It would be a challenge in the best of times — honoring the contributions of women in television over multiple decades and across the spectrum in comedy, drama, news, talk, sports and music in just one evening, and not an overly long one at that.
But “The Paley Honors: Celebrating Women in Television” just happened to be scheduled right in the middle of a week during which explosive charges of sexual harassment against men in the media and entertainment industries were dominating the headlines, with new accusations making news practically by the hour.
Somehow, that made the event, which took place Oct. 12 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, even more resonant.
“Harvey [Weinstein] is all anyone is talking about,” one network president told me during the cocktail hour preceding the gala dinner and ceremony inside the hotel’s ballroom.
Yet the revelations of more and more women coming forward with accusations could not overshadow the great achievements that were being honored — and the feeling of solidarity in the audience.
In her opening remarks, Paley Center President and CEO Maureen J. Reidy remarked on the rich history of women in television, and noted the ceremony could present just a small sampling. “Tonight we demonstrate how television, more than any other medium, serves to shatter stereotypes, educate audiences and bring people together,” she said.
The Paley Honors got under way with two world-class athletes who inspired countless young women in the 1970s to pursue gymnastics — Nadia Comaneci and Cathy Rigby.
“Perhaps one of the most powerful places where women in sports have evolved is on television over these past eight decades,” said Comaneci, who stormed the 1976 Olympics with her gold medal-winning performances. “Think about it — if it weren’t for TV, we’d never have seen all these iconic athletic performances like Flo-Jo running like the wind, Peggy Fleming’s gold medal win and that incredible moment of Brandi Chastain scoring the winning goal in the 1999 World Cup of Women’s Soccer. TV was there for all of it.”
The segment on women in drama, with clips culled from the Paley Archive, was presented by Lynn Whitfield and Adriane Diaz and featured a diverse array of shows, starting with “Cagney & Lacey,” which won 14 Emmys and helped usher in an era of authentic portrayals of women. Series stars Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless were on hand and received a rousing welcome from the audience.
Among the many other dramas spotlighted were “Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Being Mary Jane,” “Supergirl,” “Outlander,” “The Crown” and “Homeland.”
Rita Moreno got the audience chuckling when she remarked that at age 85, she had so many memories. But her remarks quickly turned serious when she addressed head-on that some of those memories were about sexual harassment. She related a series of incidents when she was relentlessly pursued by the head of 20th Century Fox studios when she was under contract there, beginning at the age of 19. The year-long harassment ended only when the executive was replaced.
“I’m still fucking here,” Moreno said, eliciting a lengthy standing ovation.
Female musical artists have always amplified their impact through appearances on television. Some of the many performances spotlighted included those by Tina Turner, Cher, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, Pink, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Gloria Estefan, Cyndi Lauper, Judy Garland, Pearl Bailey, Rihanna, Adele, Bette Midler, Celine Dion, Pink, Britney Spears, Carrie Underwood, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce … the list goes on.
Lest anyone overlook the contributions of women in news and talk, Wanda Sykes reminded them. “Barbara Walters broke down barriers in the 1970s by co-anchoring ABC News,” she said. Also cited as groundbreakers in the genre: Rachel Maddow, Oprah Winfrey, Maria Elena Salinas, Ellen DeGeneres, Christiane Amanpour, Joan Rivers, Robin Givens, Kelly Ripa, Linda Ellerbee, Gwen Ifill, Katy Couric, Soledad O’Brien and Andrea Mitchell.
Leave it to a couple of comedy pros to lighten things up. Allison Janney and Pamela Adlon, both Emmy-nominated this year — the statue went to Julia Louis-Dreyfus — complimented each other as they kicked off a tribute to women in comedy, including a shout-out to “Rita fucking Moreno,” as Adlon called her.
“If TV comedy had its own bible, the first verse would certainly read: In the beginning, God created ‘I Love Lucy’ and He hasn’t stopped laughing since,” Janney said.
To understand why, one needs only to take a look at the women who have followed in Lucille Ball’s vaunted footsteps, among them, Marlo Thomas, Mary Tyler Moore, Gracie Allen, Carol Burnett, Roseanne Barr and a long list of women who have honed their craft on “Saturday Night Live.”
But the longest-reigning queen of TV comedy might just be Betty White, who took the stage as the evening’s capper. “Thanks for spoiling me rotten,” she said, alluding to a career that includes “The Golden Girls,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “SNL” and “Hot in Cleveland.”
“I am thrilled to be honored by the Paley Center. To be acknowledged for working in a business I love for as long as I have is truly a privilege. I’m proud to share this evening with these amazing and talented women.”