Saturday Night Spotlight #26: Randa Haines

Randa Haines (b. 1945) has the distinction of being the first American woman director to have been nominated for “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures” by the Directors Guild of America. The nomination was for her work on the film Children of a Lesser God (1986), her feature film debut after having worked for years in television. Haines directed TV movies and also episodes of shows including “Knots Landing,” “Hill Street Blues” and the pilot of the 1980s reboot of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Her first big break was the TV movie Something About Amelia (1984), a drama starring Ted Danson and Glenn Close that won two Golden Globes, three Emmys and received many other nominations, including Emmy and DGA nods for Haines’ direction. This success led to Haines’ Hollywood career. She directed four feature-length films between 1986 and 1998, and nothing else for the big screen since then, but the impact of her body of work continues to be felt by film fans everywhere. As Haines said about her DGA nomination for Children of a Lesser God in a 1991 interview with Movieline, “I was really happy to be nominated and to have the film and my work recognized. As far as the first woman, yeah, it’s sad but it’s true. It’s sad that it’s still such a big deal that we’re still having these women in film articles. I’m so sick of these articles, already! But it’s fun to be a milestone, though I really look forward to the day of getting past that, when it’s just individual achievement.”

Children of a Lesser God (1986) – One of the noteworthy films of the award season when it was released, this romantic drama was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (William Hurt), Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie), Best Adapted Screenplay (Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff) and the prize which was won, Best Actress (Marlee Matlin). Matlin made her film debut here, playing Sarah Norman, a deaf woman who works at a school for the hearing-impaired. Her relationship with a hearing man who teaches there (Hurt) is fraught with difficulty, but each learns to understand and respect the other, finding a place to meet in between that is “not in silence and not in sound.” The film’s beautiful cinematography by John Seale and the lush score by Michael Convertino (conducted and co-orchestrated by Shirley Walker) create much of the wonderful atmosphere, but it should also be noted that many women worked behind the scenes besides Randa Haines and co-scripter Hesper Anderson: to name just a few, Candace Koethe (associate producer), Gretchen Rennell (casting director), Lisa Fruchtman (editor), Mary Bauer (associate editor), Barbara Matis (art direction), Rose Marie McSherry (set decoration), Renée April (costume design), Pauline Heaton (underwater cinematographer), Dody Dorn (one of the sound editors), Ruth Bird and Stephanie Lowry (two assistant sound editors). In addition to success at the Oscars, Children won the Silver Berlin Bear at the 1987 Berlin International Film Festival, cited for being “a movie which brings an extraordinary theme to public attention in a sensible way.”

The Doctor (1991) – Haines’ second film is another collaboration with actor William Hurt, who plays a surgeon diagnosed with throat cancer, a turn of events that forces him to reevaluate the important things in life. He realizes that there is more to his profession than keeping appointments; thoughtfulness and empathy are crucial when Hurt experiences medical care from the patient’s viewpoint. Besides Hurt, the talented cast includes Christine Lahti, Elizabeth Perkins (pictured above), Mandy Patinkin, Adam Arkin, Wendy Crewson, Bill Macy, Kyle Secor and child actor Charlie Korsmo. The film, which was produced by Laura Ziskin (who later became the first-ever solo woman producer of an Academy Awards telecast in 2002), also marks renewed collaborations with cinematographer John Seale, composer Michael Convertino and editor Lisa Fruchtman (who co-edited with Bruce Green). As film critic Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1991: “Believability is… the keynote of the work of Randa Haines. In her hands The Doctor (rated PG-13) becomes a study in even-handed assurance, largely because by all appearances she has not only insisted on but achieved a high standard of believability from all her actors, not just Hurt. Scenes that would have come off as saccharine or pretentious in the hands of another director have a welcome integrity. There is a lot to forgive about The Doctor, but acting and directing make it easy to do.”

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) – Haines assembled a great cast for this romantic drama about lonely people in a seaside Florida town who find love and friendship amongst themselves: Robert Duvall, Richard Harris, Shirley MacLaine, Sandra Bullock, Micole Mercurio, Marty Belafsky, Harold Bergman and Piper Laurie (who had earlier played Marlee Matlin’s mother in an Oscar-nominated role in Children of a Lesser God). Of the colleagues from Haines’ previous two films, only composer Michael Convertino returned to write Wrestling’s score, but the film also features the efforts of skilled women like Danna Blesser (associate producer), Lora Kennedy (casting director), Florence Fellman (set decoration), Princess Stabile (second assistant director), Alisa Statman (second second assistant director) and Karen Baker Landers (assistant sound editor), Donah Bassett (negative cutter) and Mellissa Bretherton (first assistant editor).

Dance with Me (1998) – The art of Cuban dancing is brought to life in this opposites-attract romantic drama starring Vanessa Williams and Chayanne as partners hoping to win a dance competition à la Strictly Ballroom. The supporting cast features such veterans as Kris Kristofferson, Joan Plowright and Beth Grant, as well as relative youngster Jane Krakowski (who found fame with the shows “Ally McBeal” and “30 Rock”). For a fourth time Michael Convertino composed a score for Haines, as well as Lisa Fruchtman returning as editor (working with William S. Scharf), Lora Kennedy casting the film and Florence Fellman contributing as set decorator. Other ladies worked on the film too: Haines herself was one of the producers, along with Lauren Weissman; set dresser Beth Emerson; negative cutter Theresa Repola Mohammed; associate editor Marta Evry; additional editor Fabienne Rawley; assistant music editor Christine Cholvin; sound effects designer Kyrsten Mate; ADR mixer Charleen Richards. Although the film received mixed reviews upon its reviews, Variety film critic Leonard Klady observed that “the strength of the piece largely comes from the adroit direction of Randa Haines, a professed off-camera dance freak. She uses the serviceable script to move the picture from one dance sequence to the next, creating inventive ways of capturing the elegant and sexually charged movements.” Since Dance with Me, Haines’ only other works have been two TV movies, The Outsider (2002) and The Ron Clark Story (2006). I don’t know if this means that Haines, who is now 70 years old, has retired from the industry, but perhaps her inactivity is indicative of Hollywood’s overwhelming attitude towards women directors, especially those of a certain age.

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