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Saturday 3 December 2016

Ladies, Camera, Action

Published 26/02/2012 | 06:00

Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie

Men have been hogging the director's chair since the early days of Hollywood -- but Angelina Jolie is the latest in a long line of women to wrestle back some of that control.

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Angelina Jolie is sometimes dismissed as a woman more famous for being famous than for any of her professional accomplishments. But she has surprised many by turning to directing, and her debut feature was released in the US just before Christmas.

In the Land of Blood and Honey, which Ms Jolie both wrote and directed, is set in Sarajevo in 1992 on the eve of the Bosnian War, and tells the story of a Muslim woman and a Bosnian Serb policeman whose relationship is distorted by the outbreak of hostilities.

It's been pretty well received by the critics, but Ms Jolie has admitted she didn't find directing easy.

"I had a complete breakdown in the shower," she said, "and Brad found me crying. I felt this huge responsibility and I felt very small -- I thought 'who am I to take this on?'"

Ms Jolie later got to grips with the task, and says she'd like to direct again, but her initial reaction perhaps explains why female directors are still such a rare breed.

While progress has been made, the fact a film has been made by a woman is still worthy of note.

In the earliest days of cinema, the careers of pioneering film-makers like Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber suggested that the new motion picture industry would provide a level playing field for women.

This, of course, did not turn out to be the case. Female actors are still paid less than men, and until the 1960s almost all Hollywood's producers and directors were male.

The few brave women who tried to muscle in were derided. The 1940s acting star Ida Lupino showed real flair directing tough film-noir dramas like The Hitch-Hiker, but by the 1960s she was plying her trade on TV.

Barbra Streisand remains the only woman to have won a Golden Globe as Best Director: only four women have ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and in 2010 Kathryn Bigelow became the first female winner with The Hurt Locker.

The fact that The Hurt Locker was not some feel-good weepie or frothy comedy is significant. It was a gritty, gripping war film, and as tough and unflinching a mainstream action film as any man has made.

It's a sign things are changing, and it's down to an exceptional band of female directors who have broken through the film industry's last glass ceiling.

Jane Campion

Jane Campion left her native New Zealand in the 1970s to travel around Europe, and she returned home with a passion for art house cinema. She gained international acclaim with her debut feature, Sweetie (1989), the tragic story of an emotionally disturbed teenager.

Her second film, An Angel at My Table (1990) won the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Festival, and her 1993 period drama The Piano won a screenplay Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Campion's films deal unflinchingly with the barriers faced by women both historically and currently.

Best film: The Piano

On directing: "The studio system is kind of an old boys' system and it's difficult for them to trust women to be capable ... "

Julie Taymor

Massachusetts-born Julie Taymor is most famous around these parts for falling out with U2 over their Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. But she's also a serious filmmaker, who came to prominence with the gory 1999 version of Shakepeare's Titus Andronicus.

Her 2002 biopic Frida was widely praised. She stepped outside her arty comfort zone with Across the Universe (2007), a love story based on songs of The Beatles.

But she's on safer ground with Shakespeare, and her 2010 film version of The Tempest daringly reimagined Prospero as a woman, played by Helen Mirren.

Best film: Titus

On directing: "I get very excited and moved when young women come up to me and say, I want to do what you do."

Nora Ephron

While women directors like Jane Campion and Julie Taymor produce critically acclaimed movies, Nora Ephron's films make money. Born in New York in 1941, Ephron initially made her name as a writer, and got her first screenwriting experience working on a draft of All the President's Men with her then-husband, Carl Bernstein.

She had huge success in 1992 with only her second film as director, Sleepless in Seattle, which grossed over $220m. Stars, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, teamed up with Ephron again in 1998 to make You've Got Mail, another rom-com hit.

Her films are unashamedly mainstream, and don't always work (for instance the awful Bewitched). But she knows how to direct a comedy, and her writing is impressive too.

Best film: Sleepless in Seattle

On directing: "I just think it's a way of marginalising you if they say you're a successful woman director ... "

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt debut feature River of Grass (1994) was an uncompromising look at a dysfunctional family, and her subsequent work has tended to focus on the poor and dispossessed.

Reichardt struck a resounding chord in 2008 with her road movie Wendy and Lucy. Michelle Williams played a girl who lives in her car with a dog. The film perfectly caught the mood of a country on the verge of another Great Depression. In 2010, Reichardt expanded her repertoire with the slow-moving revisionist western, Meek's Cutoff.

Best film: Wendy and Lucy

On directing: "I had 10 years in the mid-90s where I couldn't get a movie made -- it had a lot to do with being a woman."

Lisa Cholodenko

LA-born Lisa Cholodenko also took a long time to establish herself as a top-flight director. After impressing with her first film, High Art (1998), which detailed the love affair between two predatory and devious lesbians, Ms Cholodenko struggled and ended up directing TV shows.

Some critics praised her witty 2002 drama Laurel Canyon, but the film was a box office flop. She bounced back with an unexpected hit in The Kids are All Right in 2010.

Inspired in part by the writer/director's own life, the film starred Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple whose teenage children decide they want to find out who their father is. It was nominated for four Oscars, and Ms Cholodenko is now working on a TV show based on the film.

Best film: The Kids are All Right

On directing: "The dollar is king and it's men who are typically attracted to the kind of material that brings in the masses -- comic books, thrillers, special effects."

Sofia Coppola

Being the daughter of one of the greatest film-makers in post-war American cinema, Sofia Coppola was always going to struggle to prove herself a talented director in her own right.

In fact, she started out as an actress, but the savage reviews that greeted her performance in The Godfather Part III in 1990 effectively ended all that.

In any case Ms Coppola had always been more interested in directing, and her first short, 1998's Lick the Star, showed flair and originality. Her first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), was a stylish adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel.

But Ms Coppola's big breakthrough came with her next film, Lost in Translation, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2004 Academy Awards, won an Oscar for its screenplay and was a huge international hit.

Best film: Lost in Translation

On directing: "There's so many more (women directors) than when I started -- that's encouraging."

Kathryn Bigelow

Very much the outsider among the current crop of female directors, Kathryn Bigelow has managed to penetrate that most male of genres, the action picture.

Her breakthrough film was the 1989 thriller Blue Steel, which starred Jamie Lee Curtis.

Ms Bigelow was briefly married to James Cameron in the 1990s, and he wrote and produced her disturbing 1995 sci-fi thriller Strange Days. But it's in the last decade that she's emerged as an A-list director.

Her 2002 Cold War thriller K-19: The Widowmaker was Oscar-nominated, and in 2009 Ms Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. She's currently planning a film on Osama Bin Laden's death.

Best film: The Hurt Locker

On directing: "If there's specific resistance to women making movies I choose to ignore that for two reasons -- I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies."

pwhitington@independent.ie

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