With all the talk of Game of Thrones and Endgame dominating the pop culture universe, we thought we’d try some counter programming (though admittedly we do get drawn into discussing comic book heroes). Although the climate has finally started to change in Hollywood, historically women directors have not been given enough credit. Interestingly, if you go back to the early days of cinema, there were a number of female directors from the silent films of Mabel Normand to Ida Lupino in the 1940s. In the modern era, we see many female directors putting out quality work every year and still very few get nominated for the big awards. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman finally seemed to propel more female directors to be noticed, and we hope this continues. We thought it would be great to honor some of these great directors with six notable examples.
I wish we didn’t have to define director by gender and hopefully, soon it won’t matter. But in the short term women directors should be noticed. I love film – doesn’t matter what gender directs – as both men and women can tell unique stories that mean something to them. I want to see these stories. Three films a piece isn’t nearly enough but I have a newer one and two throwbacks.
You Were Never Really Here (2017) – Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay is a Scottish director who has not really had a film that is very well-known, but I am expecting her to have a big hit soon. She could have easily been nominated for the 2017 film You Were Never Really Here. I mean this film is clearly better than Black Panther and is really an accomplished film. My guess is the film was just not seen by a lot of people. It’s a throwback to the 70s films, in a way it’s a cross between Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Coppola’s The Conversation. It has a lot of quiet moments mixed in with some loud ones. The films rarely spell out what is going on or has any characters ramble on an explanation of the plot. I like that. It has a foreign film feel as well. It has a slow build, there are parts that are tense. Joaquin Phoenix, who I have never been a fan of (Inherent Vice was a complete waste of my time) I actually liked. His quirkiness in roles finally pays off. He is understated yet has an underlying sense of rage. His brutal hired gun Joe rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, has a dark past, and lives with his mother. Joe gets hired to find a state senator’s abducted daughter and then things go off the rails. This is the first film I have seen from Ramsay, and she is quite advanced already, some shots she composes are beautiful and profound. The music choices are different and yet appropriately placed. She really seemed to go back to basics and let what she put on the screen speak for itself. I am very excited to see what comes next and I predict great things to come.
MG: You had me at “Taxi Driver meets The Conversation”. I keep meaning to see this film, and will now move it towards the top of my list. I imagine it’s an accomplishment for any director to wrangle a focused performance out of Joaquin, who just seems like he’d be a pain in the ass to deal with. I haven’t heard of Lynne Ramsay, which is actually probably a good thing. As you said in the opening, we should be moving toward a time when a female director isn’t an outlier or something to remark about in a film review.
Marie Antoinette (2006) – Sofia Coppola
Poor Sofia Coppola got some seriously bad press about her role in her father’s cash grab film: The Godfather: Part III, but she had the last laugh picking up some serious directing skills from him. She started out by directing The Virgin Suicides which I have never seen. I have heard good and bad things about it. Her big directorial effort was Lost in Translation which is a very good film. My favorite of hers is the reimagined biopic of Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated queen of France and wife of Louis XVI. I have heard this film being called an “Impressionistic” version of events and I completely agree. I love that description. It’s different and it looks beautiful. Coppola has a certain point of view and uses it. She never goes safe in this film, not even showing the eventual ending of the royal family. It is based on a book, Antonia Fraser’s biography, which is not the scholarly book on the subject but the more interesting one. The soundtrack is bonkers for an 18th-century film about the French Monarchy, using New Order, The Cure and Bow Wow Wow for a few of the compositions. Of course, I love that too. Coppola, like her father, uses nepotism as she employs her cousin Jason Schwartzman as Marie Antoinette’s husband. The cast is great including Kirsten Dunst who stuns in the title role. I know Coppola recently directed The Beguiled, a remake of a Clint Eastwood film, that I have not seen. I hope she does more because she is interesting and goes against conventional wisdom. She has more to do still but this film is one of my favorites.
MG: I have not seen this picture, but really appreciate her aesthetic in other films I’ve seen by her. Lost in Translation is a classic indie pic – she got a great performance out of Bill Murray and kickstarted Scarlett Johansson’s career. I liked her style with The Bling Ring, even if the story was a bit too insubstantial for me. That was Emma Watson’s first post-Potter film, if I remember correctly, and Sophia Coppola seems to relish showcasing known actors in unexpected ways. I get that she has more control with lower-budget pics, but I would love to see what she could do with a big blockbuster sometime.
A League of Their Own (1992) – Penny Marshall
Penny Marshall, like Sofia Coppola, has familial directing roots: her father was an industrial director and her brothers, Gary being the more famous one, were also filmmakers. Gary probably gets more credit especially for Pretty Woman, but I think Penny has better films, despite having far less of an output. We all remember Marshall from Laverne & Shirley where she honed her comedy chops usually working for brother Gary, but once she left acting she used those roots to make some great films. Some could say her directing Tom Hanks in Big got the immature comedy star to show a balance between comedy and drama. On the flip side, she directed Robin Williams in a more serious role in Awakenings. My favorite is the female empowerment comedy A League of Their Own. It’s a great film that is funny and as touching as it needs to be. Geena Davis and Lori Petty are two sisters who live out their dreams playing in a professional girl’s baseball league. It makes me miss the fact that Geena Davis dropped off the face of the earth. She was at her height during this film. Marshall hit all the right notes bringing a seldom known story to the mainstream. She even got strong performances out of pseudo actors Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna playing to their strengths. As a youth baseball coach myself, I’m not sure how many times I have uttered: “There is no crying in baseball”. Tom Hanks as coach Jimmy Dugan shines in his more supporting role making me miss the less showy Hanks who just went out and gave great performances, or maybe Marshall got it out of him. I wish she had done more directing and I know she was off-and-on sick for many years, but the body of work left behind is strong.
MG: The best thing about Penny Marshall is that she was the rare female director making commercial films with mass appeal. It’s almost as if Hollywood is ok with women directing films, as long as they are low-budget indie pics. The suits in the boardroom wouldn’t trust a woman with a $100 million budget and big-name actors. Marshall proving that a woman could be trusted should’ve opened more doors, but it didn’t seem to have that effect at the time. She wasn’t all that prolific, but she did also produce some big budget films like Cinderella Man in 2005.
It is interesting in the history of Hollywood that women were initially trusted to direct, to some extent at least, but then seemed to lose ground as time went on, especially after the ’60s. Sure, you can go out and find articles online listing the top 50 or even 100 women-directed films, but the majority of them are independent, documentary, old or foreign films. The number of big-budget, mass-market consumption films entrusted to women are few and far between. I love and appreciate low-budget and indie pics, but if all the films the masses are seeing are directed/produced by white men (and usually older white men), then audiences have been missing out on other perspectives, viewpoints, and life experiences that influence the stories we see on the screen. Here are three films in recent years that are directed by women that have been successful and give me hope the “good ol’ boy” network in Hollywood might be eroding.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Kathryn Bigelow
Bigelow got her start in 1987 with the cult-classic Near Dark, then broke through commercially with the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze action flick Point Break. Her next film, Strange Days (1995), was an underrated sci-fi pic that demonstrated what she could do artistically, which should’ve found a larger audience but didn’t. In 2008, she directed The Hurt Locker, which deservedly won her the first Best Director Academy Award ever for a woman. She crafted a war film that was intense and original – no small feat considering the hundreds, maybe thousands, of war films that had come before. Personally, I found Zero Dark Thirty to be an even bigger achievement, although she did not even garner a nomination for this one, despite the film earning Best Picture and Best Actress nominations, among others. Zero Dark Thirty is a bold exploration of America’s lust for retribution (cloaked as preemptive security) post 9/11. Bigelow subversively showed us that black-site torture activities did yield usable intelligence, eventually leading to the assassination of Bin Laden, but she makes us feel uncomfortable with it, well, if you have any conscience that is. Through Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst, the question is asked whether this is all worth it – if this is the type of America/world we want to live in. I really appreciate the deft touch that Bigelow takes with this material, so deft that some saw this as a straightforward endorsement of American policy. She takes her time between films, usually 4-5 years apart. Her last film was Detroit, in 2017, which I haven’t seen yet, but I hope to see more compelling work in the future.
DJ: Bigelow has directed some great films, I love Strange Days and its so underrated. Point Break is a huge cult hit that got remade recently with a literal adaptation and in the first Fast and Furious film. In two war films are excellent and hope she continues to do more and is stopped being called James Cameron’s ex-wife.
Wonder Woman (2017) – Patty Jenkins
Yes, this is an obvious choice and Patty Jenkins may be the closest a female director has come to being a household name. However, I wanted to use this film as an example of how a director can come into an existing franchise and establish a different tone/perspective that might just save it from a downward spiral. There was no doubt, particularly compared to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that Warner Bros. attempt at making a successful “universe” of DC movies was faltering badly. The studio suits chose the usual white-male director to oversee the new slate of DC movies, in the form of Zack Snyder, probably to build on the darker/edgier vibe of what Christopher Nolan created with his Batman trilogy. Yet, while Snyder may have been able to create that darker, morally-murky style of his past films, he is not the storyteller or character-creator that Nolan is. With Man of Steel, Batman Vs. Superman and Justice League (finished but not helped by Joss Whedon), we saw darkness but no heart, and characters that should be vibrant and interesting, but instead were bland/morose and fell secondary to mind-numbing and meaningless CGI battles.
Enter Wonder Woman with Jenkins at the helm. We finally get a fully realized hero that we care about and one that seems to have real emotions about what is happening in the story. Jenkins directed relative newcomer Gal Gadot towards a performance that was interesting and meaningful to the audience. Wonder Woman is a half-god, but we still felt that she was vulnerable, which is essential to comic book characters being relatable. With Justice League and Snyder back at directing, the Wonder Woman character became mostly two-dimensional and uninteresting. Her battles with the CGI villain Steppenwolf were tiresome because it felt like she was invulnerable. Perhaps some would claim it’s sexist to say that women directors are more capable of creating characters that have emotional depth, but clearly Jenkins was able to do that far more effectively than her male counterparts. Those at the helm of DC need to immediately make Wonder Woman the face of the franchise, put Superman/Batman on the back-burner for a while, and build on the Wonder Woman movie (beyond just a sequel) to give their films more heart, joy, and vulnerability. Marvel achieved this so well with Avengers: Endgame, and I hope Patty Jenkins will be given more responsibilities to help the DC world become a more entertaining franchise.
DJ: I really liked this film too, despite the ending and the CGI mess. It’s the best DC film since Nolan’s Batman by far. I think Jenkins did a great job that bigger names have failed at. I hope she continues, I worry about the sequel but I will give her the benefit of the doubt since she saved the DC franchise.
On The Basis of Sex (2018) – Mimi Leder
To be honest, I can’t say I’m a fan of Mimi Leder’s prior cinematic resume: her run in the late ’90s included forgettable, populist fare like The Peacemaker, Deep Impact and Pay It Forward. Since then, she’s mostly been directing in TV, including critically acclaimed series like Shameless and The Leftovers. According to IMDB, On The Basis of Sex is her first film in 18 years, and it’s a welcome return. Considering this film is mostly just people talking, Leder crafts a compelling tale about young Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s quest to become an attorney who can make a difference. The story starts with her arriving at Harvard Law School as one of only nine women accepted into a class of 500. The opening image of RBG, played by Felicity Jones, walking amongst (against) this sea of men in dark suits gives us the visual metaphor of what she is up against. It’s a stark reminder to see the entrenched sexism of Harvard in the late ’50s, especially since most people now see Harvard as a bastion of liberalism. Where Leder really succeeds is presenting a female protagonist that is strong but not overtly confrontational, and her role as a wife and mother is presented realistically. So often “working moms” are shown on the screen as these harried, half-crazed, manic women that use the demands of home life as excuses. Here we see RBG dealing with all her competing demands with grace and determination, not that it makes it look easy by any means. One might knock this film for not being overly “cinematic”, but it’s a compelling story and Leder directs Felicity Jones to a powerhouse performance that should have been Oscar nominated – and perhaps Leder herself as well.
DJ: I wasn’t interested in this film, but it may be interesting to see Felicity Jones again since the last thing I saw her in was Rogue One. I was surprised to see that Leder directed those poor popular films, which means it wasn’t talked about as much – good to see we have female Michael Bays too. I may check this out on a rainy day.