Mainstream or independent, female directors have always occupied an inordinately small place in the cinema, though they have been involved since its very inception, For example, Alice Guy-Blache directed films for the France-based Gaumont Film Company beginning in 1896.
Some nations, such as India and Japan, did not even let women perform as actors in the nascent years of film. Though in the 1960s and 70s, some female directors, such as Agnes Varda (whose Cleo from 5 to 7 was an important precursor to the French New Wave) and Chantal Akerman (whose avant-garde work stands out in a largely male-dominated world) achieved critical success, there has never been a sustained era of female-generated impact on mainstream cinema. This, it seems, may be changing in recent years. The critical and financial success of female-helmed features such as The Hurt Locker (2008), Twilight (2008), Tiny Furniture (2010), and Winter’s Bone (2011) could be laying the groundwork for a move towards greater equality in the cinema.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was acclaimed at the time of its release for its intense action sequences and tension-filled bomb defusing scenes on the order of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Having directed the oft-parodied Point Break (1991) as well as K19: The Widowmaker (2002), Bigelow’s action pedigree was already well established. Interestingly enough, all three films almost entirely ignore women, focusing instead on men in traditionally “macho” roles of authority (soldiers and policemen).
Regardless, the biggest coup for The Hurt Locker was Bigelow’s victory at The Academy Awards, where she won the Oscar for Best Director (beating out ex-husband James Cameron who, to be fair, was nominated for the abomination that was Avatar). No woman had done so before or has since. This level of mainstream acknowledgement of a female director has opened fierce debate over the selections at other awards shows and festivals. While Bigelow’s win has not by any means opened the floodgates of talented female directors, people are starting to take notice to what degree women are or are not included in consideration for the highest directing honours, both in Hollywood and abroad.
The will be no presumption to make any quality judgements about Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight or its literary source. For the purpose of this article, its $70.55 million opening weekend speaks for itself. The largest first three days for any female-directed film, Twilight showed Hollywood that even with lesser-known actors on-screen, women directors could turn a popular novel into a wildly successful cinematic franchise. Other numbers, however, are not as promising. According to a study conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women accounted for only 5% of the directors among the 250 top grossing American films last year. Hollywood, it seems, has been slow to notice the example set by Hardwicke’s film (and Bigelow’s, for that matter) four years ago.
Independent cinema, too, has shown itself to be a proving ground for young, female directing talent. With Tiny Furniture as her autobiographical debut, writer, director and star Lena Dunham sprang into the consciousness of the indie cinema/art house crowd. The film, unlike the above two, features a mother-daughter relationship, keeping men in its periphery. Since its triumphant premiere at South by Southwest, The Criterion Collection, a DVD company that calls itself “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films”, picked up Tiny Furniture for its first publication on home video. This honor placed her first feature among all the greats of World Cinema, from Welles and Fellini to Godard and Bergman. In the surprisingly gushy essay accompanying the release, critic Phillip Lopate said: “Dunham is shaping up to be a force to be reckoned with, and is already a supremely engaging talent”. So far this year, Lopate’s characterisation of the Oberlin College graduate and TriBeCa native has proven accurate, with her television series Girls earning five Primetime Emmy nominations.
Another independent film, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, made waves recently at last year’s Oscars, receiving four nominations. The film once again has a woman at the centre of its narrative but, unlike the disaffected, aimless Aura in Tiny Furniture, Ree Dolly is more of a strong, independent type, raising her two young siblings in place of her mentally ill mother and searching for her absent father. Winter’s Bone also shows no interest in the heterosexual romance that pervades the majority of mainstream Hollywood films.
Given that framework, one might expect Ree to enlist the help of a male friend (Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth come to mind) in finding her father and eventually find love and stability in the protection that friend can offer her in the harsh world of impoverished rural America. These expectations are not, by any means, satisfied at the conclusion of the film, which essentially finds us right back where we started. The four Academy Award nominations, including one for Granik’s screenplay (co-authored by Anne Rosellini), once again gave Hollywood a glimpse of what it could expect from not only female-directed pictures, but also from female-driven narratives.
As it stands right now, the numbers show that mainstream cinema has in fact not made tangible, measurable progress as far as gender is concerned. It is clear, however, that the seeds have been planted. The combination of the critical success of The Hurt Locker, the financial success of Twilight, and the crossover appeal of the indies Tiny Furniture and Winter’s Bone shows that the doors of Hollywood are indeed open to women directors and the time is ripe, now more than ever, to walk through them.