For Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue a few years back, photographer Annie Leibovitz created a classic image of a film director at work. Posing beneath a stormy sky, George Clooney stood with his shirt ripped open, trousers tucked rakishly into his boots, arms outstretched — a young Orson Welles meets Michelangelo’s vision of God. His crew were a crowd of female models in flesh-colored lingerie; not the obvious costume for a camera operator, but there you are. This was the auteur as masculine genius, a warrior amid a sea of passive women.
This has long been the archetype of the film director, but over the last few months a host of women have been making waves: Sam Taylor-Wood with Nowhere Boy, Lone Scherfig with An Education, Andrea Arnold with Fish Tank. Then there are Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion, both trailing Oscar buzz for The Hurt Locker and Bright Star, respectively.
So, is this a new era for female filmmakers? Unfortunately, the numbers suggest otherwise. In a study published last year, Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University found that only 9 percent of Hollywood directors in 2008 were women — the same figure she had recorded in 1998. If Bigelow is nominated for the best directing Oscar next month, it will be only the fourth time a woman has been nominated, out of more than 400 director nominations altogether (the other three were Lina Wertmuller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993, and Sofia Coppola in 2003). No woman has ever won. No wonder, then, that last year Campion entreated aspiring female directors to “put on their coats of armor and get going.”
Once, the dearth of women directors could be traced to the small numbers entering film school. These days, that’s not the case. Lauzen says women are now well represented in US film schools, while Neil Peplow, of the UK training organization Skillset, says women make up around 34 percent of directing students in Britain. That translates into a large number of female graduates making short films, but few moving on to features.
Over the years, this failure to progress has often been blamed on a chauvinist culture; and certainly, talking to established directors, it’s easy to uncover tales of overt sexism — from the mildly disconcerting to the downright illegal. The British film director Antonia Bird (Priest, Mad Love) says dryly that on her first directing job, “I was the only woman there, and all the guys just assumed I was the producer’s PA. That was good.” Director Beeban Kidron (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) once sacked a male assistant director who called her “the little lady.” At the extreme end, US film director Penelope Spheeris, who made the US$100 million-grossing Wayne’s World, remembers meeting an executive at the Beverly Hills Hotel when she was at the start of her career. “And the guy was pretty drunk, and he ripped some of my clothes trying to take them off me, and when I got up and started screaming he said, ‘Did you want to make this music video or not?’” She pauses. “You say sexist, I say felony.”
When it comes to sexism, Martha Coolidge — director of Rambling Rose and Real Genius, as well as the first woman president of the Directors Guild of America — has heard it all. There was the story of the female president of a major studio who said “no woman over 40 could possibly have the stamina to direct a feature film. I’ve heard people say that the kind of films they want to make are too big, too tough for a female director. The worst was when my agent sent another woman
director in for an interview, and afterwards the guy called up and said, ‘Never send anyone again who I wouldn’t want to fuck.’”
There are signs that this culture is changing. A report last year — carried out by the UK networking organization Women in Film and Television (WFTV) and Skillset — found that, while “a number of older participants reported direct experience of overt sexism, none of the younger participants [did].” But Coolidge insists that the film industry — and Hollywood specifically — remains a minefield, because “there is such a sexual component for the men who go into it. If all they wanted to do is to make money, they could just go to Wall Street. If you’re a male executive, a producer — and I’m not talking about everybody, but the vast majority — you’re there partly because you’re surrounded by gorgeous girls. And that means that the older a woman is, the less they want them around. A woman would disrupt the flow of their lives.” Coolidge and others point out that this is as true for black, working-class, and gay filmmakers — in fact, anyone outside a small circle of privilege.
More subtle reasons have been mooted for the dearth of women at the top. One suggestion I heard is that women are brought up to negotiate in very different ways from men, which is problematic in a male-dominated environment. Coolidge doesn’t agree with this — “there are plenty of women who are good negotiators” — but Kate Kinninmont of WFTV says she has noticed that, while “women are brilliant at pitching somebody else, they’re not often good at pitching themselves.” Lauzen says reporters have told her that “when they talk to the guys, they can’t shut ‘em up. But when they talk to the women, it’s like pulling teeth ... Women have to promote themselves, but when they do, it’s seen as being unfeminine.”
There is also the simple fact that the fewer women there are at the top, the fewer role models and mentors there are; those women who do forge ahead often talk of having to actively ignore the figures. Kidron says that when she was making her first film, she had “a phone call from a journalist who said, ‘Do you know you’re only the third woman ever to make a feature film in Britain?’ And I said, ‘Oh, please don’t tell me,’ and put the phone down, because I didn’t want the pressure.”
A lack of female filmmakers also seems to have made it difficult for studios to imagine women in charge. Film is big business, filled with financial risk, and so “the whole industry is based on demonstrable success,” says Peplow. “Unless something has worked in the past, it’s very rare that people will take a risk. There’s this perception that, well, traditionally it’s a man’s role, so we won’t buck that.”
It’s true that men have directed the great majority of high-grossing films over the last decade. The Web site indiewire.com recently reported that, of the 241 films that had grossed US$100 million or more in the US over the last 10 years, only seven were directed by women (Shrek, Shark Tale, Twilight, What Women Want, The Proposal, Mamma Mia!, and Something’s Gotta Give).
But a closer look at the figures reveals that women filmmakers aren’t a bigger financial risk. In 2008, Lauzen conducted a study called Women@the Box Office, which found that the key to big grosses wasn’t the gender of the filmmaker, but the budget. Big budgets equaled big grosses. “When women and men have similar budgets,” she wrote, “the resulting box office grosses are also similar.”
The problem is that the biggest budgets tend to be given to films that appeal to teenage boys — still considered the most frequent, most enthusiastic moviegoers (this may be because so many films are aimed at them, but that’s another argument). There’s no reason why women can’t make films for this audience — as Spheeris did with Wayne’s World. But female directors say that it is difficult to get assigned to the kind of comedy, horror or action movie that would establish their box office chops.
Despite the enormous success of films such as Mamma Mia! and Twilight, executives often seem perplexed by films with female themes. “I’ve been there when a film with a female protagonist has been screened,” says Lauzen, “and the guys at the top go, ‘Well, I don’t get it.’ When the majority of people in power are male, who are they going to relate to most on screen, and who do they think other people are going to relate to? Males. That’s no big conspiracy. I don’t even think it’s conscious, honestly.” Bird agrees. “One of the big problems is that, 90 percent of the time, the people who you pitch your idea to are male, and even though they might be very sympathetic, they do look at the world from a different perspective.”
I ask Lauzen whether she thinks female film careers are interrupted by motherhood, and she says no, as do Kinninmont and Coolidge (the latter has extensive experience of juggling the two). They point out that directors tend to be highly driven; there are many cases of heavily pregnant women and young mothers making films. “A lot of them will say, ‘Look, I wouldn’t let that get in my way,’” says Lauzen.
Kidron, however, says that motherhood has affected her career “more than gender ... At a certain point I had to stop making films in America, and make them here, which made a huge difference. Obviously men also give up an enormous amount for their families, but there are many male directors who have partners who take primary care of the family, or who are free to travel with them. That is rarely true the other way around. I absolutely don’t want to suggest that women are unreliable because we’re mothers — on the contrary. But the question of who brings up the kids has a material effect on all women’s careers.”
Bird agrees. “Film directing is more than a full-time job. When you’re making a film, it takes up every day of your life, 16 to 18 hours a day, for a year. Trying to have children and being a film director is virtually impossible unless you’re rich.” Bird doesn’t have children: “If I look deep down inside myself,” she says, “I’m quite sure that I never did it because I never really had time.”
The problems facing female directors are structural and systemic, a tangled mix of sexism, cultural differences between men and women, and maternity issues; in this, they mirror the problems affecting many women in male-dominated workplaces. But the film industry magnifies all this. As Spheeris says: “When the stakes are high, when fame and extreme amounts of money and power are involved, it’s a jungle out there. It’s brutal. How hard do you want to fight?”
Thankfully, many women are prepared to fight. British director Lindy Heymann, for instance, whose second feature, Kicks, is released this year, says that one of the great lessons from shooting that film was the realization that she “didn’t have to be liked, that that’s the last thing you should be thinking about.” She’s just one of the filmmakers heeding Campion’s rally cry, getting her armor on; given the high visibility of female filmmakers now — Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut this year, and there are films in the pipeline from Claire Denis, Gurinder Chadha, Nicole Holofcener, Julie Taymor and Sofia Coppola — perhaps others will be inspired, too. If Bigelow raises that gold statuette next month, many more women might breach the boys’ club.