Too often, women occupy under-appreciated roles in Hollywood, bolstering a system that either takes them for granted or doesn’t celebrate them like it should. The statistics continue to be dismal, as reported in Women and Hollywood’s write-up, which reminds us that women directed only 4.7 percent of studio films between 2009 and 2013. Essential artists like film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and screenwriter/director Elaine May are just a few of the women who deserve your attention — and there are many female filmmakers in the history books who have seemingly been forgotten. In time for Thanksgiving, please enjoy this list of 50 female filmmaking artists we’re thankful for. Feel free to mention your own favorites, below.
A former art model, Mabel Normand was one of the first female screenwriters, producers, and directors — but her connection to several Hollywood scandals buried her career achievements. With 218 film credits to her name (and many uncredited), Normand was a Keystone Studios and Samuel Goldwyn studio star who delivered cinema’s first cream pie to the face of frequent co-star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and aided the career of co-star Charlie Chaplin by acting as a silent mentor, championing him to producers and later directing him. Her name was frequently used in the titles of movies, promoting her star power. Normand eventually opened up her own movie and production studio, Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. The previously lost Won in a Closet (1914) was the first film Normand directed and starred in — and hardly the last.
One of the most prolific screenwriters of the 20th century, Frances Marion started her career as model, commercial, artist, and war correspondent. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked side by side with pioneering director Lois Weber (as an actress and writing assistant) and became the official scripter of silent star Mary Pickford — creating some of the actress’ most defining roles (in Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and 1917’s The Little Princess). Marion won two Academy Awards for her writing on The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931). Her work was honored in Cari Beauchamp’s biography Without Lying Down and the companion documentary, narrated by Uma Thurman.
Considered the first female director, French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché started in the industry as a secretary for engineer and inventor Léon Gaumont’s photography company in 1896. Gaumont soon created the first and oldest continuously operating film company in the world, the Gaumont Film Company, where Guy’s career in cinema took off. She did it all: writer, producer, cinematographer, director (she has 430 credits), and actress. Guy formed the Solax Company with her husband Herbert Blaché in 1910, which was the largest studio in America before the growth of Hollywood.
They called her “The General.” No-nonsense filmmaker Elvira Notari was Italy’s first and most prolific director, and is often cited as an inspiration to the neorealist movement during Italian cinema’s golden years, as she often used non-professional actors and frequently shot on the streets instead of in the studio. She earned her reputation as the co-founder and primary director of the Dora Film Company in Naples (named after her daughter), where her husband worked as the cameraman and their son starred in many of the movies.
The English actress and filmmaker was born into show business, but she started her career from the ground up — often playing tough, streetwise woman. Those parts found her starring alongside some of the biggest names in the industry at that time, including Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield. In the 1940s she started to bristle against being typecast, turning down roles, taking issue with the scripts. Her defiance got her suspended from her contract several times, but the time away catalyzed an interest in stepping behind the camera. She started directing, writing, and producing, and formed an independent production company, “The Filmakers.” Lupino confronted social issues of interest to women in her movies, such as rape (1950’s Outrage). And she became the first woman to direct a noir (1953’s The Hitch-Hiker). “Not only did Lupino take control of production, direction and screenplay, but each of her movies addresses the brutal repercussions of sexuality, independence and dependence,” Carrie Rickey wrote in the Village Voice.
One of the only female filmmakers in the field who worked from the silent period through the 1940s — and certainly one of the only lesbians. She became famous for adopting a masculine haircut and attire at the height of her career. It’s said that this was possibly a defense against the rampant chauvinism of the era. Much of the press surrounding Arzner focused on these qualities. Part of this fascination was due to her history prior to moviemaking. She had been a pre-med student and an ambulance driver during World War I (she would return to the military in the ‘40s to direct training films for the Women’s Army Corps). Films like Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933) and 1940’s Dance Girl Dance have been examined for their lesbian and feminist subtext. Arzner became the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America in 1936.
Known as the first movie star, Canadian-born Florence Lawrence appeared in nearly 300 films. She was nicknamed “The Biograph Girl” and “The Girl of a Thousand Faces.” Bright Lights Film Journal writes:
Lawrence had become a movie star for many reasons — gentleness, grace, that silky hair, and what Laemmle assessed as “sensational bubbies”— but The Broken Oath tapped into what may have been the most powerful part of her appeal. In the film, which has no great artistic pretension but does enjoy a healthy undercurrent of sexual force, Lawrence more than once takes the opportunity to stare long and hard into her co-star’s eyes, her own gaze raging with love and kindness. She is a noble woman whose strength and grace are mirrored in her every movement. It’s the sort of intense, if slightly histrionic performance that might draw Oscar nominations today but that also, perhaps, bespoke a certain inner fragility that over time would be fully exploited by a succession of hard-nosed studio bosses and unsuitable husbands, making her a kind of prototype Marilyn Monroe.
Actress Mary Pickford, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” was one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. From theater to screen, Pickford’s naturalistic acting style, a departure from the melodramatic antics of her fellow co-stars during the silent era, made her in-demand. A writer, director, producer (of the Mary Pickford Corporation), and business woman, Pickford founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund to help actors in need at the end of World War I. At only 27 years old, she co-founded the first independent film distribution company, United Artists, with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and her soon-to-be husband Douglas Fairbanks. Pickford is also one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
From the indispensable Woman Film Pioneers Project:
The existence of a figure like Marion E. Wong challenges the received narrative of American film industry history in which Anglo-American men started the majority of the first companies and the participation of Asians was limited to providing exoticism on screen as actors or extras. If we were to look to the New York Times as a definitive source, we might conclude that only one Chinese-American company existed in the silent era and that that company was started in 1922 by James B. Leong. According to the Times, Leong financed the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company in order to produce “picture-plays of, by, and for the Chinese.” However, five years before and with the same goal in mind, a young Chinese-American woman had started the Mandarin Film Company in Oakland, California. We know now that she was not only president of the company, but also screenwriter, director, and costume designer. Until recently, however, the name Marion E. Wong was known to scholars only from a small note in the back pages of a 1917 issue of the Moving Picture World. The article mentions the Mandarin Film Company and heralds their first multiple-reel feature film, The Curse of the Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with West (1916), as the first and only film made by an all-Chinese cast and an all-Chinese company.
Maria P. Williams
From Jet on Missouri’s Maria P. Williams, the first African-American producer (1923’s Flames of Wrath):
Little is known about her, but Maria P. Williams is credited with being one of the first African-American filmmakers. The film The Flames of Wrath was released in 1923 through the Western Film Producing Company and Booking Exchange owned by her and husband, Jesse L. Williams. Only one frame of the film is known to exist and is housed at the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection in the Young Research Library at the University of California Los Angeles.
Information on the first African-American female director, Tressie Souders, is scarce — the lack of even a photo, apparently, is startling. The Women Film Pioneers Project writes:
It was in 1922 that the Black press named the filmmaker Tressie Souders the first African American woman director. Her film, A Woman’s Error (1922), was distributed by the Afro-American Film Exhibitors’ Company based in Kansas City, Missouri. The company seems to have handled only two titles about African Americans, one of them A Woman’s Error. To date, the one source that has led scholars to Souders and her film is Henry T. Sampson’s Blacks in Black and White. Sampson’s reference book mentions that this obscure figure not only directed but produced and wrote the screenplay for A Woman’s Error. Although in this source her surname appears as Saunders, it is likely that this is the same woman covered in the black press from this era. In her dissertation, “Sisters of Cinema,” Yvonne Welbon quotes The Billboard which refers proudly in their review of A Woman’s Error to “the first of its kind to be produced by a young woman of our race” and, most importantly, they see it as a “picture true to Negro life.”
Mexico City’s premier theater, Cine Odeón, run by exhibitor Adelina Barrasa, opened in 1922, with seating for almost 3,000 patrons. It was rare for a woman to manage an operation like this, especially one of this size. Laura Isabel Serna writes:
Cinemas like the Odeón might seem restrained and ordinary when compared to the elaborate picture palaces being built in the United States, but its vaguely art deco motifs, paned windows, imposing height (relative to buildings from the colonial era), row of exterior electric lights, and multiple photographic displays lining the entryway to the box office all signaled modernity in the Mexican context.
Jennie Louise VanDerZee
Jane (“Jennie”) Louise VanDerZee (sometimes “Van Der Zee”) was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1884, the eldest of six children of John and Susan Brister VanDerZee. Before moving to Lenox, her mother and father had been butler and maid in the New York household of former president Ulysses S. Grant. Jennie, her father, and two of her brothers, including James Augustus, the future Harlem Renaissance photographer, moved to New York early in the 20th century where she and James both began careers in music and photography — Jennie branching out into art and early filmmaking. In 1910 she married inventor and business entrepreneur Ernest Touissant (sometimes “Toussaint”) Welcome. The same year, in the first issue of the NAACP journal, The Crisis, she published a full-page advertisement for the “Touissant Conservatory of Art and Music.” As the proprietors of the Touissant Studio, Ernest and Jennie Touissant Welcome copyrighted the Charge of the Colored Divisions in August 1918, and as the Touissant Motion Picture Exchange they advertised a serial documentary about black military service in the war, Doing Their Bit. For the Touissant Pictorial Company, Mme. Touissant Welcome compiled A Pictorial History of the Negro in the Great War, 1917-1918, which featured as a frontispiece illustration her Charge of the Colored Divisions. Jennie Louise Touissant Welcome, best known today as a pioneer African American filmmaker — and as James VanDerZee’s older sister — died in 1956.
Adela Rogers St. Johns
One of the first female reporters, San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and Photoplay journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns brought celebrities to the people, delivering in-depth interviews with many of the leading stars of the ‘20s and ‘30s (she was known as the “Mother Confessor of Hollywood”) — but her career lasted more than six decades. Female film bloggers and columnists owe at least part of their career to her. From the Los Angeles Times:
As a “confidante” to the stars, Mrs. St. Johns was an integral part of early Hollywood–as her 1978 book, Love, Laughter and Tears, attests: She took Gary Cooper to buy his first dinner jacket, was proposed to by John Gilbert “in a bleak moment after he’d broken off his tremendous love affair with Garbo,” sewed up the seat of Rudolph Valentino’s pants when he ripped them on the door handle of his roadster, and counted Clark Gable among her closest friends.
From a life in poverty as a street-corner evangelist to a prolific career as one of the foremost female directors, silent-era giant Lois Weber gained a reputation as one of the most essential artists working in the industry. She gave many of the popular actresses of her time a start in their careers. “Along with D.W. Griffith, Lois Weber was the American cinema’s first genuine auteur, a filmmaker involved in all aspects of production and one who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies,” writes film historian Anthony Slide. “A gentle propagandist who became an advocate on a variety of subjects, including the abolition of capital punishment, an end to hypocrisy in American life and society, a recognition of the value of teachers, and, above all, the right of women to access birth control procedures, Lois Weber was unique in American film history. America’s first native-born woman filmmaker, Lois Weber was also the most important female director to have worked in the film industry throughout its existence, and the only one to set her own agenda as to her productions and their contents.”
We have June Mathis to thank for the swirling success of silent-film sex symbol Rudolph Valentino. He caught the screenwriter’s eye in 1919’s Eyes of Youth, and she eventually cast him in several high-profile roles. (The two are actually interred side by side at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.) Mathis was the first female executive for Metro/MGM (a role she ascended to at only 35 years old), becoming the highest-paid woman behind the scenes in Hollywood. Mathis has over 100 writing credits, but she’s best known for scripting the silent war epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (which catapulted Valentino to stardom) and Blood and Sand (edited by Dorothy Arzner).
The second wife of ‘20s sex symbol Rudolph Valentino, costume and set designer Natacha Rambova (born Winifred Shaughnessy) brought innovation, drama, and historical accuracy to her designs. She also introduced Hollywood to the Art Deco style. It’s said that famous French artist Erté admired her work. She had a reportedly controlling hold on Valentino after their scandalous marriage (he never officially divorced first wife Jean Acker), and was banned from his film sets and blamed for several pricy box office bombs. In Madam Valentino: The Lives of Natacha Rambova , author Michael Morris writes: “[Rambova is responsible for] creating the myth of the Latin Lover through her choice of scripts, elaborate costumes, and publicity campaigns for her husband.”
A leading star of the 1920s, Janet Gaynor became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Winners included 7th Heaven (1927), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), and Street Angel (1928). Her biggest role might have been in 1937’s A Star Is Born, for which she nabbed a Best Actress nomination. “Janet Gaynor’s movie-struck Esther Blodgett is not a caricature,” the New York Times wrote. Next to Jennifer Lawrence and Marlee Matlin, she is one of the youngest stars to win the Oscar.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about screenwriter and playwright Marion Fairfax are her scripts, which included several adventure stories (like 1925’s The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name), which challenged the gender binary. Women Film Pioneers Project writes:
In 1915, Fairfax turned to screenwriting at the suggestion of William deMille, brother of Cecil B. DeMille. Over the next few years, she wrote several films directed by deMille. Another frequent artistic collaborator was director-producer Marshall Nielan, with whom Fairfax shared a long friendship dating back to her earliest years on Broadway. Together, they produced several films covering a large number of genres from 1920 to 1925.
The Alla Nazimova Society is the premiere source for info on the Russian-born actress, also a screenwriter and film producer, who aided the careers of actress Jean Acker and costume/set designer Natacha Rambova:
In 1915, with the outbreak of World War I, Nazimova was offered a role in the 35-minute play War Brides. The play and Alla’s performance came to the attention of motion picture producer Lewis J. Selznick (who was also from Ukraine and whose second son, David O. Selznick, later became a notable Hollywood filmmaker, producing the film version of Gone With the Wind as well as Nazimova’s final film, Since You Went Away, in 1944.) Lewis Selznick offered Nazimova $30,000 and a $1,000 per day bonus for every day filming went over schedule. In 1917, based on the film’s success, Nazimova was offered a 5-year, $13,000 a week contract — $3,000 more than Mary Pickford — with Metro studios (working with future MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.) Her contract awarded her the right to approve director, script, and leading man. Her first film, Revelation (1918) with “husband” Charles Bryant was a success, as was its follow-up, Toys of Fate.
Margaret Booth (Mutiny on the Bounty, Camille, the original Annie), a very influential early Hollywood editor, worked alongside the biggest film moguls of her time, including D. W. Griffith and Louis B. Mayer — sometimes taking the position of assistant director. “Booth had the most pervasive influence throughout the industry. Long after Mayer left MGM in 1951, she continued as supervising editor until 1968 when she was 70 years old. Then Ray Stark hired her as his supervising editor until 1982. In many respects, the politically astute Booth became the doyenne of the film industry, one of the few crossovers between the old and new Hollywood,” writes the Motion Picture Editors Guild. Having lived through numerous changes in editing techniques and styles, in the 1960s Booth stated:
When I cut silent films, I used to count to get the rhythm. If I was cutting a march of soldiers, or anything with a beat to it, and I wanted to change the angle, I would count, ‘one-two-three-four-five-six.’ I made a beat for myself. That’s how I did it when I was cutting the film in the hand. When Moviolas came in, you could count that way too; you watched the rhythm through the glass. . . There has been no advance in technique since the silent days — except for one thing: They’re doing away with fades and dissolves. I like this much better than the old technique of lap dissolves, which slowed down the pace. There was a time when we made eight-to-ten-foot dissolves. We taught the audience for many years to recognize a time lapse through a lap dissolve. Now they’re educating them to direct cuts — a new technique brought about by a new generation of directors who can’t afford dissolves or fades. And I think it’s very good.
Writer Sarah Baker on screenwriter and novelist Anita Loos:
Anita Loss’ career was nothing short of remarkable — embracing almost every medium including film, stage, magazine serials, fiction, and memoir. She had the good fortune of always working with the best, starting with D.W. Griffith at the very outset of her career.
Griffith often called her in as a script doctor, and depended upon her to title his masterwork Intolerance (1916). But Loos’s talent went largely uncultivated until director John Emerson picked one of her scripts for a young actor named Douglas Fairbanks. The result was the highly successful His Picture in the Papers. The Loos-Emerson-Fairbanks trio was a smash, and Loos’s long, happy career was officially launched. Stars like Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, the Talmadge Sisters, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable sought her scripts. Loos always regretted she was unable to write for her two favorite stars, James Cagney and Bette Davis, as she was under contract to MGM while they were under contract to Warner Brothers. Her classic scripts include Red-Headed Woman (1932), Hold Your Man (1933), The Girl from Missouri (1934), San Francisco (1936), Saratoga (1937), and The Women (1939). But Loos’s most enduring contribution to both film and literature was her 1925 classic, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Female comedic stars during the silent era were often directed to take a coquettish approach to their style, and were cast for their looks all the same. Canadian–American vaudeville actress Marie Dressler didn’t possess the typically attractive looks of her time, but she carved her own path in comedy and demonstrated an ability to excel in more serious, dramatic roles. She won the Oscar for the George W. Hill drama Min and Bill, written by Frances Marion and Marion Jackson. Production guru Louis B. Mayer championed her in cinema, as expressed in one of his biographies:
Mayer adored Dressler: of all the stars at the studio, he liked her the best…(for) her great feistiness, good humour and charm . . . He was determined to build her as a motion picture star, seeing the warmth and strength within her that he believed the public would respond to. He was convinced that sexual attractiveness and physical beauty were not essential to stardom . . . Miss Dressler became one of his very few actor friends, and he learned from her earthy but morally elevated wisdom. He always gave her top billing.
The Women Film Pioneers Project adds:
Marie Dressler was a top star who died at the height of her popularity. . . . She remains a comedienne with a loyal following, with a foundation and museum in her birthplace of Cobourg, Ontario.
Silent-era actress Tsuru Aoki’s husband, Sessue Hayakawa, is considered the first Asian actor to find major success in the United States and Europe. But the Japanese actress actually entered the industry before her spouse and frequent co-star. She was, in fact, one of the first Asian leading ladies in the industry. Research on her behind-the-scenes contributions are scant, but she is listed as the supervising set constructor for 1920’s The Breath of the Gods, in which she also stars.
The founder of 1930s film studio Brasil Vita Filmes in Rio de Janeiro, Portuguese-born Brazilian actress and producer Carmen Santos quickly became a pioneer of South American cinema. She only directed one film, 1948’s Inconfidência Mineira, but her work as a producer firmly established her place amongst the greats. Magazine A Scena Muda wrote of Santos: “Having produced Favela dos meus amores Carmen Santos gave us our first real talking film, with beginning, middle and end, and showed us that the Brazilian people already had a great desire for a national cinema made with good taste and honesty.”
Anne V. Coates
Read an interview with the groundbreaking editor of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia:
Walter Murch: When editing started out in the early years of the century, the larger portion of editors were women, and it was with the coming of sound that men proportionately began to be more involved in editing. Do you see this, or is it different in your experience in England?
Anne V. Coates: When I first came into the industry in England, there were quite a lot of women editors. And then slowly they fell by the wayside. They didn’t seem to have the ambition, which I always thought was strange. When I left in 1986, I think there was only one other woman doing big features in England. There were quite a few doing television and commercials and things, but I can’t put my finger on why that was.
But I have a different theory about the beginning. As you rightly say, most of the editors were women, and they started by cutting negative. And I think that women were considered more patient and careful and all those sorts of things.
M: Maybe they didn’t smoke as much.
C: And they were more precise. But I was taught, or I must have heard it somewhere, that as it became a more important job, men started to get in on it. While it was just a background job, they let the women do it. But when people realized how interesting and creative editing could be, then the men elbowed the women out of the way and kind of took over.
There were some wonderful women editors who helped inspire me to go into editing in England. In a way, I’ve never looked at myself as a woman in the business. I’ve just looked at myself as an editor. I mean, I’m sure I’ve been turned down because I’m a woman, but then other times I’ve been used because they wanted a woman editor.
I just think, “I’m an editor,” and I never expected to get paid less because I was a woman. I grew up with three brothers, and I never thought I would get paid less for anything than they did.
A beautiful look at the career of the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (the 1954 film Carmen Jones) from The Hairpin:
Dorothy Dandridge was a fighter. Growing up in The Depression and making her way through Hollywood in the ‘40s, she encountered resistance — to her skin color, to her refusal to play demeaning roles — at every turn. She was assailed in the press for dating white men, and blamed herself for her husband’s philandering and her daughter’s brain damage. Nearly every societal convention was against her. And yet she managed to make a handful of gorgeous, invigorating films — films that offer a glimpse at the superstar she would have become if the studios knew what to do with with a beautiful black woman.
Can it really be that Miyoshi Umeki is the only East Asian woman to ever receive an Oscar for acting? She played a crucial role in the success of her 1957 film Sayonara (co-starring with Marlon Brando), which helped increase Hollywood’s tolerance for interracial love stories.
California-born costume designer Edith Head won eight Academy Awards for her designs, including All About Eve, Roman Holiday, and The Heiress. “What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage,” she once stated. “We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen he’s become a different person.” Browse some of her most famous creations over here.
The significance of Maya Deren’s work cannot be understated. She was the first filmmaker to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work in motion pictures in 1946. She promoted her own movies, giving lectures on avant-garde film theory across America, Cuba, and Canada. And she created a scholarship for independent filmmakers, the Creative Film Foundation. On her influential 1943 experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon, she once wrote:
Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure. I am not ashamed of it; for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well. I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating images into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother-tongue; which I understood, and thought in, but, like a mute, had never spoken.
Martin Scorsese owes much of his success to editor Thelma Schoonmaker. She’s had a hand in all of his movies, since 1980’s Raging Bull — and also edited his feature debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). Said the tireless editor of her collaborator: “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best, and I just don’t want to work for anybody else. And I hope I won’t have to, but you never know in this business, do you? I just hope we can go on until we drop.” On the art of editing, Schoonmaker told Film Comment:
There’s a great deal of mystery in film editing, and that’s because you’re not supposed to see a lot of it. You’re supposed to feel that a film has pace and rhythm and drama, but you’re not necessarily supposed to be worried about how that was accomplished. And because there is so little understanding of what really great editing is, a film that’s flashy, has a lot of quick cuts and explosions, gets particular attention. For example, with The Aviator, which I won an Oscar for—I’m sure that decision was based largely on the very elaborate plane crash that Howard Hughes had. That’s so dramatic, and you can really see the editing there, but for me, and for a lot of editors and directors, the more interesting editing is not so visible. It’s the decisions that go into building a character, a performance, for example, or how you rearrange scenes in a movie, if it’s not working properly, so that you can get a better dramatic build.
Photo credit: Vernon L. Smith
Her reputation as an electronic composer precedes her, but can you imagine what Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining would sound like without her contributions?
From Indiewire, in a review of Maple’s landmark movie, Will:
Jessie Maple is considered to be the first African American woman to direct an independent feature-length film, after working/training at Channel 13 and Third World Cinema, apprenticing as an editor on films like Shaft’s Big Score (1972), as well as handling camerawork and editing for New York’s ABC, CBS and NBC affiliate TV stations.
On the film:
Throughout the film, we see sweeping shots of Harlem pre-gentrification; vacant lots and big cars, it’s gritty but it’s Harlem. Harlem becomes a character in the film and the neighborhood interacts with Will and Little Brother. The neighborhood is embodied by the people in it. Maple captures the essence of Harlem in the early 1980s as a place that’s not entirely perfect but self sufficient and able to help each other. The entire film, with the exception of a brief scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes place in Harlem.
Her editing style is what makes Quentin Tarantino’s films dynamic. “Quentin is the same now as he was then. He’s encyclopedic, passionate, electrifying. We just clicked creatively. Editing is all about intuiting the tone of a scene and you have to chime with the director,” she wrote in 2009. “It’s a rare, intense sort of a relationship and if it ain’t broke, you wouldn’t want to fix it. We’ve built up such trust that now he gives me the dailies and I put ’em together and there’s little interference.”
Frankly, it’s still shocking that Near Dark, Strange Days, and The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow — who started her career as a painter — was the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director (in 2010!?).
She’s worked in every aspect of film from music videos to production to television movies. In 1992, Julie Dash’s stunning Daughters of the Dust — about three generations of Gullah women making the migration north from St. Helena Island in the early 20th century — became the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to be distributed in the United States in theatrical release.
“I wish there were as many female directors as there are male. Women bring a brevity to female characters, a lightness and humor among tragedy. We understand the gamut of emotions; that we can burst into tears and then laugh,” Gurinder Chadha wrote in 2010. The Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice filmmaker helped make Indian culture a little more accessible to Western audiences
Read a script like Five Easy Pieces, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, or The Shooting, and you’ll understand why screenwriter Carole Eastman deserves much praise. Film Comment has a great write-up on her career:
If I set my mind to finding Eastman in her script, she turns up everywhere. She might, for example, be having a little sport at her own expense in the character of a highbrow party guest (Irene Dailey) at the Dupea estate who goes into ecstasies over Ray’s lower-class patois (“The choice of words, ‘squashed flat,’ juxtaposed against the image of a fluffy kitten…” she coos), before Bobby jumps in and cuts her off at the knees. And perhaps there is something of Eastman in the hitch-hiker who Bobby picks up, an intense, severe, paranoiac woman (Helena Kallianiotes, a friend of both Eastman and Nicholson’s) who’s thumbing her way to Alaska. (“I saw a picture of it. Alaska is very clean. It appeared to look very white to me…”).
Legendary comedic actress (her collaborations with the late Mike Nichols are a must see), writer (The Birdcage, Primary Colors), and director (A New Leaf, Ishtar) Elaine May remains as sharp as ever. Her recent collaboration on a series of one-act plays with Ethan Coen and Woody Allen, titled Relatively Speaking, was great mainly because of her segment.
She helped pave a path for women working in genre cinema. Read our interview with John Carpenter photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who remembers working closely with producer Debra Hill.
With 1988’s Big, Penny Marshall became the first woman to direct a blockbuster that grossed more than $100 million. Women and Hollywood spoke to the director:
WaH: I talk to a lot of women directors in my work and you are the first woman director to break the $100 million gross mark as a director. Did you think we would be further down the line by now in regards to women directors?
PM: I don’t have those thoughts. I’ve been thanked for opening the door for women directors. I didn’t knock on any doors they asked me. It’s a dog’s job whether you are a guy or a girl.
WaH: Why do you think they asked you to direct?
PM: They saw I was a responsible person. I show up when I say I will show up. I know a lot of people and they saw me with Whoopi (Goldberg) and said saw we got along. It was by accident. And then Jim Brooks said here and gave me Big. I didn’t know everyone had turned it down. I know nothing. I’m not in that rumor mill so I miss out on those things. I thought it was a universal theme and it was about behavior. In 20 scenes you’re scared. And Tom (Hanks) would ask how scared should I be? It was a bittersweet and I liked it.
Francesca Lo Schiavo
Seven-time Academy Award nominated art director Francesca Lo Schiavo has been an influential force in the field since the 1980s. Her sense of opulence in movies like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Interview with the Vampire is often copied, but never duplicated.
Dede Allen’s use of European editing techniques in American cinema was groundbreaking. “I couldn’t get into picture editing because the head of Editorial at Columbia didn’t believe women should get into editing,” she explains in this video interview:
Essential feminist filmmaker and independent cinema director Ava DuVernay paid her dues as a publicist and created some of the most refreshing stories featuring African-Americans we’ve ever seen. She’s translated her critical praise into a major awards contender with the upcoming Selma — and her perspective will hopefully earn her further recognition.
This multiple-award-winning costumer designer (Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator) has made an otherwise invisible art that much more prominent. The look and style of these actors is a major part of their characters. She makes them stars.
From the Los Angeles Times:
A filmmaker since the early 1960s — she worked as an assistant to Federico Fellini on 8 1/2 in 1962 — Wertmuller took world cinema by storm with her politically charged films of the 1970s, including The Seduction of Mimi and Swept Away. Her Oscar nomination came in 1977 for Seven Beauties.
“Her outrageous sort of grotesque style that blended sexuality and political ideology was very in tune with the sort of post-1968 cultural climate. So she really captured the zeitgeist.”
Mira Nair has imported a little bit of Bollywood into mainstream US culture. Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, and Vanity Fair share a certain exoticism, without becoming hoary clichés.
The producer of Aliens, The Terminator, The Abyss, and other genre-savvy films, Hurd helped set a precedent for high-powered female producers like Nina Jacobson, Megan Ellison, and Kathryn Bigelow.
Italian costume designer Milena Canonero holds three Oscars for her work in the field, which includes Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. We also have her to thank for the ridiculously ‘80s threads on Miami Vice, but when you arrive to the Academy Awards ceremony dressed like a boss, all is forgiven.
More famous for her status as a devastatingly beautiful poet, author Maya Angelou became the first African-American woman to have a feature-length screenplay produced — 1972’s Georgia Georgia. She also directed her own feature film, 1996’s Down in the Delta, which critic Roger Ebert said “stays out of its own way; she doesn’t call attention to herself with unnecessary visual touches, but focuses on the business at hand.”