“TEXAS WAS ALL RIGHT FOR MEN and dogs but was hell on women and horses,” or so said J. Frank Dobie. I respectfully beg to differ with the great man. I can’t speak for horses, but in my time making movies here, I’ve found it to be a fine place for women. Now, it’s true that by the time I moved to Texas in 1993, the glass ceiling had long been broken. The pants in this state were being worn by a gun-totin’, silver-tongued good ol’ girl named Ann Richards, whose ascendancy, I’m sure, drew me as much as the peaches and wildflowers. Still, I expected to run into a lot of sexism shooting here. After all, Texas has had, historically, the worst macho reputation of any state. Think of it: Short girl producer and a bunch of, what, beefy Teamsters?
Wrong. The reaction I got from crews and locals alike in Texas was a version of “Stand back and let’s watch what the little lady can do.” (The “little lady” part never bugged me because I am, in fact, little.) The prevailing philosophy was rodeo: Whoever can hold the reins of the production tight enough without getting thrown can hold them. On the Austin set of Heartbreak Hotel in 1987, when I first left my heart in the Hill Country, the Teamsters turned out to be my greatest allies. Because I can’t sleep all day after a night shoot if I’ve even seen a sliver of the dawn, they covered me—literally. With perfect timing, when we wrapped around six in the morning, they would drape their van windows with black fabric and drive me home prone, ambulancelike, racing to beat the sun. And they even took my son fishing while I was shooting. So much for Big Bad Bubba.
On my second show in Texas, 1994’s Bad Girls, I was confronted by a real-life sheriff, ten-gallon hat and all. Norman Hooten of Brackettville was a one-man police state: cop, prosecutor, and judge. When he looked unkindly upon our production, crew members would receive speeding tickets even if they were traveling only a fraction above the speed limit on their way to the set. “This is it,” I thought. “I’ve locked horns with the Texas myth.” As chief Bad Girl, I marched over to the sheriff’s office in my tallest cowboy boots to take on the law. This was a joke, I discovered, as Hooten stood up, gentleman-style, to greet me—all six feet two of him. But once I figured out that all I had to do to get along with him was flirt a bit and emerge with a “Darn Tootin’ I’m for Hooten” bumper sticker for my truck, my crew was immune. The only genuine gender-based crisis, really, was the cuisine in Brackettville. No food was available after six in the evening other than chicken-fried steak—a culinary disaster for my willowy and gorgeous cowgirls. I had to import a vegetarian chef from Northern California to keep them in their corsets.
On my latest shoot, Hope Floats, the three bosses were dames: me, Sandy Bullock, and the line producer, Mary McLaglen. But Smithville was so jam-packed with powerful women—the editor of the newspaper, the reporter covering us, and the director of the chamber of commerce—that nobody noticed. Well, under duress I will admit that people might have noticed our golf cart drag races, wherein Sandy and her makeup and hair daredevils would challenge Mary and me to a do-or-die race from our trailers to the set, zooming through peaceful Smithville in our wannabe souped-up team carts. Much ego was involved. We laid rubber. Girls will be girls, after all.
What I’ve learned, in the movies and in real life, is that Texas women are different. They cultivate many skills. They can barbecue, sew, fish, preserve peaches from the summer for the winter, and transform an empty cupboard into a casserole for twenty. They don’t mind a big cigar, a big hat, or a big car. They kind of like testosterone and all its trappings; they may even have some. They can laugh and rope a steer at the same time (or at least watch a person rope a steer and not mind it). Anyway, Texas men don’t like their women wimpy. They were, after all, raised by Texas women, who at some point in their ancestry were required to make a life out of hardscrabble land, battling hostile outsiders, scorpions, and weather. (Much like a movie.) Effective women do not make Texas men nervous; they make them feel safe. Texas men like a woman who can mount a horse, fix a truck or a tractor, and shoot a gun. They’re not threatened by a woman in mud-stained pants who smells of horse. And they like it when we can do what they do. That is the secret of why I love it here, why I am so at home in this vast locker room of a state: There’s enough work for the both of us.
My California girlfriends think my Texas thing is all about cowboys. And, of course, they’re not entirely wrong. What full-blooded girl doesn’t dream of a cowboy, that throwback to a time when a man was a man, and all that? But a cowboy loves a cowgirl. A cowboy knows how to dance, can lead a lady in a two-step, can teach a girl to hunt, and can wrangle an interesting if dusty life. My girlfriends envy the life they imagine I have here. They are stuck with men with no hats, big or small, men who are often short of stature and, well, everything else. Their men can’t change a light bulb, fix a flat, or make their own plane reservations, let alone build a lake. Their men want them safely ensconced in aerobics class or calling from the car phone in the Beamer. In Hollywood, men don’t like it much when we do their jobs. It makes us less feminine (or them less masculine). But not here. Here the “little lady” can shine. Somehow my girlfriends know in their bones, from the myths of their youth and the smile on my face, that in Texas a woman can be a woman without apology, riding shotgun in a pickup next to a strong Texas man with a cooler full of beer in the back.