On the evening of April 30, 1971, a standing room only audience of local literati and feminists packed New York City’s Town Hall to watch Norman Mailer (who had just written “The Prisoner of Sex”), grapple with a panel of passionate feminists. The subject was Women’s Liberation, an issue on which Mailer seemed like the devil’s own advocate. There to test him was a fearsome panel of feminist representatives, among them journalist and lesbian spokeswoman Jill Johnston; legendary literary critic Diana Trilling; president of The National Organization of Women (NOW), Jacqueline Ceballos; and possibly his toughest match, the glamorous and razor-tongued author of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer. On the streets it was simply Mailer versus Greer in a knockdown debate on women’s liberation. It remained the most stimulating and entertaining action to date in the continuing comedy/drama of the war between the sexes and is reverently referred to by writers on the subject.
“Town Bloody Hall” is an astounding time capsule that’s well worth taking another look at. Although many of the contentious topics may appear outmoded, the heart of the discussion between the misogynist Normal Mailer and a group of feminist intellectuals/warriors from the US is still extremely topical considering the pitiful state of certain TV shows and journalists’ debates today. Despite the heckling and the very 1970s theatrics, and a crude vulgarity that we wish was a thing of the past, the evening was a heated but civilised exchange of deeply-held opinions, and Chris Hegedus manages to capture a key moment for American direct cinema: a performance-documentary that was forgotten for forty years and has now become a key chapter in the war of the sexes in purest Hollywood tradition.
Cinema historian, independent programmer