A question posed on Facebook led me on my way to this article about the top female directors in recent memory. While there is no particular order and no interest in writing yet another list of top this or that, my intention is to collect thoughts on the unsung heroes of the underrepresented minority of female directors in Hollywood. Every time someone sits down to compose a list like this there seems to be some news worthy moment of moments to illuminate the subject but it too fades as the conversation goes, one highlight in an otherwise unfortunate dark room matter of facts – there simply aren’t enough women working behind the camera, especially in the director’s chair. Yet as much as this is about this phenomenon as a real problem, I think you’ll discover that there are an amazing number of top directors working today who are successful filmmakers irrespective of their gender.
Personally, I have little trouble composing a long list of female directors who are hands down some of the most endearing and widely successful filmmakers of all time. Now before we get too far along, let me preface this by saying that I do agree with the facts regarding the imbalance between male and female directors – as of the writing of this article, a recent study found out that only nine percent of all Hollywood directors are women. Furthermore, over a period of ten years, this percentage has hardly changed. So before we go blowing any horns or touting the successful integration of women as directors into the Hollywood machine, let’s just think out loud for a bit and relish the accomplishments of these talented filmmakers who happen to be women.
The first director that pops to mind is Penny Marshall with films like A League of Their Own and Big – both critical, award-winning films that were not only well received at the box office but some might say were true springboards for Tom Hanks career. And yes, if you were wondering if Penny and Gary Marshall were related – they are brother and sister. Gary Marshall’s notable career credits include creating Happy Days and directing Nothing In Common, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Valentine’s Day, and The Princess Diaries. And I would be remiss not to mention Penny Marhsall as the boisterous Milwaukee brewery assembly line worker Laverne De Fazio in the long running hit television series Laverne & Shirley.
Sofia Coppola’s masterful debut in 2000 with The Virgin Suicides remains one of my favorites, followed closely by the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson pairing in Lost in Translation – though admittedly I struggled with Marie Antoinette for many of the same reasons as others who criticized her flippant, surface treatment of the life and times of the French queen. I’ve followed Catherine Hardwicke for some time (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown and yes, even the first Twilight movie), and Jane Campion is truly a superb director with a keen sense of the power of emotional imbalance and human connectedness – she’s hard to beat with evocative films like The Piano where she brilliantly directed Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter. If you haven’t seen Hunter in Nine Lives (2005), directed by Rodrigo García, this is a wonderful ensemble film with captivating performances by a mostly all female cast including Robin Wright, Glenn Close, and Lisa Gay Hamilton, among others. And I can not mention young Anna Paquinin The Piano as stubborn Flora McGrath, a performance equal anyone else in the film. Campion also directed In The Cut with under rated Mark Ruffalo and Portrait of a Lady with box office stalwart Nicole Kidman. I want to like Rebecca Miller more, yet The Ballad of Jack and Roseand Personal Velocity seem a bit off, skewed I suppose with characters that never really seem to connect on-screen. A lot of people forget about Jodie Foster the director, perhaps because she is most known for a very very lengthy career as an actor, but her films Little Man Tate and Home For The Holidays are seminal films that most likely would have suffered as sentimental character studies at the reigns of a male director. Again I must pause and reflect on a recent effort to get through the film Nell, starring Jodie Foster as a reclusive wild child who has lived almost entirely isolated from the world only to become the center of a debate on whether or not to study her or help her adjust to a world she has never known. I’m curious about this film, which received mixed reviews from critics, and personally found Foster insufferable as an impaired child with a jumbled language that is all at once akin to cats screaming. I wonder how many people actually liked this film.
Kathryn Bigelow is responsible for a really long list of my favorite movies of the past two decades with Near Dark (a film I think was Bill Paxton‘s finest screen performance sinceAliens, long before Apolo 13 and Twister – though you might enjoy him in The Last Supper, a 1995 film by Stacy Title). Bigelow is also responsible for Blue Steel (not theDerek Zoolander ‘look‘ but the 80’s movie of the same name) starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Ron Silver; the screen chemistry between Silverman and Curtis was palpable to say the least. Mr. Roger Ebert has a well written review of Blue Steel. Bigelow followed her success in the 80’s by what I would assert as Patrick Swayze’s finest performance in Point Break in 1991. More recently, Bigelow has rightfully received accolades for her low-budget award-winning film The Hurt Locker – which ironically enough paired her against former husband and Avatar director James Cameron at the Oscars – which she won to become the first woman ever in the history of Hollywood to receive the Oscar for Best Director / Best Movie.
I have to mention Amy Heckerling for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and especially for Clueless with Alicia Silverstone because Clueless makes me laugh every time I watch it and while Fast Times seems dated now, what she did with Sean Penn was amazing – not discounting Mr. Penn in any way as his career speaks for itself. I always find it interesting that while Sean Penn was able to shed the personae of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times, Keanu Reeves seems forever in the shadow of Ted Logan, the surfer dude from theBill and Ted franchise. Of note here is an in between Keanu film missed by many, by indie darling and auteur filmmaker Gus Van Sant called My Own Private Idaho(1991). I’ve mentioned this film to friends for years now and find it appropriate to mention here as I do believe Reeves is a talented actor and a generous human being in general. His performance as Scott Favor along side River Phoenix (brother of Joaquin Phoenix) is perhaps his finest, devoid of the typically monotone and internal performances that have resulted in much criticism from audiences and critics alike. I think he was also equally remarkable in the Matrix franchise, again stripped of what some have called his trademark stiff, resolute self. I’m not the biggest fan of Van Sant but I think he has something cinematic to say in each of his movies, successful or otherwise.
Julie Taymor , perhaps best known for her 2007 Beatles tribute film Across the Universe, which fared poorly with critics and equally at the box office. I, however, am more inclined toward and highly recommend her 1999 Shakespeare adaptation Titus (a deep, tortured and exquisite performance by Anthony Hopkins) and if you haven’t seen her 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic “Frida” you’re in for quite an enjoyable movie whether you’re a fan of the artist or not – besides, Salma Hayek as Frida might just be her best role to date.
I have no reason for listing Nicole Holofcener this far into an article about top female movie directors, especially given her repertoire of films and their place in my collection of inspiring, moving character stories with clear direction and a wonderful casting. As you’ll probably recall, Holofcener’s triptych of honest and sometimes difficult relationship films Walking and Talking in 1996, Lovely and Amazing in 2001, and Friends with Money in 2006 where all fine films with stand out performances by Jennifer Aniston(Friends) and Catherine Keener who was actually in all three films. Lets face it, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack weren’t half bad in Friends either. I can’t go on without mention of Beavis and Butt Head creator Mike Judge‘s laugh out loud film Office Spacewhere Aniston shined in what might have been an otherwise minor role.
Screenwriter turned director Nora Ephron needs little introduction. Her career might surprise some to realize she has been at the helm of many of the best and most successful films of the past twenty plus years. In the 90’s she brought us mega-hit films like When Harry Met Sally and the screenplay for the Mike Nichols directed Silkwood, and if that wasn’t enough she followed them with two of what I would call quintessential study films for anyone interested in the romantic-comedy genre – namely Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail – both brilliantly starring Tom Hanks as the venerable everyman with a heart of gold. More recently Ephron delivered the widely successful Julie & Julia for which Meryl Streep was Oscar-nominated. Another writer turned director who has also enjoyed a long career is Nancy Meyers. Meyer’s directorial debut, a remake of The Parent Trap starring a young Lindsay Lohan before her awful public disintegration, was generally well received. Meyer’s would take a bit of a hiatus before writing and directingSomething’s Gotta Give in 2003, The Holiday in 2006, and most recently It’s Complicated.
Surely the imbalance of male to female directors in Hollywood isn’t going to change any time soon. Perhaps best described as a teeter-totter in the co-ed playground of Hollywood, what we can expect is the contribution by female filmmakers to continue to top charts and appeal to audiences near and far.
Further research and articles on the subject of female directors:
And after all that, here’s a list of female directors including many I forgot to mention:
- I’ve Spent 12 Years Surrounded by Hollywood Peen. Where Are the Women Directors? (jezebel.com)
- 7 Brand Storytelling Lessons You Can Learn from Ron Howard (contentmarketinginstitute.com)
- OK, Hollywood: Where Are the Women Oscar Nominees? (blogher.com)
- Penny Marshall: ‘Bruce Willis Screwed Demi Moore Out Of A League Of Their Own!’ (perezhilton.com)