Female Directors Attain Prominence

Unnoticed and few in number for decades, female motion-picture directors began to enter the Hollywood mainstream.

Summary of Event

Before the 1980’s, very few female directors were working within the mainstream of the American film industry. Most women who were interested in directing motion pictures were able to do so only at the fringes of the industry, primarily in independent, feminist, documentary, experimental, industrial, and educational filmmaking. Ironically, women flourished as directors during the beginnings of motion-picture production, but their successors found it difficult to find work in the industry after the 1950’s. Dorothy Arzner, Arzner, Dorothy for example, an early woman director who gained great respect in the entertainment industry, succeeded in directing many of Hollywood’s leading actresses between 1927 and 1943, including Clara Bow, Ruth Chatterton, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Merle Oberon. Women;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];women
[kw]Female Directors Attain Prominence (1980’s)
[kw]Directors Attain Prominence, Female (1980’s)
Women;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];women
[g]North America;1980’s: Female Directors Attain Prominence[03830]
[g]United States;1980’s: Female Directors Attain Prominence[03830]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1980’s: Female Directors Attain Prominence[03830]
[c]Women’s issues;1980’s: Female Directors Attain Prominence[03830]
Marshall, Penny
Streisand, Barbra
Seidelman, Susan
Coolidge, Martha
Heckerling, Amy
Haines, Randa

It was not until the 1980’s that female directors reemerged as a powerful presence in Hollywood. Among the women directors in the period, six stand out as successful figures: Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Susan Seidelman, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, and Randa Haines. This article concentrates on films made in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It by no means encompasses every woman director or includes every film made by the directors discussed; the work addressed here does, however, indicate the powerful presence of female directors during the time period.

Penny Marshall made her motion-picture directing debut with Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (film)[Jumpin Jack Flash] (1986). She then directed Big (1988), Big (film) the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million at the box office. Marshall’s next film, Awakenings (1990), Awakenings (film) achieved nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (for Robert De Niro) from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Film critics and talk-show hosts criticized the Academy for failing to nominate Marshall in the Best Director category for Awakenings, as did some of her colleagues. Marshall took a more objective approach, insisting that the same thing had happened to male directors such as Steven Spielberg. She did not believe that gender bias played a part in her omission from the list of nominees.

Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992) League of Their Own, A (film) boasts a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Geena Davis. That Marshall was able to assemble such an impressive cast for the film is testimony to the impact that women directors were gaining at that time. Rarely before the 1980’s would a female director have had the opportunity to work with such bankable stars.

Barbra Streisand’s achievements include her accomplished career as a recording artist as well as her work as a film producer, director, writer, and performer. She is one of few artists who has won awards in all four major fields of performance art: the Oscar (motion pictures), the Tony (New York stage), the Grammy (music recording), and the Emmy (television). Streisand worked for more than fifteen years to get enough backing to produce Yentl (1983), Yentl (film) which she directed, coproduced, and cowrote and in which she starred. Her next film, The Prince of Tides (1991), Prince of Tides, The (film) which she directed, produced, and starred in with Nick Nolte, was a huge box-office success.

Even though Streisand is a powerful presence in the entertainment industry, women directors individually and collectively continued to struggle for acknowledgment. Streisand, like Penny Marshall before her, was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her work directing both Yentl and The Prince of Tides, even though The Prince of Tides was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and Nolte received a nomination in the Best Actor category. Streisand’s omission from the nominees for Best Director was widely discussed in the press, and personal jabs about it were aimed at members of the Academy during the televised 1991 Oscar presentations.

Susan Seidelman started her directing career as an independent feminist filmmaker. Her Smithereens (1982) Smithereens (film) was the first American independent film accepted for competition in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. Her second film, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Desperately Seeking Susan (film) is, in a sense, an extension of Smithereens but is targeted toward a more mainstream audience. Desperately Seeking Susan stars Madonna Madonna as Susan, a wild and exotic woman, and Rosanna Arquette Arquette, Rosanna as Roberta, a suburban wife. During the course of the film, their lives and identities end up being crucially intertwined. In Smithereens, sex is treated offhandedly, and the central character is left adrift at the film’s conclusion; this contrasts with the romantic portrayal of sex and the domestication of Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan. Orion Pictures, which Seidelman praised for giving her tremendous freedom in making Desperately Seeking Susan, did not give the director final cut and required her to make compromises between her original ideas for the film and the final product Orion chose to distribute.

Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right (1987) Making Mr. Right (film) also deals with questions of gender. The main character, a woman named Frankie Stone (played by Ann Magnuson), is an image consultant who is assigned the job of forming an android into a successful social being. Seidelman’s next film, Cookie (1989), Cookie (film) was mostly panned by the critics. Then came She-Devil (1989), She-Devil (film)[She Devil] with Roseanne (Barr) Arnold and Meryl Streep. This comedy was more successful at the box office but still lagged behind Seidelman’s early success with Desperately Seeking Susan.

Martha Coolidge began her directing career with a feminist documentary about her grandmother, Old-Fashioned Woman (1974), and then directed a film about rape, Not a Pretty Picture (1976). Not a Pretty Picture (film) Turning to Hollywood, she directed Valley Girl (1983) Valley Girl (film) and Joy of Sex (1984). Joy of Sex (film)
Valley Girl, an immediate hit with the teen market, earned $17 million from an initial investment of $350,000. Real Genius (1985) Real Genius (film) was another box-office success and pushed the teen formula to even greater extremes. Motion pictures;teenage films The plot involved a male whiz kid recruited for a college think tank. He finds that other employees are being exploited and plots revenge. Coolidge said she was attracted to the idea of having the opportunity to work with men and to address the subject of men dealing with each other. She hoped she could bring some fresh perspectives to male character portrayals and show men as more vulnerable than would a male director.

Coolidge’s Rambling Rose (1991) Rambling Rose (film) won Laura Dern Dern, Laura an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and her mother, Diane Ladd, Ladd, Diane a nomination for Best Supporting actress—the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a mother and daughter were nominated for awards in the same year. Rambling Rose won critical acclaim but did not fare well financially. It is a period picture revolving around a sensual young woman and her involvement with a family and especially their son; in Hollywood, risky themes rarely result in blockbusters at the box office.

Amy Heckerling found her niche in Hollywood by catering to the youth market. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (film) was her initial effort in the genre. The film’s plot follows the basic youth/high school comedy formula but treats sex, pregnancy, abortion, and relationships with much more sympathy than do many male-directed films of the same genre. Heckerling’s National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) National Lampoon’s European Vacation (film) is one in the long line of National Lampoon films starring Chevy Chase Chase, Chevy as the bumbling head of a family who gets himself and everyone else into trouble while on vacation. Although successful at the box office, it was not notable directorially.

Look Who’s Talking (1989), Look Who’s Talking (film)[Look Whos Talking] written and directed by Heckerling, is a comedy set within the framework of a 1980’s subgenre of films about adults dealing with parenthood. The film takes a unique look at the complexities of being a successful woman as well as a single parent in the late 1980’s. Look Who’s Talking took in more than $12 million its first weekend and $14 million the next. The success of the film is particularly interesting in that it was released in the fall, which is usually a slow season for movies. It was so popular that it played well into the Christmas season. Heckerling quickly made a sequel, Look Who’s Talking Too (1990), which was successful but not as profitable as the original.

Randa Haines began as an actor, then directed many television programs, including episodes of Knots Landing and Hill Street Blues. Her film Children of a Lesser God (1986) Children of a Lesser God (film) pushed her into the Hollywood spotlight. It won critical acclaim and box-office success, garnering five Academy Award nominations—for Best Picture, Best Actor (William Hurt), Best Actress (Marlee Matlin), Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff). Marlee Matlin Matlin, Marlee came away with the Oscar for Best Actress. Academy Awards;Best Actress In 1991, Haines’s The Doctor, Doctor, The (film) starring William Hurt, Hurt, William was a critical and financial success. The film deals with death, medical ethics, and personal relationships.


The six women discussed above were the biggest moneymakers among women directors of the period, but countless other notable women directors were working within the Hollywood system at the time, including Joyce Chopra Chopra, Joyce (Smooth Talk, 1985), Claudia Weill Weill, Claudia (Girlfriends, 1978), Elaine May May, Elaine (The Heartbreak Kid, 1972; Mikey and Nicky, 1976; Ishtar, 1987), Lisa Gottlieb Gottlieb, Lisa (Just One of the Guys, 1985), Gillian Armstrong Armstrong, Gillian (My Brilliant Career, 1979), and Joan Micklin Silver Micklin Silver, Joan (Hester Street, 1975; Crossing Delancey, 1988).

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, many more female directors were making bankable Hollywood features, among them Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, 1987; Blue Steel, 1990), Dyan Cannon (The End of Innocence, 1990), Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate, 1991), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World, 1992), Nora Ephron (This Is My Life, 1992), Nancy Savoca (Dogfight, 1991), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary, 1989), Mary Agnes Donoghue (Paradise, 1991), Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, 1992), Lizzie Borden (Working Girls, 1986), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1992).

Many women directors from other countries were also able to market their films with moderate success at the American box office. Notable among such directors were Agnes Varda (Vagabond, 1985), Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season, 1989), Lina Wertmuller (Swept Away . . . by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August, 1975), Jane Campion (Sweetie, 1988; An Angel at My Table, 1991), and Margarethe von Trotta (Rosa Luxemburg, 1986).

Lillian Gish once said that directing is not a job for a lady, and many female directors still believe that the Hollywood power structure would agree with that sentiment. Even with the success that women directors achieved in the 1980’s and the slow evolution of women’s acceptance as filmmakers, at the beginning of the twenty-first century women directors continued to face barriers ranging from the most blatant forms of discrimination—including the extreme salary gap between male and female directors—to more subtle and often more pervasive forms.

The central conflict concerning the hiring of women directors, from Hollywood’s point of view, is that the film industry envisions the ideal director as the tough and omniscient father figure who shouts orders and takes firm control of the picture-making process. Women directors, for the most part, undermine that ideal: They demonstrate their abilities in different but equally effective ways.

Women directors have had to prove themselves on several fronts. Many times their ideas about what makes a good film and what constitutes a good director are in direct conflict with what is expected of them as Hollywood directors responsible for high-budget projects. Many female directors have expressed their desire to initiate changes in what is deemed marketable within the Hollywood system, whereas others wish only to be treated as equals with their male colleagues. The latter would like to be seen as viable directors for action pictures and other genres traditionally identified with male directors; the former wish to expand the potential for presenting more feminist-oriented subjects and to eliminate some of the pervasive formulas that persist as staples of Hollywood filmmaking. Women;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];women

Further Reading

  • Brunsdon, Charlotte, ed. Films for Women. London: British Film Institute, 1986. Collection of articles traces representation of women in cinema from the late 1960’s onward. Looks at treatment of women in films and examines films by and for women. Includes sections exploring documentary, fiction, and Hollywood filmmaking. Also discusses exhibition and distribution, film content, theory, criticism, and feminist perspectives.
  • Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Presents intriguing analysis of sexism in the film industry as it affects women on both sides of the camera, as actors, directors, producers, and writers. Arranged by decades, with an introduction and a chapter on Europeans. Includes photographs.
  • Hurd, Mary G. Women Directors and Their Films. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. Examines the work of noteworthy women film directors, presenting both biographical information and film analysis for each director discussed. Includes filmographies and chapter bibliographies.
  • Kay, Karyn, and Gerald Peary, eds. Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977. Fascinating collection of essays covers a wide variety of topics, including feminist film theory, experimentalists and independents, and women and political films. Includes interviews with Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Lina Wertmuller. Each section contains a bibliography; an appendix includes selected filmographies.
  • Quart, Barbara Koenig. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema. New York: Praeger, 1988. Excellent resource discusses the work of American, Western European, Eastern European, and Third World women directors. Provides coherent historical contexts in which to view the development of women in the film industry. Includes bibliography.
  • Redding, Judith M., and Victoria A. Brownworth. Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors. Seattle: Seal Press, 1997. Presents interview-based profiles of thirty-three women who work in independent film, including both mainstream and experimental filmmakers. Includes selected filmography and bibliography.
  • Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973. Focuses on how women were represented in films of the 1920’s through the 1970’s. Epilogue discusses feminist footholds in filmmaking. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.

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