Transformational Female Directors
By Andie Newell
Imagine walking into a mid-size conference room full of 89 white men and one white woman. Not hard, I know. Just outside the door picture three (now four) more white women, five black men, and one Taiwanese man, surrounded by a sea of white men. No one else is allowed inside the building.
Inside that room are the winners of the Best Achievement in Directing award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: 89 white men and Kathryn Bigelow. Outside are the nominees: countless white men and a handful of white women and men of color who had to fight just to get inside the building. In the surrounding hills of Los Angeles and beyond are hundreds of directors of color and female or nonbinary directors striving to get their work recognized, with a fraction of the resources and a lion’s share of the hurdles. The last time a woman received that recognition was in 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for The Hurt Locker and marched into that ugly conference room with a gold statue clutched in her fist. (I like to imagine she spit on the carpet for good measure, but she comes across as too even-keeled for something like that.)
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Academy Awards, and the nomination of the fifth white woman to stand outside the room, hoping to step inside and take a seat next to Bigelow: Greta Gerwig. Her nomination provides context to reflect on how far Hollywood has come since it first nominated a female director in 1977, and an excuse to brush up on the women who joined her. While the five of them have achieved something truly monumental, their success is only the first step in getting to see more of ourselves reflected on-screen and in closed-door conference rooms around the world.
Who: Lina Wurtmüller
Where she’s from: Rome, Italy
What film scored a nomination, and when: Seven Beauties (1977)
Why you should care: Wurtmüller holds a number of crowns: first woman nominated for the Academy Award for Directing, Guinness World Record holder for the longest film title (Un fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova. Si sospettano moventi politici. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano belle. Tarantelle. Tarallucci e vino., given the English title Blood Feud), most films directed out of the women on this list (a healthy 24 movies). Wurtmüller began directing in 1963 at age 35 and continued until the 2004 release of Too Much Romance… It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers.
The titles of her films may seem outrageous by today’s standards, but the book matches the cover. Never one to shy away from controversial themes, Wurtmüller has tackled communism, feminism, sadomasochism, fascism, and every other -ism conceivable, often all in one picture. Seven Beauties follows a cowardly Italian man during the Second World War and the debasing things he does to survive, all told with the farcical panache that earned Wurtmüller her historic nomination.
How to see more: A Night Full of Rain; A Joke of Destiny; As Long As It’s Love
Industry Insight: “I simply think that there’s no difference between male and female directors. We are artists and our aim is to make good films. It doesn’t depend on your gender. I feel that times are changing; there are many women directors that are very talented and I wish the best to all of them.”
Who: Jane Campion
Where she’s from: Waikanae, New Zealand
What film scored a nomination, and when: The Piano (1994)
Why you should care: Campion is a genuine pioneer in the film industry: as the only female winner of the Palme d’Or and the second woman nominated for the Academy Award for directing, Campion was making movies about women when the rest of the box office was stacked with male-centric action flicks and horror films. The Piano is the gut-wrenching story of a mute pianist named Ada, sent to marry a man in colonial backcountry New Zealand and coerced into trading sexual favors to buy back her instrument. In 1994, audiences were captivated by the resulting romance and the raw portrayal of a woman’s inner psyche, but what read as romance then has become difficult to stomach now. The plot tiptoes the thin line between coercion, consent, lust, and love, with ambiguous results.
Moreso than the majority of the women on this list, both Campion and Wurtmüller wade into the inexplicable territory of feminine sexuality and, by extension, the implications of what it means to be a woman who enjoys sex—and not the perfunctory kind you sit through in a teen romcom. Their heroines wield sex like a butterfly knife, a bargaining chip, or a challenge to traditional and progressive values. Campion’s women dare you to judge them, and this makes them absolutely electrifying.
Industry Insight: “I wanted to bring my interests and concerns into the cinema. Psychologically, women are forced to look at the world through men’s eyes. I wanted to put the other point of view: what it felt like to be a woman expressing yourself, being free, doing your human stuff in what is a pretty patriarchal society.”
Who: Sofia Coppola
Where she’s from: New York City, NY
What film scored a nomination, and when: Lost in Translation (2004)
Why you should care: Sofia Coppola is the master of mood—the marker of a director’s attention to detail and ability to make their vision a cohesive reality for the audience. Lost in Translation wallows in the melancholy of being a tourist in a foreign city and in your own life, all against the neon background of Tokyo’s karaoke bars and high rise hotels. As the daughter of well-respected auteur Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola’s debut joined the family ranks of cult classics, the precedent for many of her later films.
In her work, Coppola dismembers feminine agency and puts it back together, slightly off-kilter. Whether it’s a household of murder-prone Southern belles or suicide-prone teen girls, each somber story elevates the protagonists to mythic status. Of the directors on this list, Coppola’s women are often the most stereotypically feminine and seemingly resemble the women that inspire the manic pixie dream girl trope.
How to see more: The Virgin Suicides; The Beguiled; In Conversation with Kirsten Dunst for AOL Build Series; Interview with DP/30
Who: Kathryn Bigelow
Where she’s from: San Carlos, CA
What film scored a nomination, and when: The Hurt Locker (2010)
Why you should care: The Hurt Locker has hardly any women in it and that, in a shrewd way, makes it a sort of proving ground. Kathryn Bigelow plays hardball, and she does it just as well as the boys. Her body of work leans into genres constantly dominated by men: action, suspense, horror. But even when Bigelow is working within the outlines of those genres, she pays attention to women on the fringes of those stories. Zero Dark Thirty follows a woman in the CIA, Blue Steel follows a rookie cop, and The Weight of Water follows a female journalist investigating the murders of two women.
The Hurt Locker, however, follows an all-male team of bomb diffusers in the Iraq War. In a roundabout way, Gerwig and Bigelow tell two sides of the same quintessentially American story, one local and one international. While Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson watches the war unfold from her living room, Staff Sergeant William James lives it. What separates The Hurt Locker from the rest of the war genre isn’t its female director, but the undeniable craft that makes it one hundred and thirty-one minutes of visceral suspense. Bigelow has a knack for finding the exposed nerve of America’s past; she swings the spotlight onto smaller players and holds up a mirror to tell us that our individual choices can have global consequences.
Industry Insight: “If there's specific resistance to women making movies, 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. It's irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don't. There should be more women directing; I think there's just not the awareness that it's really possible. It is.”
Who: Greta Gerwig
Where she’s from: Sacramento, CA
What film scored a nomination and when: Lady Bird (2017)
Why you should care: Lady Bird may be Gerwig’s directorial debut, but the actress-writer-producer and now director has cooked up an impressive body of work by the ripe age of thirty-five. Most of these projects center around the kinds of women you’d meet in real life—complex and multifaceted, with one foot in the modern era and a foot in nostalgia. With Lady Bird, Gerwig seesaws between the two with refreshing compassion for her subjects. If Sofia Coppola’s films preserved the nineties ethos in amber, Gerwig crystallizes the millennial experience of family, suburbia, and youth.
But, much like Campion, some of her work has not aged gracefully. Her past work as an actress in Woody Allen’s To Rome, With Love (2012) was brought up in the wake of the Time’s Up movement, and her hesitance to comment was criticized. A few days after the initial inquiry, Gerwig apologized for her participation in the project and clarified her stance, but the accusations around her involvement only brought into focus the disparity between the way women and men are treated when it comes to Time’s Up: women are held responsible for creating change, while men who enable and “let things slide” are left unquestioned.
Industry Insight: “Take up a lot of space. And actually, don’t feel like anyone is ever going to give you permission to do anything. I think a lot of women wait for permission. They wait for someone to say ‘it’s time’ and ‘go ahead.’ And no one will ever do that. It just never happens. So I think, take up space. Put your name all over a movie. Just every credit.”