Film professor shares the inspiration behind ‘Phantom Lady’

By Emmalyse Brownstein

Film professor shares the inspiration behind ‘Phantom Lady’

By Emmalyse Brownstein
Christina Lane, chair and associate professor in the Department of Cinematic Arts, has devoted her research in film studies to the subject of women in the film industry.

When Christina Lane was a student at Mount Holyoke College in suburban Massachusetts, she knew she was interested in movies. Lane thought that her place was behind the scenes, yet she couldn’t shake that her passion for film was not so much in learning how to operate a Steadicam, but rather in examining its cultural influence and how films shed new light on social issues.

Her hunch was right on point. Thirty years later, Lane is chair and associate professor of cinematic arts at the University of Miami and has authored three books and contributed chapters to 10 more about the industry. The latest from this self-described “film fatale” has a timely topic—the unwritten history of a woman behind one of film’s early pioneers, Alfred Hitchcock. “Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock,” was published in February 2020, and is up for some of the most prestigious awards in literature.

In a way, female empowerment has always been a facet of Lane’s life. She grew up in rural Virginia as an only child raised primarily by a single mom. After transferring universities twice, she ended up at an all-women’s college. 

It was there at Mount Holyoke College that, among the coursework for her English and creative writing major, a documentary film class captured her attention. Lane said she was captivated by the notion that movies, documentaries, and experimental media could move people to see the world differently, give them new perspectives, and galvanize them into social action.

She was accepted into the graduate film school at the University of Southern California, but realized she was more intrigued by how film could be a tool for societal change than by waking at 4 a.m. for early set calls. So, she headed to a film studies program.           

Book cover of Phantom LadyLane went on to get her Ph.D. and then her first teaching job at Ithaca College. By 2001, she landed a position at the University of Miami Department of Cinematic Arts—then the Motion Picture Program. It was around that same time when Lane first began researching Joan Harrison’s story—the seeds for “Phantom Lady” were beginning to be planted. 

Lane has authored plenty of material—books, essays, reviews, and blogs—on the subject of women in the film industry. “Feminist Hollywood” in 2001, “The Feminist Poetics of Sofia Coppola: Spectacle and Self-Consciousness in Marie Antoinette” in 2003, and “Susan Seidleman’s Contemporary Films: The Feminist Art of Self-Reinvention in a Changing Technological Landscape” in 2017 are just a few.

But this one, in addition to being her first biography, was different.

“I had reached a point in my career where I’d written the most important things that I wanted to write in the academic world. I wanted to reach a wider audience,” Lane said. “I felt the subject of the book was one that the world really needed to know about.”

The book details the story of how Joan Harrison went from being “the worst secretary Alfred Hitchcock ever had to one of his closest collaborators, critically shaping his brand as the ‘Master of Suspense’” in the early 1930s. Harrison was a “stylish, stunning woman, with an adventurous romantic life,” according to Lane, and became an “unconventional but impressive auteur, one whom history has overlooked.”

Lane said that when she studied works on Hitchcock and his career, Harrison was overlooked. “If she was mentioned, it was always as a footnote, or just as his secretary, or they’d say she’d been important but they wouldn’t explain exactly what she did,” said Lane. “People like to say Alfred Hitchcock made Joan Harrison. But I propose that in many ways Joan Harrison made Alfred Hitchcock.”  

So, to uncover her erased history, Lane did some deep diving.

Over the course of about 20 years, Lane built layer upon layer of Harrison’s story through deep research. From London to New York to Los Angeles and Texas, she dug through Hitchcock archives and sought out people who knew Harrison personally in her heyday. From the time she began actually writing the book in 2014, it took six years to publish.

“Phantom Lady” was named one of the Best Books of 2020 in the art category by Library Journal, selected as one of the Best Books of 2020 by CrimeReads, and listed by Indiewire as one of the best film books of the last several decades. Additionally, it was nominated for a 2020 Agatha Award in non-fiction as well as for the prestigious Edgar Award—honoring Edgar Allan Poe—in the critical/biographical category, for which the winner will be announced April 29.

Lane said that this is the first time one of her books has received this amount of attention and recognition. “It’s so gratifying,” she said. “It helps get the book out there, and it’s all the better for Joan Harrison. It makes me feel good that her story is getting recognized.”

Harrison’s story is, unfortunately, not unique. Lane said there are other Joan Harrisons today.

“We’re still pretty far behind in terms of giving women credit for the films and the contributions they make,” she said. Lane cited the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements as examples.

“There’s a whole cultural system that privileges male directors and artists. There’s this mythology that helps someone like Alfred Hitchcock be remembered and it is still in place, so that women like Joan Harrison basically easily get erased from history,” Lane added. “We’re prone to forget them.”