Last week I looked in my mail and found 5,000 DVDs on sale, all nice & reduced in price, listed with a cover image of the film in a 70 page news-style rag. Of course, with over 500 titles priced at $2.98 (or lower, “starts on page 17”) I had to set aside some time in the evening to pore over this catalog which contained some brilliant works — classics like Anna Christie, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; Now, Voyager; King Kong; Casablanca — Garbo! Muni! Davis! Wray! Bergman & Bogart! But wait — No Sunset Blvd.? (One of my all-time favorites.) Not only classics were on sale — everything from kung fu flicks (Jet Li in the 1992 Deadly China Hero, and Jackie Chan in the 1973 Young Tiger) to “Classic Exploitation” (The Flaming Teen-Age, Ghetto Freaks aka Love Commune, Scorpions’ Revenge aka Sasori in U.S.A.) — from Finding Neverland (good film!) to The She-Creature (sounds bad, but a good kind of bad?) Unless you’re a fan of the little-known, the excruciatingly esoteric or the comfortably mediocre, this was a definitely underwhelming selection of films. But it gets better…
As an early cinema nerd, I was proud to find a small, but not insignificant silent film section. I’m a sucker for these — but no Lois Weber? — perhaps the most prolific silent-era American woman filmmaker. At first, it seemed to have it all, from Cantinflas to Chaplin to Corman. (If you don’t know Cantinflas, he’s probably the most famous comedic actor Mexico has ever produced. A writer, singer, actor and producer, he made over 50 films.) Then I started noticing the few women directors’ names. OMG, Gillian Armstrong is in here twice! Dorothy Arzner? Okay, she gets one, the typically tragic story of a pregnant unmarried woman…. who’s also a pilot: Christopher Strong, starring an up and coming Katharine Hepburn. No Ida Lupino I could identify — yes, she directed about 40 or so films and TV episodes and wrote at least eight feature screenplays — nor Allison Anders, Amy Heckerling, Kathryn Bigelow, Darnell Martin, Betty Thomas… and where, please, where the HELL was Jane Campion? But I found Catherine Hardwicke, Agnieszka Holland and Rose Troche! Whew! But I wasn’t quite satisfied…
It was a bare-bones catalog and listed no film descriptions, just the top-billed actors and the director. I had to stop looking for, and marking, the films I wanted to buy — Alexander the Great (1956), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Broken Blossoms (1919), A Dry White Season (1989) — script here — by Euzhan Palcy; Vernon, Florida (1981), Run Lola Run (1998) and a few more — and had to start marking those films that were directed by women. I began to count. Out of the 5,000 DVDs listed, which also comprised a few pages of books and television shows, I found 27 films which had a woman director listed. A few of those directors had multiple films listed as well. I thought this was awfully refreshing, especially given the fact that women directors are often pigeon-holed as the director of one “big film,” either the rare blockbuster or a critically acclaimed picture. Many times they become known for that, and that is “who they are.” So which directors had more than one film listed?
Armstrong’s were: Little Women and Fires Within
Meyers’ were: Something’s Gotta Give and What Women Want
Miller’s were: The Ballad of Jack & Rose and Personal Velocity
There were no women directors who had more than two films listed.
I not only wanted to find the films directed by women, but I wanted to find out who these women were. Had they directed other pictures? Many of the names I didn’t know, although some titles I knew popped out at me, never really knowing (for most of them) they were directed by women. So, I counted, then began to do a little research.
The directors I found? There were 24. Here’s the list, with the titles of their films found in the catalog:
Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, Fires Within)
Dorothy Arzner (Christopher Strong)
Liliana Cavani (Francesco)
Julie Davis (I Love You, Don’t Touch Me!)
Tamra Davis (Best Men)
Tiffanie Debartolo (Dream for an Insomniac)
Marita Giovanni (Bar Girls)
Amanda Goodwin (Living ‘Til the End)
Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown)
Agnieszka Holland (Copying Beethoven)
Diane Jackson (The Snowman)
Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, What Women Want)
Vanessa Middleton (30 Years to Life)
Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack & Rose, Personal Velocity: Three Portraits)
Claudia Myers (Kettle of Fish)
Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season)
Clare Peploe (High Season)
Evelyn Purcell (Nobody’s Fool)
Susan Seidelman (Making Mr. Right)
Julie Shles (Pick A Card aka Afula Express)
Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl)
Marisol Torres (Chicago Boricua aka Boricua)
Rose Troche (Go Fish)
Linda Yellen (The Simian Line)
How many were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture or Best Director? None.
Defining One’s Work
What is the work that defines a director? Is it one project? Yes, sometimes, and occasionally that’s because it’s the only project they do, but more often it’s because it was critically acclaimed, a box office success, or completely tanked. Is it different for women than for men? As a beginning filmmaker who doesn’t work within a larger filmmaking community at the moment, I can’t say. But what I often read is that yes, it is different for women, by and large. One reason is that male directors often handle much larger budgets than women directors. Again, let’s ask “why”? As one blogger recently put it: “How long can we hold Ishtar against Elaine May and the rest of her gender?” Now, a part of me would argue against this comment — Ishtar had a wacky premise with two giants of cinema starring opposite each other (each known to have quite strong on-set personalities), and the production was plagued with problems. That can definitely throw off a film’s mojo, no matter who’s starring or who’s directing. (Nice to know, though, that there is now a faithful cult following for Ishtar.) Elaine May, the writer/director of Ishtar, is a giant of American comedy and recognized by multiple generations of male and female writers and comedians as such.
But part of me would also support this comment, though — holding up a project which has tanked at the box office and which was also directed by a woman gives male-dominated studios an excuse (not a reason, an excuse) to undervalue and devalue women’s directorial work and therefore not fund it on par with a man’s. But this also begs the question: Why do male directors whose work has tanked at the box office continue to get the opportunity to keep working with big budgets? Hmm… I think I hear crickets.
One interesting point about this list of women directors is that many of them moved into television directing AFTER they made their first film(s). Is television an easier medium for women in which to work? Do male directors, after making their first film or two, (especially with low budgets) gravitate toward that medium as well? I’d be interested in reading something about what seems to be a trend for many women filmmakers. I notice it not just with this group of directors, but in other cases as well. If you readers have any information you can send my way, please do! And don’t be shy to share your experiences as well, especially if you moved into a different medium after making your first film.
Have You Seen This Film?
If you have seen any of the films listed above, let me know! I’m particularly interested in women filmmakers’ opinions on other women filmmakers’ work and the context in which they work to make their films. Over the next few months I plan to utilize my trusty DVD-by-mail service to try to secure some of these films to watch, then will review them here. I might even try to get one of these directors to comment, but we’ll wait and see about that. Until then, here’s to happy viewing and continuous employment!