Women on the sidelines
Why is Hollywood so short on female directors?
Last Updated: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 | 9:52 AM ET
By Martin Morrow, CBC News
Kathryn Bigelow’s nomination for best director at this year’s Academy Awards is both a wonderful occasion and a sad one. It’s wonderful that Bigelow’s intense Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker has been recognized by Hollywood. At the same time, it’s sad that Bigelow is only the fourth woman ever to be nominated for the directing Oscar.
It’s sad that Kathryn Bigelow is only the fourth woman ever to be nominated for the directing Oscar.
It’s a stunning comment on Hollywood’s glass ceiling, especially at a time when female directors are more prominent than ever. As Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir recently pointed out, this year’s Sundance festival — the Mecca of indie film — was swimming in estrogen. Canada’s film scene boasts such successful directors as Deepa Mehta, Sarah Polley, Mary Harron, Kari Skogland and Patricia Rozema. Europe has a tradition of female auteurs. Hollywood, however, remains a boys' club. And Bigelow’s nomination suggests you have to act like a boy to get in.
It’s hard not to reach that conclusion when you realize that two other excellent films of the past year – Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Lone Scherfig’s An Education – were helmed by women, yet neither director made the nomination list. Is it because they’re considered “women’s pictures,” to use that ancient Hollywood term for emotion-laden movies tailored to appeal to a female audience? If, like Bigelow, they’d made a guy flick, a gritty, grunt’s-eye-view of war with bloody action sequences, would they have stood a better chance? Are the lads who run America’s movie factory more inclined to appreciate The Hurt Locker’s knuckle-gnawing bomb-disposal scenes than Bright Star’s lyrical episodes with butterflies?
Actually, so-called women’s pictures and their directors have won Oscars – when directed by men. James L. Brooks took home the statuettes in 1984 with his Grade-A weepie Terms of Endearment. Stolid journeyman Ron Howard picked up his directing Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, a “women’s” movie with a male hero.
When a woman pilots the same kind of project, she inevitably gets snubbed. In 1987, Randa Haines’s Children of a Lesser God received nominations in five major categories, including best picture, but Haines herself was overlooked in the directing category; same goes for Barbra Streisand and her 1992 best-picture contender, The Prince of Tides. To get nominated, it seems a female director has to smash through the genres and do something extraordinary – something her male peers simply can’t ignore.
The first woman to make the short list was the iconoclastic Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller, in 1976, for her audacious black comedy Seven Beauties. At the time, Wertmuller was the most provocative director in a decade known for provocateurs, and her wicked dismantling of the macho ego in films like Seven Beauties and Swept Away… must’ve scared her male colleagues into nominating her.
A scene from Seven Beauties (1976), directed by Lina Wertmuller
New Zealander Campion followed in 1993 with her international breakthrough, The Piano. A turbulent 19th-century romance, it turned the tables on standard movie sexism by objectifying a naked Harvey Keitel. In 2003, the Academy finally picked a director with a U.S. passport, Sofia Coppola, for her wry, wise comedy Lost in Translation, in which a melancholic Bill Murray gave one of his best performances.
Note that only one of those women is an American working within the Hollywood system. For an industry celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, it’s shocking – nay, depressing – how little progress it has made in cultivating female directors. In 1916, a profile of silent-screen director Cleo Madison in the magazine Moving Picture Stories observed that, in the burgeoning art form, “There are not as many directresses as directors, but in reputation and accomplishment they stand just as high.” Along with Madison, they included such trailblazers as Lois Weber – Universal Studios’ highest-paid director in 1916 – and Canadian-born Nell Shipman, a multi-threat who also wrote, acted, produced and even trained the animals for her popular outdoor adventure films.
Cut to the present and a profile of director Nancy Meyers in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine. There, John Burnham, an executive with L.A.’s powerful ICM agency, is quoted as saying, “There are about four women directors in the business, only two of whom are working.” Burnham exaggerates, but the point is taken. Even the ones who are working and bringing in millions at the box office – like Meyers (It’s Complicated), Nora Ephron (Julie & Julia) and Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight ) – don’t get much respect come awards time. (Ephron and Meyers have been up for screenwriting Oscars in the past, which is the default category that female writer-directors usually find themselves in.)Dorothy Arzner (left) was the only woman directing films for the Hollywood studios in the 1930s. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Looking back over the decades, you find the Hollywood “directress” is always a rare creature. By the start of the talkies, when Hollywood had evolved from a gang of mavericks into a major industry, she had become all but extinct. In the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner, a lesbian who affected a masculine appearance, was the only woman directing for the studios. In the early 1950s, bored leading lady Ida Lupino moved behind the camera and shot a string of B-movies, including a classic hardboiled film noir, The Hitch-Hiker, with an all-male cast.
During the heady feminist days of the 1970s, comedienne-turned-director Elaine May was briefly Hollywood’s brightest hope for gender parity. With her acerbic anti-rom-com, The Heartbreak Kid – one of the most original comedies of the ’70s – she seemed poised to be the female answer to Woody Allen. Then she directed the infamous Ishtar (1987) and earned a lifetime blacklist from the director’s chair.
Penny Marshall took the baton from May in the 1980s and ran much further. Like husband Rob Reiner, she parlayed stardom on a hit TV sitcom into a career directing high-grossing mainstream movies. Even though she helmed well-liked comedies like Big, A League of Their Own and the 1991 best-picture nominee Awakenings, Marshall hasn’t directed a feature film in 10 years.
The stalled or sporadic career is a recurring theme with female directors. Amy Heckerling gave us a pair of iconic teen flicks, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and the clever Jane-Austen-for-valley-girls comedy Clueless (1995), but her resumé since then has been underwhelming. Actress Diane Keaton made a promising debut as a feature-film director with the charming Unstrung Heroes (1995), but followed it up five years later with the lukewarm Hanging Up. Since then, she’s gone back to playing moms.
There are no doubt personal reasons why each of these directors has faltered, but the repeated pattern suggests there’s something in the Hollywood machine that keeps successful women filmmakers from emulating the lengthy careers of their male counterparts.Penny Marshall (right), on the set of the 1994 film Renaissance Man, has directed several big box-office hits. (Getty Images)
Not surprisingly, many of the female directors working in the mainstream now launched their careers outside the U.S. To Campion and Denmark’s Scherfig, add another Dane, Susanne Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire), India’s Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair), Australia’s Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda) and Poland’s Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden, Washington Square), to name a few.
The most ambitious U.S. directors, meanwhile, are shooting their features in the indie sector or on the fringes of Hollywood. Women like Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss), Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing) and theatre wizard Julie Taymor (Across the Universe). They’ve received no recognition from the Academy as directors, even though their work has attracted Oscar attention in other categories.
That could change if Bigelow grabs this year’s directing award. She’s going into Sunday’s ceremony heavily favoured to win – although that’s partly a backlash against her main competitor, hubristic ex-husband James Cameron and his film Avatar. In their final days, the 2010 Oscars are in danger of being reduced to a dirty war between two guy flicks.
If Bigelow emerges triumphant, many will be celebrating it as a significant step forward for female filmmakers. Some of us, however, will find the victory bittersweet. It will only reinforce a message that many women in the corporate world already know: to succeed in this business, you’ve got to direct like a man.
The 2010 Academy Awards air March 7.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.
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