Female Directors Redux – Women in Film in Hollywood and beyond
After reviewing my original list “Female Directors – Above and Beyond a Call to Duty” and discussing female filmmakers with a variety of film aficionados, moviegoers, and bloggers, I realized I completely left out a number of very important women. My apologies. So in the name of righting my bad, I wanted to revisit and amend my original post with a new post aptly called, Female Directors Redux. Again, in no particular order:
You might recall award-winning writer-director Allison Anders for her films Gas, Food, Lodging, Mi Vida Loca, and Four Rooms – (segment “The Missing Ingredient”) or more recently for any number of guest directorships on series like Sex and the City, Grosse Pointe, Cold Case, and What About Brian. She is also the founder of the Don’t Knock The Rock Film and Music Festival in Los Angeles. Anders gives strength and believability to her female characters. She cares about them, preferring to challenge conventional attitudes rather than relying on soupy happy endings to resolve matters of deep, personal struggles and occasional triumphs.
Alison Maclean is a Canadian director of music videos, short films, television, commercials, and feature films. She wrote and directed Crush in 1992 and in 1999 directed the Billy Crudup film Jesus’ Son with Samantha Morton, and the well received documentary Persons of Interest in 2004 – a documentary concerning the detention of Muslim-Americans in the wake of 9/11. She’s perhaps best known for her work in television on a variety of series from Sex and the City to Carnivale, The L Word and the Tutors. Cable television series seem to provide working female directors with stable projects between feature films, not that this is an exclusive thing. David Lynch has supported his career for years with commercials (especially over seas) and self financed projects.
Award winning storyteller Deepa Mehta is a Toronto-based Indian director who garnered much international attention with her trilogy of films Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005) and has been described by some as the voice of a new India. Her long career as a writer director includes films Camilla, The Republic of Love, Lets Talk About It, and Heaven on Earth. She has four films currently in development according to imdb.com.
Primarily a television director, Yale School of Drama alumni Dennie Gordon’s career includes the films What a Girl Wants, New York Minute and Joe Dirt – though in all fairness Dirt received generally poor reviews and never quite saw the light of day. In 2000 she won the DGA award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in MusicalVariety for her work on the Tracey Ullman HBO series Tracey Takes On. Her work as a director in television is exhaustive with work on some of the top cable series of the past 10 years.
Danish writer-director Susanne Bier was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and is an Academy Award-nominated producer, director and writer. Her film credits include A Corazon Abierto (open hearts)in 2002, the 2004 Dutch film Broder (Brothers which was recently remade by Jim Sheridan starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire). Her 2006 film, After The Wedding was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and in 2007 she directed Things We Lost in the Fire and In a Better World in 2010. Bier’s style of filmmaking seems best suited toward jolting our everydayness, whether it’s a car crash involving a recently wed couple (Open Hearts) in 2002 or a seasoned soldier driven to violence and self-hatred after a particularly traumatizing tour of duty in Iraq (Broder) in 2005. She has described a keen interest in making the comfortable uncomfortable, in exploring the tumultuous deep-seated emotions of believable people when faced with life altering events. In an interview in 2007 for The New York Times, Slviane Gold writes of Bier, “Catastrophe is always right around the corner in (Bier’s) films”. And with purpose, Bier continues to explore with equal interest the happy and the sad, the sublime and the triumphant.
Marleen Gorris is a writer-director from the Netherlands and the first woman to direct a movie that won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film for Antonia’s Line in 1995. She also directed the well received film Mrs. Dalloway based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, The Luzhin Defence (originally a Nabokov novel), Carolina, and for 2010 Heaven and Earth – a film about James Miranda Barry. On a completely side note and inspired by mention of the Virginia Woolf reference before, The Hours with Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep is a remarkable film of life and death, of hope and loss – so succinct and clear a vision is the storytelling as to suggest hardly a story at all but a microcosm of the world about each one of us where we bump about in search of the very meaning that exists deep down inside only to surface at times of happiness and despair. The Hours is about the story of how the novel “Mrs. Dalloway” affects three generations of women, all of whom had to deal with death or the threat of death and suicide in their lives.
Mira Nair really is an award-winning and prolific Indian director educated at Delhi University and Harvard University. Her debut feature film, Salaam Bombay! (1988) won the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival and also earned the nomination for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. She has won a number of awards and her debut film, Salaam Bombay with a screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala is today considered a groundbreaking film classic and is standard fare for film students. A partial list of her award-winning, critically acclaimed films include Mississippi Masala(1991), Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love(1996), Monsoon Wedding(2001), Hysterical Blindness(2002), Vanity Fair(2004), The Namesake(2006), and Amelia(2009) – the latter never really got off the ground with dismal box office receipts. Mira Nair is a confident and coherent filmmaker, known as much for her command of productions as her direct connection with her actors. Her work stands side by side with some of the best and most affluent directors of her time.
Mary Harron is a Canadian filmmaker and screenwriter who got her start writing about the punk rock scene in New York City in the 1970’s before going on to direct the indie hit I Shot Andy Warhol in 1996. Her second movie, based on the book of the same title by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho was released in 2000 starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. In 2005 she directed The Notorious Bettie Page. Her brief career is in no way a shortcoming for Harron – choosing wisely each project and championing characters, like Bateman, who in and of themselves might be a better gauge of our own rage lurking closer than we know.
While perhaps best known for her debut film, Boys Don’t Cry (a personal favorite of mine and the film Hilary Swank won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Actress and co-star Chloe Sevigny was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress) and a slew of canceled projects that in a lot of ways dwarf her brief film credits, Kimberly Peirce challenged a humble upbringing in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvanian trailer park to become a writer-director to watch for her style and cinematic bravado. In 2008 she wrote and directed Stop-Loss.
Gurinder Chadha is a British film director of Indian origin and is perhaps best known for the hit films Bhaji on the Beach (1993), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Bride and Prejudice (2004), Paris, Je T’Aime (2006) – (segment “Quais de Seine”) and most recently It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (2010). Most of her films explore the lives of Indians living in the UK. According to imdb.com she has another film in development called Freedom at Midnight.
Sylvia Chang has yet to make a big impression in the United States but remains increasingly popular in Taiwan with a lengthy list of films as an actress. Chang is listed as a Taiwanese actress, writer, singer, producer and director. Her extensive film credits include Zui ai (passion), Meng xing shi fan (Mary from Beijing), Sam dung (Tempting Heart), Seung fei (Princess D), and 20,30, 40 among others.
Chinese-born actress, film director, screenwriter, and film producer Joan Chen’s career began with much attention in China for her strong performance in the 1979 film Little Flower and quickly came to international attention in the 1987 Academy Award winning film The Last Emperor. In 1993 she co-starred in the Oliver Stone film Heaven & Earth. She is also familiar to American audiences for roles in Twin Peaks, Red Rose White Rose, Saving Face and The Home Song Stories. She directed Autumn in New York with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, and Tian yu (Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl).
Penelope Spheeris shot to the forefront with her documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and later with pop culture sensation and Saturday Night Live skit-turned-feature-film Wayne’s World. She also directed The Boys Next Door, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals, Black Sheep and Senseless – not to mention two more installments of the Decline of Western Civ. Movies. Her earliest interest in punk rock and music in general continues to inform her movie choices, though her more commercially appealing projects with substantial budgets have provided Spheeris with a comfortable lifestyle. After the third Decline of Western Civ. Movie, she also produced the Ozzfest Rockmentary, “We Sold Our Souls to Rock and Roll”
Darnell Martin is an American television and film director, screenwriter and film producer. Born in the Bronx, New York, she went to Sarah Lawrence College and New York University Film School. Her 1992 short film, Suspect won critical acclaim at the New York Public Theater’s Young Black Cinema showcase and paved the way for her to become the first African-American woman to direct and produce a movie produced by a major studio in 1994. Columbia Pictures produced Martin’s I Like It Like That, a romantic comedy-drama that while well received by critics didn’t perform well at the box office. Her most recent film, Cadillac Records starring Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles and Jeffrey Wright was generally well received though criticized for being a muddy biopic, suffering from a bloated script and too many characters spread too thin.
Most people are more familiar with Barbra Streisand the actress then Streisand the director – but Yentl, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces all brought her attention as a talented female director with the chops to prove she is equally comfortable in front of the camera as behind it. The Prince of Tides starring Nick Nolte and Streisand, is that rare film where the line between the actor and the character merge as if one. Never one for sentimentalism, Streisand balances extreme emotions with honest and purposeful direction, caring for her characters and bringing challenging stories the attention and respect they need.
Neema Barnette (pictured first) is the first African-American woman sitcom director and the first to earn a three-picture deal with Sony. She founded Harlem Girl Productions Corp. in 1990 and since worked on a variety of film and television productions including A Different World, The Cosby Show, Gilmore Girls and 7th Heaven. She has won numerous awards for her work including two NAACP Image Awards and a Sundance Film Festival Award.
Martha Coolidge has a long career beginning with two hit movies, Valley Girl and Real Genius. She also directed Joy of Sex, Rambling Rose, Lost in Yonkers, Angie, Three Wishes, Out to Sea, and The Prince and Me among others. She has been compared to John Hughes for her pop culture savvy and immediate connection to a broad cross-section of the movie going public, namely the young adult demographic, yet has suffered in recent years as more risqué and frank films have taken center stage.
Jennifer Chambers Lynch, perhaps first known as the daughter of avant garde filmmaker David Lynch, and secondly for her debut film Boxing Helena in 1993 starring Julian Sands and Sherilyn Fenn. Initially the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival but was quickly picked apart by the media on its release. Helena is also remembered for a heated legal battle when first Madonna then Kim Basinger backed out of the title role – Basinger would eventually be forced to file bankruptcy after losing a jury verdict for damages. In 1994, on appeal, the verdict would be set aside. Lynch would eventually retreat from the public eye but returned more recently to directed Surveillance, a brilliant and dark suspense film with notable performances by co-stars Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond and in my opinion is directly influenced by the notable films of her famous father. Surveillance took the top prize at the Festival de Cine de Sitges. Later, Lynch made history at the New York City Horror Film Festival when she became the first woman to win the Best Director award in the festival’s brief history – the festival itself has been around since 2001.
While Valerie Feris might best be known as co-director of the indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, she is also a very successful music video and commercial director. Her other films include The Check Up, The Abstinence Teacher, and Used Guys. Together with partner and co-director Jonathan Dayton, they have built an impressive body of work including ground breaking MTV show called The Cutting Edge where REM and The Red Hot Chili Peppers were introduced. Further music videos and documentary projects for The Smashing Pumpkin’s, Jane’s Addition, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson and others have earned them two Grammy Awards, nine MTV Music Video Awards, and a Billboard Music “Director of the Year” Award.
Lina Wertmuller is an Italian director who got her start as an assistant to famed director Federico Fellini and the first woman to earn a best director Oscar nomination (losing to Milos Forman for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). If you’re going to lose the Best Director Oscar to someone, losing to Milos Forman isn’t a bad way to go – let alone Cuckoo and Jack Nicholson. Wertmuller’s long career includes over 30 films and her film Swept Away was remade by Guy Ritchie in 2002 for Madonna. Her film credits include I basilischi (The Basilisks), Love and Anarchy, Seven Beauties, Blood Feud, Summer Night, Francesca & Nunziata and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday among others.
As with any list of who’s who and what is what, I am certain I have left other notable female filmmakers out of this article. In part I think it is vastly important to recognize that for every female director working today there are most likely dozens if not hundreds who are struggling to find their way to success in Hollywood Land – a place that for all intent and purpose is a predominantly male environment. This is not to say that statistically speaking, it is any easier for novice men than it is for novice women to break into the business. The biz’ is, as one might expect, a mountain and most of us filmmakers are scampering for adequate hiking boots.
I’m reminded of my first introduction to lighting class in graduate school and the list of lights, modifiers, and accessories and how it was apparent there is a male centric history to the film business. Lights are known as Redheads and Blondes, Inky Dinky and Basher, Brutes and Fat Man’s, Thin Man’s, gumballs and gags. I suppose ultimately it’s less about all that, about the nature of men and women, the nature of making it in the world of movie production, and instead about timeless films and memorable stories with emotionally honest characters because if acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, then directing is recognizing this ability and guiding it to fruition.Originally published on July 9th, 2010 Related articles
- Goodbye ‘celluloid ceiling’: Female directors take center stage (cnn.com)
- Feminism, Gender Stats and the Bechdel Test in 2013 Best Picture Oscar Nominees (opinionessoftheworld.com)
- theGrio’s 100: Ava DuVernay, 1st black woman to win best director at Sundance (thegrio.com)
- Female Directors – Above and Beyond a Call to Duty (rorydean.wordpress.com)