By Alan Hurst
Women directors in Hollywood are increasing in number, power and acclaim but that wasn’t always the case. If you take the Academy Awards as a bellwether, only five women have made the final five list of nominees over the last 90+ years – and only one of those women has won (Kathryn Bigelow for 2009’s The Hurt Locker). Part of that has been due to the lack of opportunity for women, particularly pre-1990, but it also has to do with the fact that some significant achievements by women directors have been overlooked.
You really don’t have to dig too hard to pull together a list of top-notch films directed by women. The 10 below are by no means meant to be a summary of the greatest films directed by women, but instead are some key films in my movie going experience that illustrate what is possible with trust, talent and the freedom to bring your own vision to the screen.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
At the time of its release, this film was viewed as little more than a typical B picture from RKO Studios. It tells the story two members of a dance troupe – Judy, an aspiring ballerina (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball), who finds success of sorts as a burlesque dancer. The film is directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women who was able to carve out a directing career during the heyday of the studio system. The presence of both Ball and O’Hara would ensure that the film would have some longevity, but during the 1970’s the film was rediscovered and became somewhat a feminist benchmark for many reasons. The film is tightly and efficiently directed by Arzner. Working with an atypical script by Tess Slesinger, Arzner captures the seedy milieu of the various nightclubs and burlesque halls perfectly and she never lets the film or the characters do the expected as most films of the era would. Despite romantic entanglements for both characters, they make choices that are practical and allow them to get ahead – not for love. At one point in the film Ball gets O’Hara a job in her burlesque act, where O’Hara gets cat calls from the audience. She stops the show, turns the tables on them and calls them out on their behavior and voyeurism – it’s a pointed indictment of male privilege. Both O’Hara and Ball are good, but this is really Ball’s film. Arzner makes sure that Bubbles is the most interesting character, with Ball showing her comic gifts and a perfect “seen it all before” attitude.
Directed by actress Ida Lupino, this is a film that needs to be on DVD. I saw it just once on Turner Classic Movies about five years ago, but it stayed with me. Outrage is about rape – a topic that really had only been addressed in any significant way in Johnny Belinda (1948) a couple of years before. But Outrage takes it further. The main character – Ann, played by Mala Powers – is engaged and about to be married, but she is raped by man who she knows slightly. Her parents and fiancé try to be supportive, but she can’t handle being around anyone who knows her, so she flees and tries to start her life over. In a surprisingly explicit way for 1950, the film deals with the impact on the victim and it’s sobering to see things are not that different today. Director Lupino shows how the victim is attacked all over again through interrogation, and we see the lack of support for the psychological challenges that victims face. From a purely artistic point of view, Lupino does a superb job of utilizing some key Noir techniques, building suspense through some interesting angles, shadows and pacing. Unfortunately, Lupino never really got to work on a high budget film, but she certainly excelled at doing much within the confines of the budgets she had.
Seven Beauties (1976)
Italian director Lina Wertmüller’s career hit its peak in the 1970’s and Seven Beauties is her acknowledged masterpiece. Partnering again with actor Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties is about survival during World War II. Giannini plays Pasqualino, small time playboy and crook in Naples who kills a pimp for turning his sister into a prostitute. It’s here the character’s survival instincts kick in as circumstance sends him to a psychiatric ward, then the Italian Army, and finally to a German concentration camp after he’s arrested for desertion. He offers himself to the ugly female commandant to survive and he’s then put in charge of the barracks where he must select six men to die so all others can be saved. He is finally able to get back to Naples, only to find that all seven of his sisters, his mother and his fiancé have turned to prostitution to survive. As both a farcical comedy and devastating tragedy, Wertmüller pushes the boundaries. The absurdity of Pasqualino’s arc leads the audience to a feeling of futility – and she also doesn’t shy away from showing the brutal reality of the concentration camp. The film and Wertmüller caused a bit of a sensation when released in 1976 and Hollywood paid attention. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards that year including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director – the first time a woman was made the final five.
Yentl was the first of three films (to date) that Barbra Streisand directed and it’s her best. There is much positive to say about The Prince of Tides (1991), but the fatal flaw of that film is the beautification of Streisand the actress by Streisand the director. That didn’t happen with Yentl. The result is a career high for Streisand – as both actress and director. Much has been written about long gestation of getting this adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story to the screen, but Streisand secured the financing in the early 1980’s and the result is a film that is both intimate and grand, comical and moving, with one of the most beautiful scores of the decade. Yentl is about a desire to learn and be more than you’re supposed to be, but doing that within the patriarchal confines of society. Girls are forbidden to study religion, but Yentl’s father teaches her in secret. When he dies, she hits the road disguised as a boy with the intention of learning more about her faith in a religious school. Streisand was always accused of giving directors a hard time, but it’s clear that – like Yentl – she wanted to learn. As a first-time director, she created an impeccably detailed turn-of-the century Poland and told the story in a very smart way. It’s a musical, but all the songs are interior monologues, so we hear what Yentl is thinking, allowing the action to continue while we listen to her musical thoughts. Streisand is in glorious voice here, and the Michel Legrand music is sweepingly lush and romantic. This was one of the many times that Oscar has its head in the sand when it came to a female directed film. While the score, two of the songs, the sets and Amy Irving’s supporting performance were nominated (the score won), there were no nominations for the beautiful cinematography, costumes or for Streisand, who should have easily made the list of final nominees as producer, director, actress and writer.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Penny Marshall’s career as a feature film director was a surprise. Who knew that TV’s Laverne (of Laverne & Shirley) had this kind of talent? Things started off rocky with Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), but she delivered one of the best comedies of the decade with Big (1988) and then followed that with the moving Awakenings (1990), which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but not a Best Director nod for Marshall. She followed that with her best film, A League of Their Own (1992). This is a near perfect comedy about the creation of a professional baseball league with female athletes during World War II when the men were off fighting the war. The film focuses on two sisters (Geena Davis and Lori Petty) who are wooed away from the farm. Both are talented ball players, but it comes easier to Davis’ character. Tom Hanks plays the has-been coach of the team. Working with a strong screenplay, everything comes together under Marshall’s guidance. She creates a wonderfully nostalgic 1940’s feel, there is an addictive, buoyant tempo to the film, and she gets top-notch performances from her cast. Both Hanks and Davis are excellent and very funny as reluctant participants in the enterprise. Rosie O’Donnell is also a riot as the former bouncer now ball player. And in what should be credited as a minor miracle, Marshall gets a decent performance out of Madonna as one of the more flirtatious members of the team.
The Piano (1993)
Acclaimed Australian director Jane Campion scored the biggest success of her career in 1983 with the release of The Piano. It’s the story of mute woman (Holly Hunter) who arrives in New Zealand from Scotland with her daughter (Anna Paquin), sold into marriage to Sam Neil. Upon arrival they and their belongings (including her piano) are left on a beach until Neil arrives the following day. He refuses to bring the piano with them but one of Neil’s acquaintances (Harvey Keitel) does go back for it. Although her relationship with her husband is strained and violent, Hunter and Keitel develop a relationship that changes everyone’s lives. Champion uses the piano as the symbol for both Hunter’s independence and her power. This is a beautifully filmed, atmospheric and quirky romance that uses the remote location of New Zealand as a third character, both trapping and freeing the lead character’s emotions. There are some stunning visuals here – none more so than the incongruity of a grand piano left on rain swept beach with Holly Hunter in a hooped skirt. Everything is out of place and beautiful at the same time. Hunter and Paquin both won Oscars for their skilled performances, and Champion won for her screenplay. Harvey Keitel also deserved recognition for his earthy, tender work. This was also the year of Schindler’s List, so it wasn’t in the cards for The Piano to capture Best Picture and Best Director, but I wouldn’t have had a problem if it had.
Lost in Translation (2003)
I didn’t like this film at first viewing. Either I didn’t really get it, or it just left me cold, I’m not sure which. I just know I was decidedly out of step with most of the critical reaction it received. But a second viewing won me over. In only her second feature film, director and writer Sofia Coppola created a funny, sad almost esoteric love story between an aging, lonely movie actor named Bob (Bill Murray) and a young newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who’s trying to figure out herself and her marriage. They’re both in Tokyo – he to film a commercial and she’s accompanying her musician husband. They meet in the hotel lobby and eventually strike up a friendship that allows them to explore Tokyo together. It’s a mostly platonic love story, with an undertone of yearning that is ultimately quite engrossing as well as moving. This is probably the best performance that Murray has ever given – primarily because he doesn’t have to be the cynic, the jokester, or any other of the typical roles he had played up to then (with the notable exceptions of Groundhog Day in 1993 and Rushmore in 1998). Murray gives a witty, but ultimately bittersweet performance. Johansson is equally good as the much younger soul mate. Coppola deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and was also nominated for Best Director. Coppola has proven herself to be a good, eclectic director with such films as Marie Antoinette (2006) and The Beguiled (2017).
Away from Her (2007)
Away from Her – from Canadian director Sarah Polley – can be a tough one to watch if you’ve ever had to deal with or are dealing with a spouse, friend, partner who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s the story of a long-married couple – Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent – who slowly realize that she is starting to lose her memory. When it’s clear her condition is worsening, Christie fears she might be a risk to herself, so she checks herself into a nursing home where policy dictates her husband cannot visit for 30 days to allow her to get used to things. Within that 30-day period her condition worsens to the point where she doesn’t recognize her husband and she has also formed a romantic attachment to another resident. Her husband has to deal with the emotions of watching his wife slip further away. In addition to directing, Polley also adapted the screenplay and she does an excellent job as both writer and director in showing the gradual decline of Christie’s character, and the guilt of Pinsent’s. She juxtaposes those with scenes from earlier in their marriage where we get to see the cracks caused by infidelity and how they still exist despite the loving facade. Julie Christie is luminous here, meticulously showing us the character’s determination, disintegration and confusion. She was deservedly Oscar nominated. Christie has been incredibly selective with her film appearances and this looks like it may be her last substantial role. Pinsent is equally fine as the conflicted husband. And Polley – an Oscar nominee for her screenplay – established herself as exceptionally fine and nuanced director.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Director Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone was a revelation for me for a few reasons. First, the depiction of life in the present-day Ozarks was a sobering eye opener. You feel that these are all people forgotten by every society and every social safety net possible – left to live an existence in the most depraved, unhealthy, dysfunctional way possible. The lives of these characters are brutal. Second it introduced me to Jennifer Lawrence. She was 20 at the time she played the character of Dolly, appears much younger, but is still able to convince you she’s got wisdom and smarts beyond her years. Dolly has a mother with mental health issues, her dad’s is a criminal, and she’s left to care for her two younger siblings. The film becomes a modern-day Noir when she’s told by the sheriff her dad has put their home up for bond and has now disappeared. She’s left to go find him, risking the wrath of her relatives and other assorted criminals. Director Granik makes Dolly’s journey both entertaining and terrifying, and Lawrence proves to be fearless as an actress in a very physical role. She was Oscar nominated (her first), as was the film. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room for Granik on the list of Best Director nominees, but there should have been.
Lady Bird (2017)
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s charming, funny and quite moving film of Lady Bird was one of my favourite move-going experiences in 2017. It’s the story of a 17-year old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who’s dissatisfaction with her family and herself is almost kinetic. She’s trying to get through her last year of high school but has a hard time focusing on anything for too long. Her family is struggling financially and, at the core of Lady Bird’s frustrations, is her brilliantly passive aggressive mother (Laurie Metcalf). The two battle and make-up constantly – but the to and fro of their relationship is entirely believable thanks to the witty and precise insights of Gerwig’s script, and the exceptional performances of the two actresses. The tone of the film – like life – veers from farce, to drama, back to comedy, and then becomes a bit of a tearjerker towards the end. It’s all nicely balanced by director Gerwig, who’s directing solo for the first time. What I like about Gerwig’s work here is that she very rarely does the expected with her characters – there’s a spontaneity in Lady Bird and her mom that is both infectious and frustrating (but in a good way). Both Ronan and Metcalf received Oscar nominations, as did the film and Gerwig (Best Original Screenplay and Best Director).
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.