There are women who have become icons in literature, even if contenders for the “Great American Novel” are reserved for men. Surely Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good candidate for the title, even if it is routinely beaten on predictable lists by The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick. But Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Jane Austen — the list goes on and on — these are among the countless women writers who are respected, worshiped and iconized alongside men (though perhaps not quite to the same degree). Same goes for the visual arts of painting and photography. Men tend to be the more worshiped in the chef arena but who can top Julia Child?
One of the last bastions where women aren’t iconized is the pantheon of film directors, or film writers. Sure, a woman can break through if the film is good enough but how does the person become a worshiped god the way, say, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock have become, so that even in their sloppiest, least focused moments there are hundreds of apologists who continue to defend them and help preserve their image. I know because I have been one of those. Most of my directing heroes are men. There are very few women who have had a chance to show us the right stuff to raise them to the worship zone.
Let’s take two examples: Sofia Coppola and Diablo Cody. Both of these women are distinctive enough, fiery enough, creative enough to have earned icon status, at the very least in the movie fandom universe. But Coppola has been mostly dismissed since Lost in Translation. No one really got Marie Antoinette — not even in that way male directors can be forgiven for films that are big risks that don’t quite come off. The Bling Ring was dismissed then ignored. If anyone should have achieved icon status it’s Coppola, she of the fashion, music and photography realms. Yet, other than her iconic influence in fashion, she has yet to become a director worthy of worship.
It’s been even worse for Diablo Cody, who cultivated an image not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s. Cody brought with her a whole universe, even creating a world with its own vocabulary. She was a stripper made good. She had tattoos. She was funny. She was cool. And yet, after Juno won her an Oscar it was then decided she was no longer cool. From then on, no one really forgave anything she did. The way people have already started to talk about Ricky and the Flash, it’s as if they’re talking about the last gasp of a fading rock-star playing a mid-size stadium in Fresno.
Of course, the one way women ARE worshiped as icons in film? For their looks. The most beautiful women hold the most power over film fans and thus, it is left in the hands of great male directors to bring their beauty into the realm of the goddess — as Hitchcock did for Grace Kelly. Among onscreen goddesses there are Sofia Loren, Jane Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Scarlett Johansson, to name just a few.
Some directors in the past recognized this. Hollywood wasn’t always only about hiring hot young pieces of ass. Remember how unusual it was when Kubrick cast Shelly Duvall in The Shining. Do you think anyone would cast that actress today in that part? Not a chance. Robert Altman was famous for casting odd-looking women in leading roles, for toying with our expectations of beauty as fantasy. Fellini satirized the whole thing in La Dolce Vita, even if that message was lost on many. And of course, Ingmar Bergman did both – dropping to his knees for a pretty face while also exploring a colorful array of women’s stories beyond their beauty.
I’m wondering what it’s going to take for women to become icons behind the camera and whether or not other women — those who watch films and write about them — might play a role in subsequently tearing them down. Why does it seem so many women are not allowed to succeed because as soon as they grasp the brass ring they’re then resented by the so-called sisterhood? I’m thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow who decided to take her own career into her own hands and not rely on the male gaze to define her success. She created Goop, which has now earned her endless amounts of criticism. I’m also thinking of Oprah who is punished for her singular success in life, overcoming unbelievable obstacles to become a force to be reckoned with — someone with endless curiosity for art, film, literature and politics — yet because she’s Oprah she’s never really allowed to get the credit she deserves. There is always resentment against her as we saw at play this past year with Selma.
Men are often encouraged, noticed and iconized right out of the gate, as we’ve just seen happen to Damien Chazelle this past Oscar season. Tim Burton and Kenneth Branagh are now officially former male iconic directors in need of a career intervention. A chimpanzee could have directed Cinderella and sold tickets, and yet they couldn’t even give that no-brainer job to a woman?
Kathryn Bigelow once seemed to be acceptable on all points — pretty, thin, talented — making movies the boys liked. It seemed for a time like she might become the first major female director to reach icon status, but then remember how they ushered in Ben Affleck in 2012 while harshly shunting Bigelow to the side. Everyone felt so sorry for Affleck for not getting a nomination for Argo but with Bigelow it was kind of like how it was this year with Ava DuVernay — a verdict deemed almost acceptable given the supposed “crimes” of their films.
So what’s it going to take? It’s going to take a village of people who are outside your average film critic, fanboy blogger or 12-year-old boy. It’s going to take getting to know directors beyond just looking at their films, because I can tell you that when people sit down to watch an Eastwood movie, a Spielberg movie, a Woody Allen movie, or a Tarantino movie they’re sitting down with a director they know and love. Most of them don’t know any of the women directors in the same way.
That sense of “knowing” a great director for his filmography may be the very thing that’s so far been withheld from women. Until this past decade, precious few women have ever been given the chance to establish a foothold with that kind of audience familiarity. The value of being handed first-class opportunities is a priceless factor in attaining first-class status.
For example, imagine if Jane Campion had been given the opportunity to direct Silence of the Lambs? What if Kathryn Bigelow had been tapped to direct Munich? If Nora Ephron been offered Broadcast News? Or if Sophia Coppola had directed Million Dollar Baby? Naturally, the results would have been different movies, but there’s no reason to think they could not have been just as good, or even better, than the films now regarded as modern classics.
Clearly we lionize male directors because of the films they have made — but even men will ordinarily need to direct 4 or 5 great films before cinemaphiles elevate them to gods. Until very recently, it’s been impossible for any women to reach Director Goddess status because women simply never got the chance to show the world what they can do.
It’s easy enough to think of dozens of major movies directed by top-tier men the past 10 years and re-imagine what the results could have be if those films had been given to the best female directors to handle. But if we try to do the same thing with movies made much earlier than the mid-1990s, it’s virtually impossible to think of any female directors who were remotely close to having the training or experience to handle a major studio film.
For instance, what female director could have possibly done The Godfather? There just wasn’t any woman in that era who had ever been been given a chance to establish herself — and more importantly, no chance to polish her talent. Honestly, what prominent female directors even existed before 1970? Leni Riefenstahl, Ida Lupino, Lina Wertmuller? That’s about it.
Thankfully things are changing now, and with each success by a female director we hope to see the change accelerating. In the past 10 or 20 years we have seen more great female directors emerge than were ever given the chance in the entire prior history of movies. If there were only 5 female directors in the 80 years between 1920-2000, we can now welcome 50 more women directors in the 21st Century.
I’ll give credit to many film critics who do seem to know and appreciate obscure female directors that the mainstream critics don’t. I remember how a few of them really stood up for Claire Denis at Cannes this past year. Think about the cinematic style of Lena Wertmuller – totally recognizable as its own universe. Do we have any modern females who have that same kind of portable universe that is enriched with each film? How many auteurs do we have? What kinds of unfair restrictions do we put on them?
Women like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers did bring their personalities, sensibilities and universes with them — but they were mostly women-centric universes. Ephron in particular really did create her own language with the films she made, even if she was completely underrated ultimately. Would that the industry coddled and encouraged artists like Elaine May, Carrie Fisher, Nora Ephron, Diane Keaton, Tina Fey — giving them a kind of boost to help bring their universes to audiences to help shape the common definition of what it means to be an icon.
I’m still hoping Bigelow has her icon status firmed up and reserved, that nothing can really knock her out of it now that she’s the first and only woman to win the Best Director Oscar. I’m also hoping Ms. DuVernay retains her badass status, a woman unafraid to cower to the powers that be this past year when she was put on trial for supposedly defaming LBJ. DuVernay is quickly establishing her own stylistic universe, her own film language, like Bigelow, and it’s exciting to contemplate her fascinating evolution.
That kind of evolution can become a revolution in the industry if the women who buy tickets to movies and the women who write about movies can begin to hold female directors in the same esteem they give to men. It will stay that way when we reward women filmmakers with the same kind of fan worship we so easily grant to male directors. It will stay that way once we all start encouraging the fresh voices of film language that filmmakers like Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion bring to cinema. It is going to take a shift in how we see women, the chance to break free of the chains of beauty where women are too often defined and judged by their tits, their asses, and their pretty faces.
[Sidebar: You have no idea all that goes into making a woman look pretty or presentable. It isn’t just the hours spent applying makeup and doing hair. It’s all of the other maintenance like dieting, getting our nails done, plucking unwanted hair. It takes time and money and energy to look good. How can anyone get anything meaningful done when all of their time is spent on looking pretty? Unless you’re someone like Georgia O’Keefe and you roll out of bed looking like a million bucks, it’s hard out there for a woman who prefers to focus on the work.]
We like to think that we as a society are above the whole looks thing but we really aren’t. For women it’s a hundred times worse than it will ever be for men. For women of color a hundred times multiplied by another hundred. It’s a great thing to be admired. Sexual power is a thrilling thing to possess. But when will women ever be regarded in any other way but the way they look when it comes to film?
Is it about looks or is it about something more sinister — perhaps a general hatred or resentment by men of all the things women care about, talk about and think about? I don’t have the answers, only the questions. The Directors Branch in the Academy represent among the very worst where change is concerned. Here are the films that were nominated for Best Picture — even when there were only five nominees — and not nominated for Best Director:
Children of a Lesser God
The Prince of Tides
Little Miss Sunshine (by half)
The Kids Are All Right
Zero Dark Thirty
The Academy itself helped solved this problem when they had a flat ten nominees.
Count how many films nominated for Best Picture directed by women — but it didn’t solve the Directors Branch continual shut-out of women.
Picture – 2 | Best Director 1 (winner)
Picture – 2 | Best Director 0
Picture – 2 | Best Director 0
Picture – 1 | Best Director 0
Picture – 0 | Best Director 0
Picture – 1 | Best Director 0
Because the opportunities have been given more freely to men, it’s the men who are allowed to build up their canon, indulged with their vision of the world, able to repeat certain themes. With women, they barely get one crack at it, let alone many.
One film made by Penny Marshall that does well doesn’t necessarily mean the next film by Penny Marshall — even if it’s a success — will necessarily build up the legacy of Penny Marshall. Women are looked upon not as auteurs but rather hired guns who may or may not be able to make a movie as good as a man can.
Unless female directors can build a body of work that includes films that step outside their comfort zone of “relationship movies” they are going to be regarded as niche directors. I can make, incidentally, this same argument for black (or specifically African American) directors. Spike Lee is one of the few who built a body of work with its own language and universe — a total standout, vision wise, and someone who was not accepted readily as, say, a Quentin Tarantino is.
My own theory is that men dominate the conversation and make the deals. They idealize directors because they can live vicariously through them. It’s harder for your average straight man to envy or idealize a female in the same way. To them, a female represents something to possess, to obtain as a mark of success or someone to impress, rather than someone they necessarily want to BE. There are exceptions to every rule and there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part that’s what I see.
Now that there are more ways to become famous beyond relying on journalists or critics I expect this to change. We can all do better getting to know and making icons of women — just look at how warmly the world of Lena Dunham has been embraced (though just barely). She took to Twitter to help build her own image. DuVernay and Lexi Alexander are also using Twitter to build their own personae outside of the mainstream media’s restrictions. This is a good thing, even if it’s a hard thing. You take a lot of shit for being outspoken on Twitter, especially if you’re female.