Thursday 14 December 2017

Celluloid ceiling - the battle faced by female film-makers

The gender imbalance in movie directing has been very slow to change, but progress is finally being made. Our film critic looks back on female film-makers' long battle for the director's chair

Woman behind the lens: Trailblazing director Sofia Coppola
Woman behind the lens: Trailblazing director Sofia Coppola
Kathryn Bigelow celebrates winning the best director Oscar in 2010 for her film Hurt Locker

Paul Whitington

It was an awkward moment. Iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert tends to tell it like it is, and while hosting a celebration of the Cannes Film Festival's 70th anniversary recently, she robustly made reference to the elephant in the room. "Seventy years of Cannes," she announced, "76 Palmes d'Or, only one of which has gone to a woman… No comment."

TV cameras immediately panned to that woman, New Zealand director Jane Campion, who won back in 1993 with The Piano and was sitting uncomfortably in the audience. And afterwards, Campion endorsed Huppert's withering analysis, saying "too long - 24 years! And before that, there was no one - it's insane". Campion's long wait didn't end this year, as the 2017 Palme d'Or went to Ruben Östlund's The Square. But Sofia Coppola was awarded Best Director for her atmospheric western drama The Beguiled, only the second woman to win in that category.

But under-representation of female directors in the film industry is the problem that just won't go away. And every time progress seems to have been made - like Coppola's recent win at Cannes, or when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar in 2009 - the industry takes two steps backward.

Of the top-grossing 250 films made in 2016, just 7pc were directed by women, less than in 2015 and - depressingly - exactly the same as in 1998. The issue is under the spotlight as never before, and during Cannes, Nicole Kidman vowed that she would make sure to work with a female director every 18 months, a tacit acknowledgement that things aren't changing for women film-makers nearly as fast as they should be.

Kathryn Bigelow celebrates winning the best director Oscar in 2010 for her film Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow celebrates winning the best director Oscar in 2010 for her film Hurt Locker

The fact that the new superhero blockbuster Wonder Woman was directed by a female - Patty Jenkins - is worthy of comment says a great deal about how trenchantly masculine Hollywood remains. But there are reasons for hope, and a new wave of female directors such as Amma Asante, Miranda July, Jennifer Kent, Ava DuVernay and Sarah Polley are getting further faster than women have hitherto. But they owe their success, at least in part, to the brave pioneers that went before them.

When cinema first arose as a popular art form in the early 20th century, it reflected the mores of wider society. From the start, it was dominated by men, and thanks to the macho antics of early film-makers like Cecil B DeMille and John Ford, who wore riding boots and silly hats and affected military airs, directing was seen as an exclusively male preserve.

Behind the camera, there was no place for women creatively, and in the early Hollywood studios, they tended to work as assistants, or in typing pools. There were female stars of course, but actresses were often cast aside once the first wrinkle appeared.

There were exceptions, formidable players like Mary Pickford, who founded her own studio. But the greatest exception of all, perhaps, was Alice Guy-Blaché. In the 1890s, Alice was working as a secretary at Léon Gaumont's still-photography company when they began experimenting with motion pictures.

She became obsessed with incorporating fictional storytelling elements into cinema, and Gaumont gave her the time and space to make her first film, La Fée aux Choux (1896), a charming comedy about a women who grows children in a cabbage patch, and from it sprung an extraordinary career during which she wrote, directed and produced as many as 700 films. She began experimenting with colour-tinting and special effects, and her approach to visual storytelling was hugely influential.

Lois Weber is, or ought to be, the patron saint of female American directors: an actress, writer, producer and director, she came to prominence during the Great War, making a series of powerful silent films that combined strong commercial appeal with social and moral themes. She's often credited with inventing the split-screen technique, and memorably tackled the hidden problem of genteel poverty in her 1921 masterpiece The Blot.

Despite their groundbreaking work, however, Guy-Blaché and Weber blazed a trail that few others could follow. In fact, things seemed to get worse, and from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, only one female film director was working in the United States. Dorothy Arzner invented the first sound boom using a fishing rod, and helped launch the careers of actresses such as Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball. When Arzner's achievements were honoured by the Directors Guild of America in 1975, Hepburn sent a telegram that read: "Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career when you had no right to have a career at all?"

Making films was always harder if you happened to be a woman, as Ida Lupino would discover. The London-born actress came to Hollywood while still in her teens, and was dubbed "the English Jean Harlow" by some clown in the Paramount publicity department.

She ended up at Warner Brothers, where she became a star. But she infuriated Jack Warner by making script revisions herself and refusing to take on roles that were beneath her. Actresses were supposed to look nice, not have ideas, and she ended up getting suspended.

Tired of sitting around on sets while "someone else" did "all the interesting work", she took to directing. She would become a wily and creative low-budget film-maker, and during the early 1950s made a string of atmospheric and well-received dramas, including The Hitch-Hiker, the first ever film-noir directed by a female. One would have thought things might improve in the more enlightened 1960s and 1970s. Not so, however, and film-makers like Chantal Akerman remained glorious exceptions to the rule. Her 1977 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was dubbed "the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema" and told the story of a financially strapped single mother who takes up prostitution.

Despite continuing iniquities and stubbornly depressing statistics, things have really looked up for female film-makers in recent times. Just look at the quality of the work being produced by women like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik.

Granik's second feature, Winter's Bone (2011), was one of the best American films of the last decade, and launched the career of one Jennifer Lawrence. Kelly Reichardt is an independent film-maker of rare vision, and has joined forces with Michelle Williams to make a series of films (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff, Certain Women) exploring the violence and iniquity at the heart of the American experience.

British film-makers Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay have produced works of consistently high quality. Arnold's Fish Tank (2009) was a raw and searing social drama, while Ramsay's 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin brilliantly explored a high-school shooting from the point of view of the perpetrator's mother.

But you could argue that the women who've done most to shake up the lazy prejudices of the film industry are the directors who've worked on the big-budget genre movies pumped out by Hollywood. Nora Ephron, who died in 2012, made her name as a screenwriter before branching out into directing. She specialised in romcoms and was pretty good at them, writing and directing Sleepless in Seattle, Julie & Julia, and You've Got Mail.

Catherine Hardwicke was originally a production designer, and won critical acclaim for her début feature Thirteen, before going on to score a huge box-office hit with the first - and best - of the Twilight movies.

But Kathryn Bigelow has perhaps achieved most in the mainstream arena. Her early films were bold, and full of ideas, and in 2009 she fulfilled her promise in The Hurt Locker, a searing thriller starring Jeremy Renner as an army bomb-disposal expert who's addicted to the thrill of danger. It won Best Picture and Best Director at the 82nd Academy Awards, and her next film, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), was every bit as good - a timely, gripping drama charting the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Bigelow has never allowed her sex to get in the way of her ambitions.

"If there's a specific resistance to women making movies," she has said, "I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons - I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies."

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