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At The Movies: Female Directors: Slowly Breaking Through

In 2002, Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece in Salon magazine that begged the question, “Where are all the female directors?” The statistics are staggering: 96 percent of films are directed by men. Women sell books, work in the Senate, head studios and produce films, but why aren’t they behind the camera?

That was 2002, before Sofia Coppola changed the way women directors are perceived. With Lost in Translation, Coppola became the first American woman to be nominated for an Oscar for directing and among the very few to have won a screenplay Oscar. Coppola’s win proved that a film not only directed by a woman, but one with an auteur’s sensibility – her subjective story – could fit the model of how Hollywood defines success: critical acclaim, awards, money.

Coppola’s impact is being felt this year, with actresses who turned to directing before their age was really a problem – Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris, the late Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress and Sarah Polley’s Away from Her. In the past, actresses who have been most notable for making the switch were led by Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall and Diane Keaton – but these women evolved into directors after enjoying success earlier in their careers. They were also women who were expected to make films within the studio system, not outside of it, as Coppola and these other young women have done.

With the possible exception of Nora Ephron, who fits nicely in her own genre and managed to give it staying power, films by women are judged by whether or not they are as good as their male counterparts as translated through box office grosses. So, what is different about Coppola and these directors? Why does it suddenly look like things are changing for women directors?

Perhaps it depends on whom you ask.

I assembled a panel of journalists and writers via email, including Kate Coe of Media Bistro’s Fishbowl LA (, Craig Kennedy, Living in Cinema (, David Poland of Movie City News (, Kris Tapley, who has written for Variety and the New York Times and manages In Contention (, Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere ( and USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna (

“There’s definitely a ripple,” says Craig Kennedy. But he stops at declaring a new wave just yet. “Whether it turns out to be another blip or a genuine trend remains to be seen. There have been successful and influential women throughout Hollywood history, but I don’t think we’ve had anything like a movement. If the current crop inspires more women to get behind the camera, not just actresses, but anyone, and not just as directors, but as producers, writers, cinematographers and editors, then the ripple could lead to creative women around the world inspiring and feeding off of one another and leaving their mark on cinema. At that point, we’d be talking about a real New Wave.”

Susan Wloszcyna sees the recent spate of women-directed films as a good sign overall. “It might be more than just young females,” she says. “Several of the more anticipated fall films are being directed by women – Susanne Bier, Julie Taymor, Tamara Jenkins and, in the tradition of Coppola, directing daughters Alison Eastwood and Kristen Sheridan.”

What could be holding women back in the directing field? If you ask David Poland he’ll tell you it’s the material. “It seems to me that one block for women has been a disinterest in making genre films, which are the meat and potatoes of the industry.”

Or is it that women are reluctant to take big risks with their films? “Any moderately successful young actress can direct a short and throw it up on YouTube and see how the world reacts,” says Kate Coe. “If they’re all sitting around waiting for their agent to set something up, they might want to rethink directing.”

Beyond the merit of the work itself, Kris Tapley argues that Hollywood is – and ever has been – driven primarily by the libido. “It would be difficult to prove,” he says. “But I see no reason to believe that what female actresses deal with, female directors also find themselves dealing with.”

But Jeff Wells is hopeful. Even though he calls Hollywood “Testosterone City,” he firmly believes that “the more women who take power in this town, the better.”

Could one of the reasons Coppola, Polley, Delpy and others like them have no trouble getting attention because they come with glamour and good looks attached, having already passed that test, for the most part, as actresses?

“Nope,” says Poland. “I think people judge the work as the work, just as with male directors.” Many of the writers on the panel dismissed the looks equation as a reductive argument that ultimately doesn’t hold water when it comes to the work itself. “While good looks can earn you fawning interviews, they don’t necessarily convince the public to see your film,” Wloszczyna explains. “I know plenty of people who admired Away From Her who had no clue it was directed by young, pretty Polley.”

In Coppola’s case, perhaps it isn’t so much her caché as an actress but the name recognition that comes with being the daughter of one of America’s legendary directors. But Kennedy feels Coppola has distinguished herself beyond her name. “It’s not a fair question,” says Kennedy. “She was given what she was given, but the important thing is what she has made of it.”

But Coe thinks it’s all about the pedigree, illustrated by the example of Rebecca Miller, daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller: “I think that while they are all lovely and have some name recognition, that matters less on set than it does in the pitch meetings. If Rebecca Miller was Rebecca Smiowitz married to Marty Smiowitz, would Jack and Rose have been made?”

Ultimately, appearances and pedigree aside, when it comes to the job of directing the kinds of feature films that provide the bread and butter of today’s motion picture industry, are women directors up to – or even interested in – the task? “If women are willing to make movies that studios want to distribute and audiences want to see, I think they can slug their way in,” Coe says. “But where are the women who want to make Rush Hour 5? Directing a feature often turns out to be far less fun than many people think. A director is by turns a traffic cop, an executive, a shrink, and then, after all the department heads have answers to their questions, and the producers are pacified, and the actors are suitably lulled or terrorized into acquiescence, does the director get to think about the art.”

With a few exceptions – think Kathryn Bigelow and her testosterone-driven action films of the ’90s – perhaps it’s the kinds of movies women have introduced into the marketplace that keeps women directors in the small percentile where they find themselves. “I think that the things that young male directors are interested in making seem more commercial on the face of them,” says Poland. “To engage a stereotype, women who are interested in directing seem more interested in substance than style. The industry is not terribly interested in building careers of substance…for men or women.”

Therein lies the rub. For better or worse, the market landscape of Hollywood requires certain kinds of films to do its heavy lifting, and until a woman director steps up to the plate to make the kinds of blockbusters that buoy studios’ year-end grosses, will their wheelhouse remain primarily in the indie sector?

“If you’re talking about the kind of blockbuster success that would lead to true power, you’re talking about a blandness and a uniformity that isn’t very interesting to me as a viewer,” Kennedy says. “While I don’t begrudge any success a woman may achieve in movies from a sociological standpoint, I treasure the films that are made with a unique personal voice you most often find in the art houses and niche markets and not among the box office newsmakers.”

But even this reasoning begs the question: how is it that Coppola’s very personal Lost in Translation still managed to captivate enough viewers to make it a bona fide hit? Perhaps Coppola represents a different kind of director, one that doesn’t have to take the traditional path of male directors to attain success. If they can keep the budget low, the quality high and retain their vision, women could become more dominant in their own way.

For Tapley, though, change is coming too slowly, “There are signs of ethnic diversity being embraced in Hollywood, everything from casting decisions to the film awards circuit. But regardless of the fact that change is happening, there is little excuse for the tortoise rate at which this is happening.”

Wloszczyna believes that the next few months – with releases from a host of women directors – hold a beacon of possibility, “If we finally get our first female president in the near future, a popular and powerful female filmmaker might not be that far behind. It will be interesting to see how well the above women fare this fall.”

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