Reel Women: Female Film Directors Past and Present

“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.” – Kathryn Bigelow

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In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the critically-acclaimed film, The Hurt Locker, made history when she became the first women to win the Oscar for best director. She’s also a slew of other directing awards including the very prestigious Director’s Guild of America award for best director.

In honor of Ms. Bigelow I’ve decided to dust off a feature I initially wrote about women film directors from the silent era to the modern age way back in college, and posted on a defunct blog ending it with Ms. Bigelow’s triumph. I’ve updated this piece to reflect women film directors as of 2017. Enjoy!

As anyone to name a film director and most likely you’ll hear the names Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Cameron and Tarantino. It is rare that the first name you hear is a woman’s. Why is this? Well, men do dominate the film industry. And mostly men have won the best director Oscars…Kathryn Bigelow being the only anomaly. Or maybe we haven’t had a slew of women directors being nominated for directing Oscars (let alone winning) because only recently have women gone behind the scenes to direct movies and need time to catch up to the big boys. Well, not exactly.

Women have been a part of Hollywood since the silent movie era. Many of these women, like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, are known for their work in front of the camera. However, women have been calling the shots behind the scenes since before the advent of the “talkies” in the late 1920s. They worked as producers, editors, screenwriters, and yes, directors. Many of these women held very creative and influential positions. One of the highest paid directors of the silent era was a woman. Furthermore, women directors were not afraid to make socially-conscious films.

Just as many actresses like Barbra Streisand and Penny Marshall have turned their talents to directing so did actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Film noir actress, Ida Lupino, directed both films and TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s. And she wasn’t afraid of focusing her camera lens on controversial issues.

So far very few women have been nominated for directing a feature film. These women include Lina Wertmuller, for the Italian language film Seven Beauties (1975), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), winner Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009).

The following a just a few notable female film directors and their work.

Silent Era to 1930-Alice Guy Blaché 

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Parisian-born Alice Guy Blaché (1875-1968) was the first female film director in the history of film making. She was also the first director, male or female, to bring narrative film to the silver screen. From 1896 to 1920 Ms. Guy Blaché directed over 400 films. She made her first full length film, The Life of Christ, in 1906. The Life of Christ was a big budget epic that included 300 extras. That same year, her film La Fee Printemps (The Spring Fairy) was one of the first films to be shot in color. In fact, many of her films used a great deal of the best special effects of that time period.

Ms. Guy Blaché was the first woman to own and run her own film studio, the Solax Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. After Solax stopped producing films, Ms. Guy Blaché went to work for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service.

By the early 1920s, Ms. Guy Blaché stopped making movies, but that did not stop her from giving lectures on film making. She was pretty much forgotten by film historians until she published her memoirs in 1976.

Some other films by Ms. Guy Blaché:

The Cabbage Fairy (1896)

The Dangers of Alcohol (1899)

A Fool and His Money (1912)

A House Divided (1913)

Dream Woman (1914)

The Divorcee (1919)

Tarnished Reputations (1920)

1930 to 1950-Dorothy Arzner

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Born in California, Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) directed seventeen films between 1927 and 1943. She was the only female director to work with the major actresses of her day, including Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn. In fact, Ms. Arzner’s 1933 film, Christopher Strong, was the first film to bring the legendary Katharine Hepburn to public awareness.

Though Ms. Arzner initially wanted to work as a doctor, she soon turned her ambitions to movies. She began her career with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the parent company of Paramount. After starting out as a typist, Ms. Arzner soon climbed the ranks to screenwriter, and then editor. One of the most famous films she edited was Rudoph Valentino’s Blood and Sand. She was able to leverage this work into directing her first features Fashions for Women and Get Your Man in 1927.

Ms. Arzner’s success as a director lead her to direct one of the first “talkies,” The Wild Party featuring “It Girl” Clara Bow. And between 1927 and 1932, she made eleven features for Paramount until striking out on her own as an independent film director.

As a director, Ms. Arzner tackled many thorny topics including working women and female independence. Her work was often seen as melodramatic, but did reflect on women’s roles both in the home and outside in ways that films directed by men did not.

Ms. Arzner stopped directing movies in 1943. However, she did direct commercials for Pepsi and taught filmmaking at UCLA in the 1960s. And there are reports that director Todd Haynes wants to do biographic on Ms. Arzner’s life and how she affected motion pictures.

Some other films directed by Ms. Arzner:

Anybody’s Woman (1930)

Working Girls (1931)

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Craig’s Wife (1936)

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

First Comes Courage (1943)

1950 to 1970-Ida Lupino

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Ida Lupino (1918-1995) was born in London and was encouraged by her parents to enter show business. She got her start as an actress. She mainly played tough yet sympathetic characters, and jokingly referred to herself as a “poor man’s Bette Davis.” Some of Ms. Lupino’s most notable roles were in the movies Drive by Night and High Sierra. In 1947, she left the studio system to become a freelance actress. Soon after Ms. Lupino began to focus her talents to behind the camera. Her first directing job came about when Elmer Clifton fell ill during the filming Not Wanted. Not only did Ms. Lupino end up directing the movie, she also shared writing credit.

Not content to direct what we’d call “chick flicks,” Ms. Lupino often directed tough action films. Her films also focused on controversial themes like rape, unwed motherhood and bigamy. She had her own production company and often directed films with no big name stars or huge monetary support from the studios. Her films were the precursor of independent cinema.

In the 1950s Ms. Lupino began to direct TV shows, including The Fugitive, Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. She was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone. In the 1970s, Ms. Lupino returned to acting in small roles. Of women working behind the scenes, she claimed, “I’d love to see more women working as directors and producers. Today it’s almost impossible to do it unless you are an actress or writer with power…I wouldn’t hesitate right this minute to hire a talented woman if the subject matter was right.”

Some other films directed by Ida Lupino:

Outrage (1950)

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1950)

The Bigamist (1953)

The Hitchhiker (1953)

The Trouble With Angels (1996)

1970 to the Present-Kathryn Bigelow

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Born in 1951 in San Carlos, California, Kathryn Bigelow started her career out as an artist. She worked as a painter, and later got her Master’s degree in film at Columbia where she studied mainly film theory and criticism. She worked briefly as a professor until turning to film directing.

Bigelow’s first film was a 20-minute short called The Set Up. In this film two men fight each other while two others provided voice commentary about the images they are watching. Bigelow’s first full-length feature was a biker movie The Loveless (1982), which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery.

Bigelow has directed both film and TV. Some of her television credits include the notable drama Homicide: Life on the Streets (1997-1998) and the mini-series Wild Palms (1993). Probably one of the most popular of her movies is the action-packed Point Break (1991) starring Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze.

Bigelow has won widespread critical acclaim for the Oscar-nominated The Hurt Locker, a movie set in Iraq about bomb diffusers. Made on a minuscule budget with mostly unknown actors, Bigelow won a much deserved best directing Oscar on March 7th, 2010.

Bigelow has been considered an anomaly of female directors because her movies often focus on action and suspense, not romance and relationships like the films of the late Nora Ephron or Nancy Myers.

Other films by Kathryn Bigelow:

Near Dark (1987)

Blue Steel (1990)

Strange Days (1995)

The Weight of Water (2000)

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Women continue to make in-roads as film directors. A few names are Allison Anders (Grace of My Heart), Lone Sherfig (An Education), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) and Mira Nair (The Namesake), Amma Assante  (the soon-to-be-release Where Hands Touch), Oscar-winning documentary film maker Caroline Waterlow (OJ in America) and the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Julia and Julie). And Ava DuVernay directed the Oscar-nominated Selma (2014) but wasn’t nominated for a best director Oscar, which didn’t sit well with a lot of people including me.

And just like Ida Lupino and Penny Marshall, actresses are also sitting in the director’s chair. A few of these include Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Polley, Julie Delpy, Drew Barrymore, Lena Dunham, and the late Adrienne Shelly.

There are countless women now directing films that I couldn’t possibly name them all, but I look forward to learning their names and about their work.

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Retro Reels: The Women (1939)

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Several years ago the remake of the movie classic The Women was released. Featuring an all-star cast, including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes and Candace Bergen, this version of the original The Women was a modern take on friendship and frenemies, and love and betrayal among the wealthy socialites of Manhattan. It took 15 years for the remake of The Women to make it to the silver screen. Apparently, from some of the scathing reviews this version received, perhaps Hollywood should have waited another 15 years. A.O. Scott from the New York Times called it, “One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.” Ouch.

However, I highly recommend the 1939 original. Based on the 1936 play by Renaissance woman, Clare Boothe Luce, The Women was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, and directed by the famous “women’s director” George Cukor. Like the 2008 remake, this version of The Women also boasted an all-star cast, including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Paulette Goddard.

Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, a seemingly happy wife and mother of husband Stephen and daughter, Little Mary. At a posh salon where Mary and her friends frequent, Mary’s friend and cousin, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) learns some hot gossip. Mary’s husband is having an affair with a mankiller shopgirl named Crystal Allen played by Joan Crawford (who else?).

Well, what’s the good of gossip if it can’t be shared? Sylvia tells this gossip to Mary’s friends. They conspire to set Mary up with the manicurist who told Sylvia the sleazy news. While at this appointment, Mary hears the rumor that her husband and Crystal are having an affair. Though she tries to ignore this gossip, she can’t help but be suspicious. After all, Stephen has been working a lot of late nights.

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After a trip to Bermuda to clear her head, Mary goes to a fashion show. While at the show, Mary learns Crystal is there. She finds Crystal in a dressing room trying on some of the clothing from the fashion show. Mary confronts Crystal about the affair. Instead of denying Mary’s charges, Crystal admits to the affair. She also tells Mary that Stephen is going to divorce her, and Crystal will soon be the next Mrs. Stephen Haines.

Not surprisingly, Mary is absolutely heartbroken. This horrifying news has legs, and before long Sylvia spills the beans to a local gossip columnist turning Mary’s marital drama into a tabloid scandal. Mary may be heartbroken but she’s not willing to be the fool in her husband’s folly. Mary decides to leave Stephen and she goes to Reno to obtain a quickie divorce.

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While on a train to Reno, Mary befriends some women also on the way to Reno for quickie divorces. Among Mary’s new BFFs are Countess DeLave (Mary Boland) and former chorus girl Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard). And to Mary’s delight, she also runs into her good friend Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine).

Once Mary and her friends get to Reno they set up shop at a ranch and wait for their divorces to be finalized. The owner of the ranch, Lucy (Marjorie Main) is a bit rough around the edges, but she offers plenty of sage advice to the ladies. They all discuss life, love and marriage, both the good and the bad. The Countess even gets her groove back with a local cowboy named Buck Winston and plans to marry him once she’s a free woman.

Other secrets come out at the ranch. Miriam admits to an affair with Sylvia Fowler’s husband, yep, Mary’s backstabbing frenemy, and Miriam is going to marry Sylvia’s husband after she leaves Reno. Peggy reveals she is pregnant and the other women convince her to patch things up with her husband.

Before long Sylvia turns up in Reno, her husband leaving her for Miriam. Sylvia and Miriam meet up and the fur flies, with Mary breaking up the fight. Miriam tries to convince Mary to stall her divorce and go back to Stephen. Alas, it’s too late. Stephen soon calls Mary and tells her that he and Crystal have become husband and wife.

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It is two years later, and Crystal is Mrs. Stephen Haines. However, once an adulterous slut, always an adulterous slut. Crystal is having an affair with Buck Winston who is now married to Countess DeLave (still with me?). Little Mary finds out about her stepmother’s trampy ways when she overhears Crystal talking on the phone with Buck. And that scheming Sylvia Fowler is now friends with Crystal. Once she finds out Crystal is cheating on Stephen with Buck, she figures this is some more gossip she can use in the near future.

At the same time, Mary is throwing a big bash to celebrate the Countess and Buck’s anniversary. After the bash is over, Mary is asked to go to another party by the Countess, Miriam and Peggy. But Mary is beat and decides she’ll stay home. While talking to her daughter, Little Mary, Mary learns that Stephen isn’t happily married to Crystal and Crystal is having an affair with Buck. Well, who can stay home after hearing this little tidbit? Mary dresses herself to the nines, heads off the party and is determined to get the truth out and Stephen back from Crystal’s clutches.

At the party, Mary gathers all the women into the ladies’ room. Taking no prisoners, Mary reveals to the Countess that Buck is sleeping with Crystal. She tells Crystal that Stephen is fed up with her. Mary manages to make Sylvia and Crystal enemies during this, and a local gossip columnist hears the women fight with each other. However, Crystal doesn’t care for Stephen anymore and informs Mary that she can have him. After all, Buck, who is now a successful radio star, can support her with his riches. Not so fast, the Countess claims. All of Buck’s success is due to the Countess’ money, and without it, he’s nothing. After learning this, Crystal realizes she needs to go to Reno to procure her own quickie divorce, and then it’s back to the perfume counter. Ultimately, our heroine Mary is victorious and she and Stephen reconcile and heal their broken family.

As I mentioned, the original version of The Women came out in 1939, one of the best years in the history of film. Though hugely successful both critically and commercially, it never garnered any Oscar nominations. The Women took a risk by having an all-female cast and making the men tertiary characters. And it wasn’t afraid to take a scathing look at Manhattan’s upper crust. The Women is filmed in black and white but it has a splendid fashion show by top Hollywood designer Adrian filmed in color for Turner Classic Movies. The dialogue, considered quite shocking at the time, is whipsmart and delightfully catty, and probably influenced a great deal of female focused movies and TV shows. Crystal’s infamous line, “There is a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society…outside of a kennel” could easily be used in Absolutely Fabulous, Sex and the City or more current televised lady fare like Girls or Broad City.

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The Women is a cinematic good time, and a classic not to missed. Grab your best girlfriends, put on your silk robes and marabou trimmed slippers, break open a bottle of bubbly and bond over The Women.