Female directors are flooding today’s theaters more than ever, with movies as diverse as the women themselves. Yet the struggle for equality, recognition and respect continues.
Moving beyond the traditional female arena of romantic comedies, these new films range from Kasi Lemmons’ critical smash “Talk to Me,” starring Don Cheadle as a sharp-tongued disc jockey, to the upcoming romance from hell “2 Days in Paris,” the culmination of actress Julie Delpy’s 20-year battle to reach the director’s chair.
Despite the recent bumper crop of films, however, the statistics for female directors remain dismal.
Of the roughly 13,400 members of Directors Guild of America, only about 1,000, or 7 percent, are listed as female directors. (Total female membership, which includes people on the directing team like assistant directors and unit production managers, is about 3,000 or 22 percent.)
No woman has ever won an Academy Award for best director, and only three have ever been nominated: Lena Wertmuller for 1975’s “Seven Beauties,” Jane Campion for 1993’s “The Piano” and Sofia Coppola for 2003’s “Lost in Translation.” A woman has never won the Directors Guild’s top honor, either, though six have been nominated.
“It’s discouraging. I think people get tired of hearing the same news,” said Robin Swicord, a longtime screenwriter (“Little Women,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) directing for the first time with “The Jane Austen Book Club,” due out Sept. 21.
Tremendous work, but little progress
This year has seen tremendous work from actress Sarah Polley, making her writing and directing debut at just 28 with the stirring Alzheimer’s drama “Away From Her.” Australian Cherie Nowlan gave us the family comedy “Introducing the Dwights,” and Zoe Cassavetes followed in the footsteps of father John Cassavetes with her first feature, the indie “Broken English.”
Shari Springer Berman co-directed the big-screen adaptation of “The Nanny Diaries” (out Aug. 24) with her husband, Robert Pulcini. Helen Hunt’s directorial debut, the romantic comedy “Then She Found Me,” premieres at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. Kirsten Sheridan’s musical, “August Rush,” is due Oct. 19.
Next March marks the return of Kimberly Peirce with her first film since 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry”: “Stop Loss,” about a soldier returning from the Iraq war, which was inspired by her brother. And, of course, Valerie Faris co-directed the small gem “Little Miss Sunshine,” which was nominated for four Oscars and won two.
But one would think there would be even more progress by now, considering the great strides women have made in other professional arenas — including studio leadership. (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal and DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider declined to be interviewed for this story; the pioneering former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing was traveling and unavailable.)
“Thirty-five years ago, the statistics were dismal in the executive ranks and now we’ve got women at the highest level of management at all the studios and all the networks,” said Jane Fleming, president of the nonprofit Women in Film. “You’ve got to hope that the creative arts will follow in the next 35 years.”
So why don’t female studio executives look out for female filmmakers?
“I don’t believe that women studio executives are deliberately not seeking out (female) talent,” said Fleming, who also runs a production company. “They’re all really busy — they’re doing the best they can. I think it’s the job of organizations like Women in Film to get people’s product in their hands, to have screenings, to get it out in the press that we’ve got young directors that we’re supporting. It’s about getting representation to fight harder for their clients.”
Old boys' club reigns in Hollywood
Which brings us to the issue of the kinds of movies women have been expected to make. Mimi Leder is an anomaly for having directed the action movies “Deep Impact” and “The Peacemaker”; so is Kathryn Bigelow, who was behind “Point Break” and “K-19: The Widowmaker.”
“Hollywood is still an old boys’ club and boys are bullies. ... The ultimate symbol of the film industry is a man, Oscar, clutching a sword and standing on a reel of film because he’s defending his turf,” said Tom O’Neil, columnist for theenvelope.com Web site. “I think that says it all.”
“Part of it is society’s fault,” he said. “When a man and a woman on a date decide to see a movie, the man is less likely to see ‘Thelma & Louise.’ ” (Which, by the way, was directed a man, Ridley Scott.) “When the genders combine to go out to see a movie, the man still rules. It has to appeal to him. They will go see ‘The Departed’ but they won’t go see ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.’ ”
Delpy says she fought for two decades to direct screenplays she’d written for thrillers or political dramas. Even an Oscar nomination for co-writing 2004’s “Before Sunset” didn’t help much. To get the money for “2 Days in Paris,” she said she tricked her financiers into thinking she was making a romantic comedy about a French woman (herself) and an American man (Adam Goldberg).
“What’s funny is, now people are trying to contact me to do movies,” Delpy adds, “like, they’re looking for a female director, and it’s all about a relationship. You know what? I don’t want to make a movie that they want a female director for. To me, first of all, it’s condescending. What does that mean? Is it about breastfeeding?”
More than just ‘chick flicks’
In “Talk to Me,” Cheadle plays Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., an ex-con who served as the voice for urban blacks during the tumultuous 1960s. The movie contains rioting, explosions, and a whole lot of sex and rough language.
Clearly, Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) has made the furthest thing possible from a “chick flick.”
“It feels very, very me,” she says of the material with a laugh. “It really does. I had one second of self-consciousness before my first meeting to go in as the director, one moment of like, ‘OK, I’m a woman, I know I have to convince them that I’m capable of directing a movie like this, or that I’m the right person.’ And it was not just being a woman, it was based on my past work — like, ‘Am I versatile enough to do a piece like this?’ ”
“I’m a little bit more of a fighter. He’s a quieter person. I’m actually more of the pit bull, which is not what you’d expect from the woman and the man. You can ask anyone who works with us — Bob shies from conflict more and I kind of go right at it. Bob is very visually inclined, he likes to spend a lot of time with the cameras, and I like to spend a lot of time with the actors. Maybe discussing feelings or emotions might be more of a female-oriented thing.
“I do find that we get treated differently by the crew,” she added. “People have a hard time seeing me as the director if Bob is around. There’s always a little bit of, they go to him. It’s a fight sometimes to be taken seriously as a director.”
Juggling work and family
Having adopted a son after finishing “The Nanny Diaries,” Berman is also about to find herself in the tricky position so many female professionals do: juggling family with work. “Friends With Money” writer-director Nicole Holofcener works steadily, but if there’s a gap between her movies, she says, it’s because she wants the time to take her 9-year-old twin sons to school. And Sheridan, already the mother of a 4-year-old daughter while making “August Rush,” recently gave birth to a son.
“There definitely aren’t (many female directors). I think a huge part of that is family, you know, and just how tough it can be on family,” said Sheridan, who was nominated for an Oscar for writing 2002’s “In America” with her sister and their father, veteran director Jim Sheridan. “I guess you get that in everything, it’s part of whatever job you might have, but I think particularly in film because it’s just a machine that is unstoppable.
“I’m kind of hoping that I can get to the point where I’m in enough control that I can call the shots a little bit more with how it all works,” she added. “Having kids on set, having day care on set — I’d love to do that for other women in the crew as much as myself.”
Just getting that first gig, though, can be hard enough. Women in Film hopes to boost the number of new directors by offering scholarships to students and funds to help women finish their films. They also match up aspiring directors with writers and crews to shoot public service announcements for charities that deal with women’s issues.
“I wish that there was a secret. I wish I could say to someone what to do,” Holofcener said. “I guess I wrote about what was important to me. I kept it personal. I kept it simple. I didn’t try to fit into any kind of mode — ‘I’ll write a genre, I’ll write action.’ I didn’t have to do that.
“Ultimately the one I tried hardest with was ‘Walking and Talking (1996).’ That wasn’t a compromise in terms of, I just have to get my foot in. Maybe that helps — if you’re driven by the need to tell something that’s important to you, maybe that makes you ridiculously driven.”
“Studio people tell me that they need indie directors to make studio movies so they know they can count on them — that when they start pushing hard against them, they’re not going to crash,” Peirce said. “It’s getting women into the system. Women are making indie movies that are wonderful and if they can keep doing that, that’s great. But if they can cross over and can take on a project they can handle ... just to have done one studio movie will open up a whole lot of opportunities for them.”
The rare example of a woman operating at the highest echelons of the studio system is Nancy Meyers, whose films “The Holiday,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and “What Women Want” have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Meyers makes smart, glossy romantic comedies. The question is, though, are women drawn to other kinds of material that can translate into big box office and prestigious prizes? Many say they’re interested in telling more intimate, character-driven stories — though Delpy says she’d love to do a huge sci-fi film. And as awards expert O’Neil points out, testosterone-fueled movies like “The Departed,” “Braveheart” and “Dances With Wolves” win Oscars.
Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said there’s no good answer why the directors’ branch of the academy — which chooses the nominees for best director and is about 6 percent female — has only nominated three women. But he ventured that a combination of two factors could be at work: Financiers may feel reluctant to back a woman as the director of a large-scale movie, and women generally may not be interested in such material.
“Would a woman have made ‘The Departed’? Maybe that’s the next goal,” said Ganis, a longtime producer and former studio executive. “Maybe women directors will be seen as able to do ‘Terminator 5,’ or some major action movie. Maybe that is breaking the next stereotype model.’
Delpy had the same idea in mind — she just phrased it a little differently.
“A woman has to make a bunch of blockbusters, one after another,” she said, “and shut everyone’s mouth.”