What the Professors Left Out

By my estimation, I have seen films by 54 female directors (unless I am forgetting anyone). That’s a pretty small number compared to the vast amount of films that have been directed by men. (At the moment I am not counting women who have co-directed films with men, like Valerie Faris, Chris Hegedus, Marisa Silver, etc. I’m only looking at the efforts of women working alone or together as directors.) I’m also looking only at feature films, not TV movies or shorts – although, of course, I have seen many compelling short films directed by women, from Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) to Alison Maclean’s Kitchen Sink (1989) to Melissa Joan Hart’s Mute (2005). Still, if I look only at feature-length films:

Gillian Armstrong, Dorothy Arzner (pictured above), Jacqueline Audry, Kathryn Bigelow, Antonia Bird, Risa Bramon Garcia, Nanette Burstein, Jane Campion, Lisa Cholodenko, Martha Coolidge, Sofia Coppola, Nora Ephron, Anne Fletcher, Anne Fontaine, Jodie Foster, Marie Harder, Amy Heckerling, Jerusha Hess, Nicole Holofcener, Megan Simpson Huberman, Bonnie Hunt, Vera Iwerebor, Liza Johnson, Amy Holden Jones, Miranda July, Toni Kalem, Rory Kennedy, Beeban Kidron, Clare Kilner, Lisa Krueger, Mimi Leder, Caroline Link, Ida Lupino, Madonna, Penny Marshall, Elaine May, Ursula Meier, Rebecca Miller, Kimberly Peirce, Sally Potter, Lotte Reiniger, Nancy Savoca, Lorene Scafaria, Lone Scherfig, Susan Seidelman, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (a team), Nadia Tass, Julie Taymor, Betty Thomas, Agnès Varda, Jane Wagner, Sarah Watt, Lois Weber.

That one paragraph constitutes the entirety of all women directors whose films I have seen over the years. It’s quite a small number considering all the many men, isn’t it?

I consider this information as I look back on my last couple of years of college, during which time I took courses in film production. Women sometimes constituted the majority of the student population in those classes. I have heard many of them say that they want to become filmmakers. That’s wonderful, but just because they are treated equally in college classes, does that mean that they expect to be as successful as men in the directing chair? The sad reality is that women make up a small percentage of the technical part of the industry. Are you aware that no camerawoman has ever been nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography? As we know, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (2010), preceded by only three other female nominees in that category: Lina Wertmüller (1977), Jane Campion (1994), Sofia Coppola (2004). Do my female colleagues realize how difficult and unfair the industry is since men probably get far more opportunities and/or chances to mess up and bounce back? My professors taught my classmates and me how to use the equipment, but there was never any discussion of what it would it be like for women trying to get jobs and earn the same kind of respect and acclaim as men. Being creative will not automatically get you projects to direct.

Women are as capable as men when it comes to various genres of filmmaking. They can make dramas about prostitution and lesbianism (Dorothy Arzner’s Working Girls, 1931), horrifying documentaries (Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, 1935), gritty film noir (Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, 1953 – pictured), gangster dramas (Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, 1976), war allegories (Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent, 1977), teen sex comedies (Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982), pure-adrenaline action films (Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, 1991), dramas about drug-addicted cops (Lili Fini Zanuck’s Rush, 1991), dramas about gay clergymen (Antonia Bird’s Priest, 1994), heartwarming literary adaptations (Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women, 1994), comedies about drag queens (Beeban Kidron’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, 1995), dramedies about the black lesbian community (Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, 1996), raunchy biopics (Betty Thomas’s Private Parts, 1997), overblown natural-disaster blockbusters (Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, 1998), gooey romantic comedies (Anne Fletcher’s 27 Dresses, 2008), serial-killer thrillers (Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s Chained, 2012) and remakes of films originally by male directors (Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie, 2013).

There’s no reason why women can’t direct films in any genre. It seems particularly hard for them to get jobs on Hollywood action films, though. As Christopher Campbell pointed out in this article about the lack of female directors present in this summer’s cinematic offerings: “Men with no action movie experience are hired for action movies all time — such as Marc Webb [director of the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer] for the Amazing Spider-Man franchise — so why do women have to be more ‘proven’?” Good question. And what about Mimi Leder (pictured right, with Vanessa Redgrave on Deep Impact set)? She was the first woman to be accepted into and graduate from the AFI Conservatory (1973), whose Deep Impact was a summer mega-blockbuster, only to see her film career fall by the wayside after Pay It Forward (2000) flopped at the box office.

There are so many questions here. Why aren’t more women involved in the making of various kinds of films? Remember when Patty Jenkins (pictured above), director of the Oscar-winning drama Monster (2003), was supposed to direct big-budget Marvel action movie Thor: The Dark World (2013) but then it didn’t happen? It would have been pretty cool, had it actually worked out. (In the ten-plus years since Monster, Jenkins has done just a handful of episodes for a few TV shows and no other feature films.) The other question is why it’s so hard for women directors to get respect in Hollywood. Michael Bay is allowed to churn out one crappy Transformers reboot after another, but would a woman ever be given carte blanche like that, especially in the action/adventure genre for major studio work? (Not that a woman should be saddled with that, but the opportunity should still be an option.) I’m waiting for the day when women have a greater voice in the film industry, not only in America but around the world. Until then, I’ll have to keep spreading the word about female directors. I’m planning on starting a weekly series of postings – a “Saturday Night Spotlight,” perhaps – highlighting the output of women who have persevered and had directorial careers. Whether the films are judged “good” or “bad” is irrelevant; what matters is that they have been given shots at exploring human drama and comedy, just as men also have had for the past century.

P.S. Other articles to read: Alex Cranz’s “7 Essential Women Filmmakers Spike Lee May Have Forgotten About,” Maria Giese’s “What We Can Learn About Women in Hollywood from Amma Asante’s Belle and Tim Grierson’s Night Moves and Personal Apocalypses: The Films of Kelly Reichardt.”


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