Bear with me…
All too often I am noticing a trend that the narrative around female directors is mostly the outcry that there aren’t enough of them and that the vast majority of film directors are male. This is true and I am not arguing that it’s not. In fact there is only 1 female film director for every 15 male directors, on average. But I am not writing this post to complain about it, people smarter and better versed than I have made that case very compellingly. That argument also, in my opinion, falls on deaf ears. It also doesn’t offer much of a solution and the counterargument is all too easy to make when people state that they can’t just will women to become film directors. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an easy statement to make and allows people to change the conversation too quickly. I wish, though, to raise a different point, and I want to focus on that 1 in 15. Because we have made too much of the lack and not focused enough on those women who are making movies, and are quite good at it. Instead of complaining about what isn’t there, let’s start paying attention to who is working, let’s support those women leading the way, let’s celebrate and praise the accomplishments, let’s unite our voices pointing out the success, let’s encourage Hollywood to keep rehiring and continue to fund these amazing women. The more women already working continue to be successful, the more they will raise the profile of women directors, and if they finally start getting more steady work then more young girls and women will want to be directors and follow in their idol’s footsteps and there will be much less of a gap between the two genders. Big names like Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg have inspired countless young men to follow in their footsteps. Just watch interviews in which every baseball cap wearing wannabe auteur recounts the first time they watched Mean Streets or E.T. or Star Wars or The Godfather. If young girls can’t name-check movies like these helmed by women, how can we expect them to want to grow up and want to do a job without having a frame of reference?
There is one category of filmmaking that has no trouble finding female directors and we really don’t pay enough attention to it. The feature documentary too often is the sad stepchild of the movie industry in spite of the amazing work being done in the genre. It also is the one category of feature films that continues to employ and celebrate the female director. It’s also the one category of filmmaking that has done so consistently. Just this past year we’ve seen great documentaries such as The Wolfpack, Tig, Hot Girls Wanted, Meru, What Happened Miss Simone?, Sherpa, Twinsters, Janis: Little Girl Blue, Prophet’s Prey, and Heart of a Dog. What do all these movies have in common? All directed (or co-directed) by women. One of them received an Oscar nomination. A few others made the Academy Awards shortlist. Others still were nominated for Spirit, Gotham, and multiple festival awards. And speaking of Oscars… Since the 49th Academy Awards (which took place in 1977) nearly every year has seen nominations in the best feature documentary category for movies directed by women, many years there were multiple films that fit the bill. Many have won! Great documentaries like Paris is Burning, Blackfish, The Act of Killing, The Oath, Jesus Camp, Deliver Us from Evil, Countdown to Zero, Microcosmos, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine featured women at the helm, and those are just some of the films I have seen. I have so many more to watch, like Citizenfour, Waste Land, The Square, Born into Brothels, and Tupac: Resurrection. But while male documentary directors find it easier to make the jump to feature films, female documentary directors rarely or ever do. I do not know the reason for this in spite of how much acclaim and success and attention they receive. That said, this is, at least, one category of filmmaking that has included and celebrated female voices behind the camera and I wanted to show how it is possible to have full equality in the film industry, because there already is when it comes to documentaries.
Speaking of the Oscars, I wanted to do a little research on the subject before writing this post. It turns out that, again, since 1977’s 49th Academy Awards there has only been one year (1980’s 52nd awards) in which no movie directed by a woman received any kind of nomination. That means that 39 out of 40 years have seen a movie directed by a woman receive at least one nomination is some category (for the purposes of this post I am not even including any of the short categories). 12 movies directed by women have received best picture nominations: Children of a Lesser God, Awakenings, The Prince of Tides, The Piano, Lost in Translation, Little Miss Sunshine, An Education, The Hurt Locker (which won the category), The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, Zero Dark Thirty, and Selma. These films are as diverse as the women behind the cameras, spanning from war films to biopics to quiet indies to films grappling with topics like sexuality or mental illness. Why do I keep referring to the 49th awards? Because that year marked the first time a woman was ever nominated for the best director award. That honor goes to the Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller for directing Pasqualino settebellezze (Seven Beauties). Since then only three other women have been nominated: Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), and Kathryn Bigelow who finally won the award for directing The Hurt Locker. While that number is low and not the most promising, it only tells part of the story. If we look at the awards for best foreign film, for example, then once again a multitude of female directed movies comes up. This year’s Mustang joins the ranks of diverse films from all over the world like Nowhere in Africa, In Darkness, In a Better World, The Milk of Sorrow, After the Wedding, Water, The Taste of Others, Salaam Bombay!, and many more. It’s amazing that while American female directors have a hard time being recognized by the Academy for their achievements, foreign films helmed by women are consistently recognized as superior and more often than not land a nomination for best foreign film. Nobody can say, in the end, that movies directed by women are not award worthy so what is the problem?
Do people think that female directed movies are not profitable? Well that can’t be it either because several movies with a woman behind the camera have gone on to make incredible amounts of money, even ranking amongst the top earning movies of their respective years. In 2013 the top grossing movie of the year was an animated film with a female director. The movie? Frozen. The film that sparked an industry of its own with bestselling toys, soundtracks, costumes, clothing, even food. The film came out three years ago and still the merchandize inspired by it continues to sell like hotcakes. My own niece can’t get enough of it; she’s three and her Christmas presents were basically all Anna, Elsa, and Olaf related. Sticking to the animated theme, 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2 was also directed by a woman, and ranked 6th amongst the highest grossing movies of that year. Mamma Mia was the 5th highest grossing movie of 2008, Shark Tale the 9th of 2004, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were 3rd and 8th respectively in 2003, Shrek was 4th in 2001, What Women Want was 4th in 2000, The Matrix was 4th in 1999 (as with its aforementioned sequels these films were all co-directed by a transgender woman), Deep Impact was 6th in 1998 and in the same year Dr. Doolittle was 8th, Sleepless in Seattle was 8th in 1993, Wayne’s World was 10th in 1992, Look Who’s Talking was 4th in 1989, and Big was 4th in 1988. All this goes to show that movies directed by women can turn a buck and being a man is not necessary to be profitable in Hollywood. A chick can handle a blockbuster, be it a disaster movie, a rom-com, or a film about talking babies.
Earlier I may have given the impression that there aren’t big names amongst the female directors, which is not the case. There are some heavy hitters in this great group of women. Penny Marshall, who started her career on television as a successful actress, followed in her brother’s footsteps and became a successful director in her own right. Along with the best picture nominee Awakenings and the blockbuster Big, she also directed A League of Their Own and The Preacher’s Wife. Yet she hasn’t made a movie in 15 years since Riding in Cars with Boys. Sofia Coppola joined the family business and churned out The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring. Kathryn Bigelow not only made the war themed The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but also high octane adventure films Point Break and Strange Days. The late Nora Ephron excelled at the romantic driven movies which included the likes of Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Lucky Numbers, Bewitched, and Julie & Julia. Nancy Meyers consistently makes successful movies geared towards a more mature audience and has seen her films get good reviews as well as good investments for studios – her films include Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, The Intern, The Parent Trap, What Women Want, and The Holiday. She wrote the script to each film as well. Amy Heckerling’s movies continue to break ground, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Clueless and the first two Look Who’s Talking movies, she is responsible for kickstarting careers like Sean Penn’s, Alicia Silverstone’s, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s. Jane Campion has crafted beautiful films that shine and receive attention in film studies classes, films of importance such as The Piano, Portrait of the Lady, Bright Star, Holy Smoke!, and In the Cut. Julie Taymor, a successful stage director, brings an artist’s eye to the breathtaking and visually stunning films Titus, Frida, The Tempest, and Across the Universe. Catherine Hardwicke began her directing career with the impressive and unforgettable Thirteen, she directed the first Twilight film which went on to be a top-grossing franchise, and made several other well regarded films. Anne Fletcher has joined the rom-com ranks churning out hit after hit, such as Step Up, 27 Dresses, The Proposal, and The Guilt Trip. Brenda Chapman is responsible for the animated films Brave and The Prince of Egypt. Mary Harron helmed a film that most men rank amongst their favorite: American Psycho. Tamra Davis even made what is considered to be one of Adam Sandler’s best movies: Billy Madison. With the exception of Ephron, all these women are very much alive and have demonstrated that they know how to do their job.
I recently heard an anecdote about Ava DuVernay. A few years ago she and a male director were enjoying a moment of positive attention as they were both being praised for having directed very well received small budget films. They became friends as they made the festival and award circuit rounds. Both films were equally well received. A short time later DuVernay received the fantastic news that she had been hired to direct the MLK jr. biopic Selma. When she shared the news with her friend he had some good news of his own, as he too had been hired to direct a movie. That friend was Colin Trevorrow and the film was Jurassic World. The same instance of a male director being given the reigns to a giant franchise or film after just one feature film is a common story. Women who direct great small films have a hard time making another movie and are hardly ever offered a big budget. They also have a hard time getting hired at all.
There are many more great directors that happen to be women. To make a point I will name a few more: Niki Caro, Lisa Cholodenko, Gillian Armstrong, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Amma Asante, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Mira Nair, Tamara Jenkins, Sarah Polley, Julie Delpy, Debra Granik, Christine Jeffs, Gurinder Chadha, Mimi Leder, Karyn Kusama, Kimberly Peirce, Jerusha Hess, Cristina Comencini, Patty Jenkins, Sally Potter, Kirsten Sheridan, Marjane Satrapi, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Jamie Babbit, Anne Fontaine, Jessie Nelson, Nicole Holofcener, Angelina Jolie, Lynne Ramsay, Kelly Reichardt, Isabel Coixet, Nancy Savoca, Phyllida Lloyd, Shana Feste, Shari Springer, and so many more. Some of these women work pretty consistently, but not all of them. Some have not made a film in years.
I have heard some nay-sayers state that the reason female directors (the established ones) don’t work as much as their male counterparts is because they are more choosy about the project they want to direct. Others state that they prefer to create their own scripts and produce the work themselves and that takes longer. This may be true for some directors, but I cannot believe that it applies to every single one of the women I have mentioned and all the ones I haven’t. There must be another explanation for why Kimberly Peirce has only made two films since 1999’s amazing Boys Don’t Cry, which earned Hilary Swank the Oscar gold, or why Patty Jenkins hasn’t made a single feature film since 2003’s excellent Monster, which won Charlize Theron a best actress Oscar. Why has Darnell Martin been relegated almost exclusively to television since Cadillac Records? Even famous actresses who have some clout in Hollywood have stated time and again that whenever they wanted to gravitate to directing positions suddenly things got a lot harder for them. Actresses like Jodie Foster, Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Banks, Madonna, Sarah Polley, Julie Delpy, Sally Field, Angelina Jolie, Asia Argento, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Westfeldt, and Bonnie Hunt have to work so much harder to get their films made, regardless of how successful they or the films are, and often have a hard time making more than one. Most female directors work in television because the medium allows for more and steady work.
I could go on, but I think the point I wanted to make is evident now. Anyone who says that there simply are no female directors are either blind, dumb, or simply ignorant. There are copious amounts of talented women waiting to be hired. They have been successful, they have been recognized, and yet they are not being paid enough attention to. I know there are not enough when we compare their number to the men in the same positions, but there are enough to make a difference and to begin making serious change. It is so important to recognize the work being done and to start paying attention to the movies they do make. The more we watch their films and the more we pay attention to the fact that it is a woman behind that important lens then maybe they will work more and this will lead to more being hired and more women wanting to become directors. We may need new women directors and need more of them, but mostly, do you know what I think we really need? We need Hollywood to hire these women now!