Back home in Queens, NY, there was a tiny, rundown movie theater located on a street near my junior high school. Every once in a while, my sister and I walked to the theater after school and paid $3 (discounted from regular price with our student bus passes) to catch the latest early 90s pop movie. There we would sit, squirming in the loose-coiled red-cushioned seats with the inadequate sound system ringing in our ears. Despite our obvious discomfort, we always managed to lean back and allow our wide eyes to absorb the brightness of the glowing screen. Although we would often leave the theater with crooked backs and unidentifiable objects stuck to our soles, the moments we spent in that theater were unforgettable.
This past weekend, I witnessed my sister recreating these timeless moments in a rundown theater in Providence. Granted, theater is not the silver screen, but the intentions of immediate public entertainment are always evident in both art forms. The play Kid Simple was my sister’s big post graduation directorial debut on the road towards a career in the film industry. Yes, that’s two strikes against her: she wants to be a director and she is a woman — she’s sure to starve. Well, at least that’s what I thought when she first approached our family with her career plan. How many successful female directors can you name off the top of your head? Up until that point, I could only name male directors: Spielberg, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Altman, Chaplin, Scorsese — no women. Thus began my search for women in film.
Theater goes dark. Curtain rises. Narrator enters stage left.
Ladies and gentlemen, a manipulation of history has occurred. It has been brought to my attention that in the more than 90-year history of film, women have received the shaft by self-crediting men who have claimed the business as their own. According to the sexist art historian, H. W. Janson, “Women artists have often done very interesting variations on themes that ultimately go back to somebody else who turns out to be a man.” Historians, who often tend to record “his story” and forget “her story,” have suppressed female filmmakers long enough. Although D.W. Griffith is recognized as the father of feature film, for every great man there is an even greater woman. It is time these ladies take center stage and claim the recognition they rightfully-deserve.
• Alice Guy Blache is the first narrative film director in the history of this male-dominated industry. Between 1896 and 1968, this French filmmaker “directed, produced and supervised nearly 300 films,” according to Ally Acker’s tribute novel, “Reel Women.” Despite her great success, she was compelled to maintain a dainty demeanor, a sense of femininity that contributed to the culturally accepted role of women during that era. However, the repressed Blache did manage to tackle some women’s issues in her films, such as “Sight and Sound,” where women were prophesied to rule the world in the year 2000 and “The Call of the Rose” where a professional opera-singer leaves her gold-miner husband to pursue her career. According to Acker, it was said that, “Whenever a reporter was present, she [Blache] was careful to be demure and soft-spoken — in short, a ‘lady’ every inch of the way.” This remarkable, yet forgotten, motion-picture pioneer helped pave the way for her successors.
• Dorothy Arzner approached the imposed female inferiority issue with a twist. Her power and persistence allowed her to work “from the ground up,” as she called it. “You see, I was not dependent on the movies for my living, so I was always ready to give the picture over to some other director if I couldn’t make it the way I saw it,” Arzner once said. Determined, defiant, and passionate, Arzner asserted her independence in an all-male Hollywood by directing more than 17 blockbuster films, most of which consisted of the major female stars of her day, such as Katharine Hepburn in “Christopher Strong” (1933), psycho-killer Baby Jane’s sister Joan Crawford in “The Bride Wore Red” (1937) and a pre-Ricky Ricardo Lucille Ball in “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940). This courageous woman’s lack of intimidation has made her the only female American director to develop a substantial body of work in the mainstream Hollywood system.
• Lois Weber, the once struggling street corner evangelist, was the first woman to simultaneously coauthor, star, produce, and direct a major motion picture. Motivated by her rebellious instinct, Weber acquired a “reputation as a director/writer who stirred audiences to passionate outrage” says Acker, by tackling controversial issues such as abortion, racism, prostitution and capital punishment, such as “Where Are My Children?,” which focused on the issue of birth control and “The Blot,” concerning underpaid professors. By late 1916, Weber had reached the pinnacle of her career and was hailed by Moving Picture Stories as “the greatest woman director.” The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers remembers her: “Not only was she … the most important female director the American film industry has known, but unlike many of her colleagues up to the present, her work was regarded in its day as equal to, if not a little better than, that of most male directors.”
• Mary Pickford, the actress, producer, and writer seized the role as “America’s Sweetheart” long before Julia Roberts worked her way into Richard Gere’s pants. This gifted actress starred in several silent films such as “Madame Butterfly” and the “Poor Little Rich Girl” before collaborating with film greats Chaplin, Griffith and Fairbanks to form United Artists in 1919. Soon “Little Mary” had complete control — artistically and financially — over her own pictures. This popular, curly haired beauty marked the film industry forever with her million-dollar face and her intuition both in front of and behind the camera.
The ranks of contemporary female film directors include Barbra Streisand (“Yentl”), Penny Marshall (“A League of Their Own”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”), Gillian Armstrong (“Little Women”) and Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact”). Armstrong, the Australian-born director who recently released the film “Charlotte Gray” starring Cate Blanchett, once said in regard to her perception of the feminist issue, “…we will never achieve true equality until people drop the label ‘woman’ before director.” It is because of this label women will remain segregated as professional filmmakers in a category of just “good,” but not as “good” as the big boys.
Leder, who holds the record of the highest-grossing female-directed film, doesn’t even make the cut when compared to the other high-grossing male directors. Regardless of her achievements as a female director, Leder has yet to become a household name. Deborah Swedberg, a professor in the Boston University Women Studies Department, affirms, “There’s no question in the quality of [female] movies; men just are the ones who have the money.”
Many women’s organizations and awards have been established in the last few years to help “empower, promote, nurture and mentor women in the entertainment and media industries.” Women In Film, founded in 1973, is the leading nonprofit organization that sponsors awards such as the Crystal and Lucy Awards to honor outstanding women for their role in the industry. Hopefully, these organizations will one day succeed in reconstructing the image of woman in film and revise ‘his story’ to include ‘her story’ as well. History does not solely belong to its victors anymore.