars will be broadcast live in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on 10 January followed by a Q&A with Eric Clapton and director Lili Fini Zanuck hosted by Jools Holland. The film releases in cinemas nationwide on 12 January. For further information visit http://claptontickets.film/

WOMEN IN FILM, ELECTRAEmma Jones