The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara
To be published by Hanover Square Press on March 1, 2019
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg: 4.72 (as of 2019-02-06)
cw: suicide, sexual harassment
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. All quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon uncovers the life and work of Milicent Patrick—one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters.
As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.
As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.
A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed since.
I was so excited when I learned that Mallory O’Meara was putting out a book. If you’ve ever heard her speak (and if you haven’t, you should give her podcast Reading Glasses a shot!), you’ll know that she’s passionate about filmmaking, feminism, and literature. This book, part biography, part memoir, and part film history, not only combines these interests but also allows Mallory’s strong voice and devotion to shine through. You can tell from the very first page that she has poured every ounce of her being into this story.
Milicent was holding open a door for me that I never realized I had considered closed. Come on, she said. We [women] belong here, too.
I did feel that the writing started off a bit choppy — something that may have been smoothed out in the final version — but it steadily finds its footing. Regardless, even when the writing feels like it may use a little work, the content itself is arresting. Mallory sets up Milicent’s place in history by describing the gender inequality we still see in the film industry today through an effective mixture of statistics and personal anecdotes. She also makes it clear that otherwise privileged women — straight, white, cisgender, and able-bodied — are just the tip of the iceberg. If even these women are kept from succeeding, how can women facing additional layers of oppression have a chance?
Women are the most important part of horror because, by and large, women are the one that horror happens to.
After sinking her hooks into you with this introduction, she begins wading into the life of Milicent Patrick. I will admit that I felt a little lost toward the beginning. She starts well before Milicent’s birth and I felt that for the first third or so, more attention was given to certain pieces than seemed necessary. While it certainly set a context for Milicent’s life, I found it a bit difficult to remain attentive while reading it. Luckily, Mallory breaks up the history by sharing pieces of her own journey to discover Milicent.
The problem with being the only woman to ever do something is that you have to be perfect… This way of thinking is a maladaptation women have developed over the years to be able to deal the fact that we’re getting passed on for jobs because we’re female. You force yourself to believe that there just haven’t been any women good enough for the job, rather than accept the fact that the entire system just doesn’t want you in it.
This book is truly as much about Mallory’s relationship to Milicent as it is about Milicent herself. Through her, Mallory was able to find inspiration, was able to see women as belonging in what had always been more of a boys’ club. It is clear that Mallory is not just fascinated by Milicent as a person, but also Milicent as a beacon to all the girls out there with interests in fields that they may find themselves excluded from. Because she dared to stand out, Milicent was buried in the pages of history. Thankfully, Mallory was able to dig her back out.
One of the hardest things about misogyny in the film industry isn’t facing it directly, it’s having to tamp down your anger about it so that when you speak about the problem, you’ll be taken seriously.
This book doesn’t fill just one niche, and I can see it sparking the interest of many. Enjoy reading about film history? Crave feminist non-fiction? Love a good humorous memoir? The Lady from the Black Lagoon may hit the spot for you. I was a little nervous picking it up because, while I love a lot of non-fiction, I’m not very interested in film-making. I was glad to find myself entertained, educated, and satisfied upon finishing. If you find your interest piqued after this review, I definitely recommend picking Mallory’s book up.