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What Happened to the Women Directors in Hollywood? Part 4: 1984–1999

Mississippi Masala

by Carrie Rickey

This five-part Truthdig series by Carrie Rickey is published in partnership with Women and Hollywood. The series considers the historic accomplishments of women behind the camera, how they got marginalized, and how they are fighting for equal employment. Specifically, this series asks, why do females make up between 33 and 50 percent of film-school graduates but account for only seven percent of working directors? What happened to the women directors in Hollywood?

While female filmmakers waited for Judge Pamela Rymer to hand down a decision in the 1983 Directors Guild class-action suit against Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures, alleging discrimination for not hiring women and ethnic minorities represented by the guild, there were positive signs of change in Hollywood.

In 1984, for the first time that almost anyone could remember, one needed two hands to count the number of feature films by women released in the U.S. market. One was Diane Kurys’ “Entre Nous” (1983), nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards in April 1984, making Kurys the second female director whose film was so honored.

Between 1950 and 1980, the number of movies directed by women in the Directors Guild of America (DGA) totaled 14. From 1984 to 1985 there were 12.

In 1984 many women were making their second features. Among them were Gillian Armstrong’s period drama “Mrs. Soffel,” Amy Heckerling’s gangster comedy “Johnny Dangerously,” Penelope Spheeris’ teenage-runaway saga “Suburbia,” and Amy Holden Jones’ romantic drama “Love Letters.” Martha Coolidge, beloved for “Valley Girl,” her 1983 debut, was on her third feature, “National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex.” With more women behind the movie camera in the United States than any time since the ’teens, it seemed that Hollywood was reopening the studio gates to women. Their movies featured women in lead roles.

The wave of optimism crested in 1985. Argentine director Maria Luisa Bemberg’s historical romance “Camila” (1984) was in contention for best foreign film. Susan Seidelman, an Nyu film-school grad who made a splash in 1983 with the indie “Smithereens,” released “Desperately Seeking Susan,” starring “It Girl” Rosanna Arquette and Madonna, cast when the latter was a relative unknown. It was a runaway hit. Heckerling and Spheeris each released third features, respectively “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” and “The Boys Next Door.” Coolidge released her fourth: “Real Genius,” a genuinely funny nerd comedy with a fully developed female character — and special effects.

Then came the crash.

In August 1985 Judge Rymer handed down her decision. While the class-action case was important and viable, Rymer ruled, she had to disqualify the DGA from leading the class due to a conflict of interest. White male members also competing for directing jobs dominated the guild, she said. Thus the DGA was in no position to represent the interests of its women and ethnic minority members. Out of exhaustion and lack of money, the Original Six, the group of female filmmakers that had first spurred the DGA to initiate the suit, did not pursue it any further.

As the DGA suit played out during the early 1980s, Hollywood’s business model was in flux. Studios abandoned the one-size-fits-all strategy of advertising a movie in general-interest publications and embraced segmented marketing — that is, making and marketing movies to a specific demographic. Fewer dollars were spent advertising movies in mainstream newspapers and more were spent on ads that ran during TV shows young males were said to watch. More and more, movies starred predominantly men and boys. Because actors had higher-profile roles, they could command higher salaries than actresses.

By dividing the market into sectors, studios divided the audience and the culture. Boys see movies about boys. Older people see movies about older people. Women see movies about women. Those in different demographics no longer watch the same stories.

In 1980, four of the 10 top box office stars were women: Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, and Barbra Streisand. In 1990 there was only one: Julia Roberts. According to 1990 statistics from the Screen Actors Guild, not only were actresses underpaid, but they were also “undercast”: 14 percent of the leading roles, and only 29 percent of all roles, went to women.

The “Indiana Jones” trilogy made in the 1980s reflected the progressively diminishing role of females in film during a decade when male action/adventures dominated the multiplex. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), the character Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) plays Indy’s helpmate. In “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), the Willie Scott character (Kate Capshaw) is helpless. And in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” archeologist Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) is the enemy.

Despite such trends, the late 1980s and 1990s proved to be boom years for female directors in Hollywood and Indiewood, as independent film is known. In 1987, Kathryn Bigelow, a onetime sculptor and graduate of Columbia University’s film program, made her second feature, the “vampire Western” “Near Dark.” And though Elaine May’s studio film “Ishtar” was almost universally panned upon release, it earned belated respect. Richard Brody of The New Yorker correctly described it as “an unjustly derided masterwork.” In 1987, six percent of films were directed by women, higher than at any time since 1916.

The percentage dropped in 1988, but that was a watershed year for female filmmakers. “Big,” a comedy from Penny Marshall (co-written by Anne Spielberg), was universally acclaimed. It was the first movie directed by a woman that surpassed $100 million at the box office. With the romantic comedy “Crossing Delancey,” Joan Micklin Silver returned to making big-screen fare, and her modest hit was well received. Also in 1988, Silver’s daughter, Marisa, made her second feature, “Permanent Record,” about teen suicide. “Salaam, Bombay!”, the first feature from Mira Nair, the India-born, Harvard-educated documentarian, was a best foreign film Oscar nominee.

The following year, “Look Who’s Talking” from Amy Heckerling likewise surpassed the $100 million mark for box office sales in the U.S. and made nearly $300 million worldwide. For the most part, though, heads of studios regarded Marshall’s and Heckerling’s box-office smashes as flukes. Two heads of production told me in 1991 that “movies by women don’t make money.” Nevertheless, it turned out to be a exceptional year for the quality and range of releases from women. And it shaped up to be a year when movies by female filmmakers did make serious money.

Some of the highlights of 1991: Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” an evocative portrait of generations of Gullah women off the South Carolina coast circa 1901; Jodie Foster’s “Little Man Tate,” about a child prodigy emotionally torn between his mother and a psychologist for gifted children; and Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” a sexy romance about a South Asian woman born in Uganda (played by then-newcomer Sarita Choudhry) in love with an African-American man (Denzel Washington). Both Kathryn Bigelow’s action film “Point Break” and Barbra Streisand’s psychological study “Prince of Tides” examined the emotional costs to men who struggle to prove their masculinity. Bigelow’s movie grossed $83 million and Streisand’s $110 million. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s $148 million and $196 million in today’s dollars.)

Not only can female filmmakers make movies that show a different side of men, but they also make movies that show different aspects of women. Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own” (1992), about the All-American Girls Baseball Leagues during World War II, celebrates the athleticism (rather than the sexuality) of the female body. Nora Ephron’s “This is My Life,” her 1992 directorial debut about a single mom whose choice of comedy career affects her daughters, shows that career and motherhood need not be in conflict. Like Ephron’s film, Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging” (also 1992) explores what happens when the children of single moms reconnect with biological fathers. Male directors were, and are not, making movies like these.

During the 1990s, almost every year brought a new evergreen made by a female filmmaker. In 1993 there were two. One was Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” a haunting allegory about a mute woman that struck a chord internationally. It earned $62 million at the box office and multiple Oscar nominations, including one for best director, making Campion the third woman to be cited in this category. The other was Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle,” the comedic romance between two people who don’t meet in person until the last scene, which scored a $227 million box office.

“Sleepless” additionally introduced the questionable concept of the “chick flick” to a broader audience. This is a non-genre that has come to be defined as any movie that, according to the term’s proponents, women want to see and that men think they don’t want to watch — or any movie directed by a woman. The division between “chick flick” and its corollary, the “dick flick,” is a perhaps unintended consequence of target marketing, implying that movies represent a gender-linked proposition.

Almost overnight, the perception was created that movies predominantly featuring women, or “women’s interests,” or directed by women would shrivel the manhood of the male moviegoer. In 1994 the head of a major studio told me, without irony or shame, that “Women on the screen means no men in the audience.” When I asked him for data to back up his claim, he said he had it, but it was proprietary.

Despite such signs of cultural and corporate sexism, the 1990s were a good time to be a female filmmaker. In 1994, Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women” was immediately embraced as a classic. Newcomer Darnell Martin’s “I Like it Like That,” an urban comedy about a working mother juggling job, marriage, and parenthood, earned positive reviews. And Rose Troche’s “Go Fish,” the first indie comedy about girl-on-girl courtship, marked a milestone for the burgeoning genre.

The following year, 16 films by women were in U.S. release, setting another record for that era. Many of them were comedies. There was Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless,” a droll version of Jane Austen’s “Emma” set at a Beverly Hills high school. There is Betty Thomas’ “The Brady Bunch Movie,” in which the former actress sets the characters of the 1970s TV hit in the 1990s to great comic effect. Distinctly not a comedy was Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” a science-fiction thriller about sex crimes, which lost money but became a cult favorite. At the 1996 Oscar ceremony, with “Antonia’s Line,” Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris became the first female filmmaker to direct the award-winning foreign film.

But apart from Bigelow and Mimi Leder, a director of episodic television who in 1997 directed “The Peacemaker” and in 1998 “Deep Impact,” female filmmakers were not making action films. For the most part women made comedies and human stories, movies with no explosions in the opening scene. Veteran filmmaker Martha Coolidge spoke for many women when she noted that the scripts the studios sent her were for comedies or family dramas. “About 90 percent of what comes my way are ten different kinds of breast cancer stories, ten kinds of divorce stories, and ten kinds of women-taking-care-of-their-fathers stories,” she said. “I do those. I care about those deeply. But one does want to do more.”

Female filmmakers were typecast in the way many actors and actresses have been, for the most part pigeonholed in family drama and comedy genres. For example, in 1997 actress Kasi Lemmons made her directorial debut with “Eve’s Bayou,” a haunting family drama, and Betty Thomas returned with the Howard Stern biopic “Private Parts.” In 1998, Ephron returned with the romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail.” Nancy Meyers, a long-time screenwriter, made her directorial debut with the family-friendly comedy “The Parent Trap,” and Brenda Chapman, a Disney animator, was one of three directors on “Prince of Egypt,” the animated story of Moses.

In 1999, three female filmmakers made rookie features unlike anything in American movies. Two were romantic dramas about teenage sexuality, the other an imaginative Shakespeare adaptation. Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, looked at how boys look at girls, subversively turning the female gaze on the male gaze. Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” dramatized the life story of Teena Brandon, who changed her name and gender to become Brandon Teena and fell victim to a hate crime.

Julie Taymor, the theater director who created “The Lion King” on stage, made her movie debut with “Titus,” an anachronistic version of the Shakespeare history play “Titus Andronicus,” underscoring its parallels to Italy under Mussolini.

At the end of the decade — and century — of the 11,000 filmmakers working both in television and film included in the Directors Guild of America, about 2,300 were women. While women made up 21 percent of the membership, they comprised only 9 percent of the filmmakers working in movies.

Most, including Martha Lauzen, a professor at San Diego State University and the head of the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television, naturally assumed that in the new century the needle would move toward 50/50.

In addition to writing film reviews and essays for Truthdig, Carrie Rickey has been a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Village Voice, and an art critic at Artforum and Art in America. Rickey has taught at various institutions, including School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania, and has appeared frequently on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” MSNBC, and CNN.

What Happened to the Women Directors in Hollywood? Part 4: 1984–1999 was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
See full article at Women and Hollywood »

The Academy Invites 271 New Members for 2014

The Academy has announced the new class of invited members for 2014 and, as is typical, many of which are among last year's nominees, which includes Barkhad Abdi, Michael Fassbender, Sally Hawkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Lupita Nyong'o and June Squibb in the Actors branch not to mention curious additions such as Josh Hutcherson, Rob Riggle and Jason Statham, but, okay. The Directors branch adds Jay and Mark Duplass along with Jean-Marc Vallee, Denis Villeneuve and Thomas Vinterberg. I didn't do an immediate tally of male to female additions or other demographics, but at first glance it seems to be a wide spread batch of new additions on all fronts. The Academy is also clearly attempting to aggressively bump up the demographics as this is the second year in a row where they have added a large number of new members, well over the average of 133 new members from 2004 to 2012. As far as
See full article at Rope Of Silicon »

271 Invited To Join The Academy

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is extending invitations to join the organization to 271 artists and executives who have distinguished themselves by their contributions to theatrical motion pictures.

Those who accept the invitations will be the only additions to the Academy’s membership in 2014.

“This year’s class of invitees represents some of the most talented, creative and passionate filmmakers working in our industry today,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “Their contributions to film have entertained audiences around the world, and we are proud to welcome them to the Academy.”

The 2014 invitees are:

Actors

Barkhad Abdi – “Captain Phillips

Clancy Brown – “The Hurricane,” “The Shawshank Redeption”

Paul Dano – “12 Years a Slave,” “Prisoners

Michael Fassbender – “12 Years a Slave,” “Shame

Ben Foster – “Lone Survivor,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

Beth Grant – “The Artist,” “No Country for Old Men

Clark Gregg – “Much Ado about Nothing,” “Marvel’s The Avengers

Sally Hawkins – “Blue Jasmine,
See full article at WeAreMovieGeeks.com »

Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o among 271 Academy invitees

Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o among 271 Academy invitees
Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave were two of the 271 artists and industry leaders invited to become members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which determines nominations and winners at the annual Oscars. The entire list of Academy membership—which numbers about 6,000—isn’t public information so the annual invitation list is often the best indication of the artists involved in the prestigious awards process. It’s worth noting that invitations need to be accepted in order for artists to become members; some artists, like two-time Best Actor winner Sean Penn, have declined membership over the years.
See full article at EW.com - Inside Movies »

Josh Hutcherson, Lupita Nyong'o, Pharrell and 268 others invited to join the Academy

  • Hitfix
Josh Hutcherson, Lupita Nyong'o, Pharrell and 268 others invited to join the Academy
Pop quiz: What do Chris Rock, Claire Denis, Eddie Vedder and Josh Hutcherson all have in common? Answer: They could all be Oscar voters very soon. The annual Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences invitation list always makes for interesting reading, shedding light on just how large and far-reaching the group's membership is -- or could be, depending on who accepts their invitations. This year, 271 individuals have been asked to join AMPAS, meaning every one of them could contribute to next year's Academy Awards balloting -- and it's as diverse a list as they've ever assembled. Think the Academy consists entirely of fusty retired white dudes? Not if recent Best Original Song nominee Pharrell Williams takes them up on their offer. Think it's all just a Hollywood insiders' game? Not if French arthouse titans Chantal Akerman and Olivier Assayas join the party. It's a list that subverts expectation at every turn.
See full article at Hitfix »

Academy Invites 271 New Members

Academy Invites 271 New Members
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has invited 271 individuals to become members, with the list reflecting the org’s determination to bring more diversity to its ranks.

Every year, the list of invitations includes several recent Oscar nominees. That’s true this year as well, with letters going out Wednesday to a cross-section of people including 2013 contenders Barkhad Abdi, Lupita Nyong’o, Hayao Miyazaki, Pharrell Williams, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, plus such creatives as Megan Ellison, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Steve Coogan, Jason Statham, William Chang Suk Ping, Joan Sobel, Tracey Seaward, Mads Mikkelsen and Chantal Akerman.

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs told Variety Thursday, “This is a continuation of an initiative to bring in new voices. Filmmaking has gotten more diverse, and audiences have been responding. There are terrific filmmakers around the world at the top of their game and we want to recognize them and bring them into the Academy.
See full article at Variety - Film News »

Capsule Movie Reviews (May 1): 'The Protector 2' and six more

Capsule Movie Reviews (May 1): 'The Protector 2' and six more
New Release

The Protector 2

R, 1 Hr., 44 Mins.

Thai martial-arts maestro Tony Jaa’s newest film overloads on terrible F/X that rob the film of the actor’s usual brute-force balleticism. Also, RZA plays the bad guy — and someone needs to tell the Wu-Tang master that he can’t act (or fight). The Protector 2 does have a loony charm (actual line of dialogue: “You lost your elephant again?”), and Jija Yanin Wismitanan has a scene-stealing turn as a lady warrior seeking — wait for it — vengeance. (Also available on iTunes and VOD) B- —Darren Franich

New Release

Beneath the Harvest Sky

Not Rated,
See full article at EW.com - Inside Movies »

Diane Kurys's Domestic Drama For a Woman Tests Marital Bonds

Diane Kurys's Domestic Drama For a Woman Tests Marital Bonds
For a Woman continues French writer-director Diane Kurys's career-long interest in autobiography. Kurys started out as an actress in the '70s, but hasn't returned to performing since directing 1977's Peppermint Soda.

Rather, she’s crafted intimate domestic dramas -- most of them, like her Oscar-nominated Entre Nous (1983), set in the past -- that draw on her recollections of her family life.

For a Woman boasts a sloppy, 1980s-set framing device, which presents a Kurys surrogate (Sylvie Testud) diving into family photographs and heirlooms in the wake of her mother's death. Her discoveries in those documents lead into the main narrative, which takes place in Lyon immediately post-wwii.

Like Kurys's own parents, the Russian-Jewish couple at ...
See full article at Village Voice »

For a Woman | 2014 Colcoa Review

Mother Load: Kurys Revisits Plight of Parents in Post WWII France

For those familiar with the work of director Diane Kurys, the material that inspired her latest film, For a Woman, may seem old hat. What seems to serve as the third installment of a rough trilogy concerning the lives of her parents (while Kury’s first two features seem to be about her own childhood) shortly after World War II, was first realized in her excellent 1983 film, Entre Nous, then again in 1990’s C’est La Vie. Comparatively, this latest chapter serves as the weakest of the three, but that’s not to say it isn’t compelling and engaging. More often than not, it’s a tensely paced period piece with one or two notable performances, even as it’s needlessly set in the early 80s, waffling back and forth between flashbacks to the meaty past, where it could have been entirely set.
See full article at IONCINEMA.com »

Film Movement Acquires Us Rights to 'For A Woman'

  • Indiewire
Film Movement has acquired Us Rights to "For A Woman" ("Pour Une Femme"), from director Diane Kurys ("Children of the Century," "Entre Nous"), the company announced today. A semi-autobiographical tale, "For A Woman" follows Anne, who, on the eve of her mother's death, uncovers a family secret in the form of a mysterious stranger her parents took in after World War II. The film, which stars Benoit Magimel, Mélanie Thierry, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and Syle Testud, opened in France in July to critical and commercial success. The deal was negotiated by President Adley Gartenstein and VP of Acquisitions and Distribution Rebeca Conget of Film Movement, and by Cécile Fouché, International Sales Manager at Europacorp. “Diane Kurys is an established prominent voice in French cinema, and once again she has made an immaculately structured and dramatically profound film. We couldn’t be prouder to bring her latest work to North American audiences,
See full article at Indiewire »

Expert Lesbian Movie Poll! Your Favorite Directors, Writers and Actors Weigh In

Tags: Best Lesbian Bi Movie EverBest Lesbian Movie EverJamie BabbitAngela RobinsonIlene ChaikenColey SohnShamim SarifIMDb

The voting on our Best Lesbian/Bi Movie Ever poll closes next Tuesday, and if you haven't yet figured out what film deserves your click of approval, then perhaps you'll take some professional opinions into account. We asked some of our favorite out directors, actors and writers to tell us which movie they'd vote for to win the title of Best Lesbian/Bi Movie Ever, and it proved to be an interesting experiment. Most of them had the same problem you do: It's hard to pick just one! You might even get a few new films to watch out of reading their responses.

Photos from Getty

Jamie Babbit, director of But I'm a Cheerleader: Heavenly Creatures is my vote. Kate Winslet in her first role and Melanie Lynsky (she was later in my film But I'm a Cheerleader
See full article at AfterEllen.com »

Oscar 2012: Ten Female Directors on Best Foreign Language Film List

Nadine Labaki, Where Do We Go Now? Today it was announced that Patty Jenkins, whose Monster earned Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar in early 2004, will be directing Thor 2. Officially, Perkins is the first woman director at the helm of a big-budget, Hollywood superhero movie. Below you'll find ten movies directed by female filmmakers that are among the 63 contenders for nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film category. Seven of those hail from Europe; one is from the Americas, one from East Asia, and one from West Asia (or the Middle East). They are: the Dominican Republic's Leticia Tonos for Love Child, France's Valérie Donzelli for the semi-autobiographical Declaration of War, Greece's Athina Rachel Tsangari for Attenberg, Hong Kong's Ann Hui for A Simple Life, and Ireland's Juanita Wilson for As If I Am Not There. Also: Lebanon's Nadine Labaki for Toronto Film Festival Audience Award winner Where Do We Go Now?
See full article at Alt Film Guide »

Claire Denis: 'For me, film-making is a journey into the impossible' | Interview

Since her 1988 debut Chocolat, Claire Denis has established herself as one of France's most respected film directors, with a wide-ranging body of work and a taste for danger. Her latest film, White Material, which stars Isabelle Huppert, draws again upon her colonial African childhood, and its violence has sparked

controversy in the French press. Not that she cares…

One of the lingering charms of the Left Bank of Paris in the 21st century is that, although much of the area has long since surrendered to chain stores and fast-food joints, the streets between Boulevard Saint-Michel and rue Mouffetard are still dotted with fleapit cinemas with names such as L'Accattone, Studio Galande and Le Champo. On any given afternoon – to take a random sample from the programmes on offer in these places last week – you can take in Battleship Potemkin, a Buñuel retrospective, a lesser-known Fellini, or Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar
See full article at The Guardian - Film News »

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