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Searching for Ruth Batchelor: founder of the LA Film Critics Association

by R. H. Greene | Off-Ramp®

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The back cover photo splash from Ruth Batchelor's album "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream"

I’ve been a member of the LA Film Critics Association since 1999. LAFCA is a good group - collegial and filled with real movie lovers. But it has a problem.

It's a professional organization, meaning a baseline for membership is you have to have a job, and film criticism is overwhelmingly white and male. 78 percent of the top critics listed on RottenTomatoes are male, and women write only 18 percent of the major reviews. So LAFCA is like the profession itself: overwhelmingly a platform for white men.

It's trying to diversify. It has been for years. But how do you do that when the pool you draw from has a huge institutional bias? According to film critic Claudia Puig, "Criticism has been a white male dominated field for very long. And it continues to be. And not just white males, but middle aged."

Claudia is the current LAFCA president - and a legendary critic, who wrote lead reviews for 14 years at USA Today, and now appears regularly on KPCC’s Film Week.

"Very few movies pass the Bechdel Test. Women are often just girlfriends, wives, mothers. They don't get to have a story arc of their own. But if you had more women reviewing these movies, they would point out certain things that people might not notice as potentially offensive. Because we have been harassed, or we have experienced any number of things. It's something I've grappled with through my entire career." - Claudia Puig

I'm on a committee with Claudia for the LA Film Critics. The concept is to mentor young writers - to generate diversity, from the ground up. One idea is to have a scholarship for aspiring female film critics. We thought it would be good to name it after a prominent woman from the group's past.

So I went to Myron Meisel, who joined LAFCA in 1979, just four years after it formed, and I asked him, "Is there a woman you can think of who played an especially prominent role in the history of the LA Film Critics Association?" "Oh!," Myron said. "Ruth Batchelor was the founder and driving force..." "Wait, what?" I asked. "LAFCA was founded by a woman?"

"We weren't shocked. You had Ruth, who was very much concerned with creating a Los Angeles equivalent to the New York Film Critics Association. Which she largely pulled together by force of will. While Ruth was the moving force, you really can't discount her ability to martial the enthusiastic support of Charles Champlin as a co-founder, and the imprimatur of the Los Angeles Times behind him. Ruth had an enviable ability to make everything she undertook seem inevitable." - Myron Meisel

It's poignant, isn't it? And a little creepy. A prestigious group commits to gender diversity, and somehow, it doesn't have the institutional memory to know that the pivotal figure in its history was a woman.

Ruth Batchelor, pictured on the back cover of her album "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream"
Ruth Batchelor, pictured on the back cover of her album "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream"

How could we forget Ruth? Batchelor was nothing if not memorable. Before she became a pundit, she was a successful pop songwriter in the style of Neil Sedaka, or Goffin and King. She wrote dozens of songs, recorded by everybody from Phil Spector to the Partridge Family. She wrote Elvis Presley numbers, including "Cotton Candy Land," which might be the most hated track in the Presley catalogue.

But Batchelor also wrote "Where Do You Come From?", which is beautiful.

Elvis Presley performing Ruth Batchelor's "Where do you come from?"

Where do you come from, Ruth?

It wasn't easy to find out.

Batchelor's New York Times obituary was full of false leads. It said she was a critic for National Public Radio. She wasn't, but when NPR searched their archives, they unearthed a lead: a Film Comment article from 1982, where Batchelor is described as "Ruth Batchelor of National Public Radio's 'As it Happens.'" "As It Happens" airs on Canada's CBC.

So I placed a call. And I waited.

Meanwhile, I found a blog post about Batchelor as a songwriter on an excellent site called "Zero to 180 - 3 Minute Magic." The title of the post was riveting: "First 'Women's Liberation LP.'"

The front cover of Ruth Batchelor's "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream"
The front cover of Ruth Batchelor's "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream"

It turns out in 1971, Ruth Batchelor self-produced and financed a concept album called "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream." 

Myron Meisel told me about Ruth's earthy sense of humor, and it's right there in the first write-up's, where her working title is "A Quarter for the Ladies Room." A Billboard article from August 1971 quotes Batchelor about the album: "Right now I have an album of dirty Women's Liberation poems recorded, and I'm trying to sell the master." Then she laughs. "The last record company I recorded for folded."

Batchelor shopped her record. There were no takers.

But Batchelor proved unstoppable. She created her own record company and called it Femme Records. Then she put out what the leftist journal Broadside called "the first feminist record album," all by herself. "Reviving a Dream" is forgotten, bordering on lost. It's never been available for streaming, or released on CD.

The inner wax and label for Ruth Batchelor's album "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream"
The inner wax and label for Ruth Batchelor's album "Songs for Women's Liberation: Reviving a Dream"

Batchelor's record is a pastiche of radio styles from her era. There's Joan Baez folk, two drawling country laments, even some call and response stuff Batchelor probably learned from Phil Spector and his girl groups.

Are Batchelor's songs any good? They're amazing. Amazing just because they exist.

She fits into the churning sea of anonymous faces so seamlessly it takes awhile to realize: She's Ruth Batchelor. The woman who founded the LA Film Critics. A group currently struggling with gender diversity.

LAFCA prez Claudia Puig agreed to an interview knowing it had to do with LAFCA, but not what it was about. I played her Batchelor's song "Drop the Mop." Batchelor intended it as an anthem, scored to a tempo of marching feet.

The listen was awkward - like force feeding a roommate your iTunes playlist. Claudia took notes the whole time, to occupy her critical mind, but I could see when it ended that she was moved.

 "Yeah, it's a really interesting song," Claudia said. "My reaction is sort of...ummm..."

Claudia hesitated, looking for words.

"And this was the origin of the group. Yeah. It really kind of... It is really interesting. I'd never heard of her. She was right there, fighting that fight." 

"And here, we were looking for an avatar," I said.

"Right. Right. It means something. This is a really important discovery that you made."

A piece of the portrait was missing - an essential one. It came courtesy of Kevin Robertson, a producer for "As It Happens" at the CBC. Batchelor had been the show's "Hollywood Correspondent" in the early 1980s. There was audio in the archives. Kevin provided me with five MP3s.

Batchelor's CBC brand was gender traditional. She was the tinseltown gadfly, a niche created by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons in the 1930s. There was gossip about Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. Richard Burton's widow. Marvin Hamlisch. TV's "Gomer Pyle."

It was kitsch heaven, so I wasn't disappointed. Not exactly. But it was still a bit like listening to Wonder Woman try to be ordinary, because hey, we all gotta eat.

Ruth Batchelor's "Mr. Principal"

The LA Film Critics get a cameo in Batchelor's Oscar season broadcast, when she mentions her LAFCA Awards vote. For awhile, I thought that would be the only audio connecting the "As It Happens" Ruth Batchelor to the feminist fireball she wanted to be.

Then Batchelor starts riffing on "Partners," a buddy cop farce about a straight cop who goes undercover as a gay man. The film had sparked protests from the gay community. Batchelor is unsympathetic, which is surprising in a civil rights pioneer. Her reasoning is devastating.

"You know if women got angry every time there was a movie against women," Batchelor says, "there wouldn't be any movies."

Batchelor died of cancer early - she was just 58. 25 years later, men still direct most mainstream movies - 93 percent as of 2015. They have 70 percent of the speaking parts, and play 88 percent of the leads.

While women get to be naked twice as often in American movies.

Men review almost all movies too. Maybe that's why Ruth Batchelor founded the LA Film Critics. Because she lived in that world. She covered it. Spoke to it. Fought hard against it.

And then left behind a hidden legacy.

"She is our avatar," Claudia says, as our interview time runs out. "It sort of makes me want to redouble our efforts to honor her spirit."

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