It is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate gender equality and women’s rights. And, while it is a sad thing that we need a special day set aside for this in the first place, when we look at the film industry, the advancements made seem painfully small and slow. According to one of the latest reports by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, only 7% of the top 250 grossing films had female directors.
To celebrate International Women’s Day – and with the hope of doing our bit towards changing these numbers – here at Critics Associated we will, throughout this week, be publishing a number of features concerning women in film past, present and future. We start this coverage by taking a look back at the female directors that made waves in cinema history. We will look at the “first”s, the “only”s and various other trailblazers in the complex history of women in the director’s chair. And while this is far from being a definitive list, it hopes to inform you and maybe even inspire a discussion and further research…
1. Alice Guy-Blaché (1872 – 1968): I believe in starting things properly – in this case, at the beginning. Although largely unknown today, Guy-Blaché was, aged 23, the first ever female director. Born in Paris, she started her career in Gaumont pictures where she was initially working as a secretary. She had a career that span 24 years and included some of the first examples of narrative film and of early special effects. Later in life she also became the first (and so far only) woman to own and run her own studio plant (The Solax Company, 1910 – 1914). Although she stopped making films in 1922, following a divorce, she gave lectures on films and wrote novels from film scripts all her life and was given the Legin D’Honneur by the French Government in 1953.
2. Leni Riefensthal (1902 – 2003) : As abhorrent as the politics of Riefensthal’s cinematic output may be, few critics have been able to dispute the technical brilliance of her work. Riefensthal started her show business career as an interpretative dancer and actress in ‘20s Germany. She had a successful career and many fans (including one Adolf Hitler) but became interested in directing in the late ‘20s. She directed her first feature, The Blue Light, in 1932. Reportedly she read Hitler’s Mein Kampf during the filming and was so impressed that she actually requested an audience with Hitler himself after his coming to power in 1933. This was the start of Riefensthal’s work with the Nazis, resulting in some of the most talked about propaganda films of our times, the Nuremberg Trilogy and Olympia. The films display a very strong understanding of cinematography and pioneered some of the techniques still used in propaganda films and the documentary genre today. Post World War 2, her filmmaking career was ultimately destroyed because of her association with the Nazi party, but if there is one thing most people can agree on, it is that she was one of the great female directors of her time.
3. Dorothy Arzner (1900 – 1979): As we have mentioned in the introduction to this article, the numbers of female directors are pretty grim these days. But it is important to stop and reflect that we have actually come a small way since the beginning of filmmaking as an art form. For if the situation seems bad today, if we turn the clocks back to what we know as the “Hollywood’s Golden Age”, the 1930s and ‘40s, for a big chunk of that time there was one single, solitary woman director of note working in the industry – and that was Dorothy Arzner. Arzner was openly lesbian and lived with her partner Marion Morgan from 1930 to Morgan’s death in 1971. The themes she undertook in her work were deemed far too provocative for the era as they encompassed topics such as extra-marital sex and pregnancy, prostitution and relationships that crossed class boundaries. A pioneer of sound usage in film, she became the only woman member of the Directors Guild of America after its establishment in 1933, and was the only woman member for many years. She left Hollywood in 1943 to never return, and it is speculated that the post-war return to conservative values may have had something to do with her work falling from favor.
4. Ida Lupino (1918 – 1995): Ida Lupino was one of the only actresses who wrote, produced and directed her own projects in one of the most male-dominated periods of the Hollywood studio system. London born Ida Lupino made her first film appearance in 1931, after training as an actress. She quickly attracted the attention of Warner Brothers who ultimately contracted her in the early 40’s. Despite her great success as an actress, Lupino habitually turned down parts which lead to her spending a lot of time on suspension. It was during these periods that she became interested in directing, an interest that would ultimately lead to her striking out with her husband to form their own independent company, The Filmakers (sic). Her big break as a director came in 1949, when Elmer Clifton had a heart attack 72 hours before principal photography was due to begin on Not Wanted, a script she had co-written and co-produced. Lupino stepped in to the director’s chair. This was the beginning of a canon of work that would be marked with the consistencies of a true auteur. She was not afraid to explore topics such as sexuality, independence and the consequences thereof. She experimented with genres as well as becoming the first woman to direct a film noir with The Hitch Hiker (1953). Lupino retired aged 60, but remained a prolific director and actress throughout this period.
5. Agnes Varda (born 1928): Varda is the only woman director to be officially part of the French New Wave Movement, and her films were among the first of the movement. Her work is viewed by and large majority as feminist, mainly because of her use of female protagonists and use of a female cinematic voice. Funding her own production company, and thus in control of all aspects of the filmmaking process, Varda made films that we know as classics today, such as Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond. All through her career Varda’s work – often the documentary style – displays a constant curiosity with the world and a constant will to experiment with styles and messages. At the age of 86, she has currently moved on to a new chapter in her career, deciding to work more as a visual artist, in fact a natural progression of her work as she originally trained as a photographer. Her spirit and willingness to explore, by themselves, should be an inspiration to artists of all genders.
6. Lina Wertmuller (born 1928): We all remember the historical moment when, in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first female director to win the Oscar for Best Director. Her being nominated was an achievement in itself as in the history of the Oscars so far a grand total of four women have ever been nominated for this prize. So today would be a good day to stop and take a look at the first woman to first cross the gender line and get the honour of being recognised by the Academy, Lina Wertmuller. After working as an actress and director in theatre during her early life, Wertmuller got into filmmaking through her acquaintance with Marcello Mastroianni. He would ultimately introduce her to Frederico Fellini who would offer her the position of assistant director on his iconic film 8 ½ . The following year saw Wertmuller’s directorial debut with The Lizards. Her work throughout the seventies is characterized by satirical humour based on Italian comedy, used for political messages that she is not afraid to hand over to her openly anarchist or feminist characters. Her nomination for an Oscar for Best Director came in 1975, with her film Seven Beauties, part of a series of four films she made in collaboration with actor Giancarlo Giannini. While Wertmuller continues to be an active filmmaker to this day, her later work did not receive the critical acclaim of her earlier films.
7. Jane Campion (born 1954) : One director who has undoubtedly united critics in praise since her appearance on the filmmaking scene is Jane Campion. The second daughter of an acting family in New Zealand, Campion initially rejected acting and filmmaking and worked as a painter, inspired heavily by Frida Kahlo and sculptor Joseph Bueys. She would ultimately move into filmmaking and shoot straight to critical acclaim with her first short film Peel ,winning the Short Film Palme d’Or at the Cannes film Festival in 1986. She would continue to expand into feature films and television over the next decade before making cinematic history with her film The Piano, for which she became not only the first woman to receive the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but the second woman in history to be nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Director. Campion’s works often gravitate around gender politics, although in recent interviews Campion has mentioned she is no longer “angry” about male chauvinism but that she just “knows it is around”. In 2013, she became one of only ten women in the festivals history to head the jury in the main competition for the Cannes Film Festival. No longer angry she may be, but it looks as if she has a few more taboos to mess with before she is done!
8. Lone Scherfig (born 1959) : The Danish film director began her career working on advertisements and television, making her first feature film, Kaj’s Fodelstag, in 1990. While she continued directing and working on various radio shows, her international breakthrough didn’t come until 2000, when she became one of the only women involved in the Dogme 95 movement and made Italian For Beginners. Since then, Scherfig has kept the critics and audiences busy with films such as multiple Oscar nominee An Education (2009) and more recently The Riot Club (2014). However it was late last year that Scherfig made film history by becoming the first woman in the history of BAFTA to deliver the prestigious David Lean lecture. Described by the BAFTA Film Committee Chair Nik powell as a “torchbearer for women directors everywhere”, Scherfig is already a classic among filmmakers and no doubt one to watch in years to come.
9. Kathryn Bigelow (born 1951) : Unless you have been living under a stone for the last 4 – 5 years, you know why Kathryn Bigelow has made it to our list of pioneers. Over the years, Bigelow has proved, more than once, that she can take on subject matters and genres usually seen as “men’s films” and make both commercial and cinematic successes of them. Leading up to 2010, Bigelow was already a household name. Her trilogy of action films – Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days – not only established her in the industry with their commercial success, but also their look and rethinking of the conventions of the action genre had established Bigelow as an auteur. The first ripple of excitement came when Bigelow became the first woman to win the award for Best Director at the DGA Awards with her film The Hurt Locker, the story of a maverick sergeant newly assigned to a bomb squad during the Iraq war. Not only was this a historical moment in its own right, it was a clear indicator of what was to come – historically, only six directors who had won the top prize at the DGAs had failed to go on and win an Oscar since 1948. Soon afterwards the taboo of the Oscar for Best Director had finally been broken, and Kathryn Bigelow had become the first woman to win the coveted award. Bigelow continued to work on the same theme with her next film Zero Dark Thirty, that dramatised American efforts to capture Osama Bin Laden but drew criticism for its perceived pro-torture stance.
10. Ava DuVernay (born 1972): Without shadow of a doubt, one of the most discussed film of the awards season this year was Ava DuVernay’s Selma. It opened discussions about racism and gender stereotyping in the film industry and the fact that director Ava DuVernay was not nominated for Best Director was considered a major snub. DuVernay, however, was no stranger to taboos relating to gender and race – not least because she has been breaking a good number of them down over the years. Initially DuVernay had a successful career running marketing campaigns for films as a publicist. The turn finally came to start attracting attention in her own right when she made her directorial debut with feature documentary This Is The Life, a history of LA’s Good Life Café arts movement. She took her first step into film history in 2012, with her second feature film Middle of Nowhere, when she became the first African-American woman to win the prize for Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival. Earlier in 2014, DuVernay became the first African-American woman director to be nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes for her work in Selma. Even though the film industry has some distance to go when it comes to complete gender and racial equality, it is good to see directors like DuVernay overcoming two taboos in one go.