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What Happened to the Female Directors of Hollywood? (Part 4)

Posted on Mar 17, 2017

By Carrie Rickey

  Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury bring the heat to Mira Nair’s 1991 drama “Mississippi Masala.” (IMDb)

Editor’s note: In October 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began investigating Hollywood’s gender gap. Before the EEOC concludes its mediation process, Truthdig contributor Carrie Rickey considers the historic accomplishments of women behind the camera, how they got marginalized and how they are fighting for equal employment.

This five-part Truthdig series is published in partnership with Women and Hollywood and Chicken & Egg Pictures. Upcoming installments will run every Friday through March 24; click here to read Part 1, here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.


Part 4: 1984–1999

While female filmmakers waited for Judge Pamela Rymer to hand down a decision in the 1983 Directors Guild class-action suit against Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures, alleging discrimination for not hiring women and ethnic minorities represented by the guild, there were positive signs of change in Hollywood.

In 1984, for the first time that almost anyone could remember, one needed two hands to count the number of feature films by women released in the U.S. market. One was Diane Kurys’ “Entre Nous” (1983), nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards in April 1984, making Kurys the second female director whose film was so honored.

Between 1950 and 1980, the number of movies directed by women in the Directors Guild of America (DGA) totaled 14. From 1984 to 1985 there were 12.

In 1984 many women were making their second features. Among them were Gillian Armstrong’s period drama “Mrs. Soffel,” Amy Heckerling’s gangster comedy “Johnny Dangerously,” Penelope Spheeris’ teenage-runaway saga “Suburbia,” and Amy Holden Jones’ romantic drama “Love Letters.” Martha Coolidge, beloved for “Valley Girl,” her 1983 debut, was on her third feature, “National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex.” With more women behind the movie camera in the United States than any time since the ’teens, it seemed that Hollywood was reopening the studio gates to women. Their movies featured women in lead roles.

The wave of optimism crested in 1985. Argentine director Maria Luisa Bemberg’s historical romance “Camila” (1984) was in contention for best foreign film. Susan Seidelman, an NYU film-school grad who made a splash in 1983 with the indie “Smithereens,” released “Desperately Seeking Susan,” starring “It Girl” Rosanna Arquette and Madonna, cast when the latter was a relative unknown. It was a runaway hit. Heckerling and Spheeris each released third features, respectively “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” and “The Boys Next Door.” Coolidge released her fourth: “Real Genius,” a genuinely funny nerd comedy with a fully developed female character—and special effects.

Then came the crash.

In August 1985 Judge Rymer handed down her decision. While the class-action case was important and viable, Rymer ruled, she had to disqualify the DGA from leading the class due to a conflict of interest. White male members also competing for directing jobs dominated the guild, she said. Thus the DGA was in no position to represent the interests of its women and ethnic minority members. Out of exhaustion and lack of money, the Original Six, the group of female filmmakers that had first spurred the DGA to initiate the suit, did not pursue it any further.

As the DGA suit played out during the early 1980s, Hollywood’s business model was in flux. Studios abandoned the one-size-fits-all strategy of advertising a movie in general-interest publications and embraced segmented marketing—that is, making and marketing movies to a specific demographic. Fewer dollars were spent advertising movies in mainstream newspapers and more were spent on ads that ran during TV shows young males were said to watch. More and more, movies starred predominantly men and boys. Because actors had higher-profile roles, they could command higher salaries than actresses. 

By dividing the market into sectors, studios divided the audience and the culture. Boys see movies about boys. Older people see movies about older people. Women see movies about women. Those in different demographics no longer watch the same stories.

In 1980, four of the 10 top box office stars were women: Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek and Barbra Streisand. In 1990 there was only one: Julia Roberts. According to 1990 statistics from the Screen Actors Guild, not only were actresses underpaid, but they were also “undercast”: 14 percent of the leading roles, and only 29 percent of all roles, went to women.

The Indiana Jones trilogy made in the 1980s reflected the progressively diminishing role of females in film during a decade when male action/adventures dominated the multiplex. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), the character Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) plays Indy’s helpmeet. In “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), the Willie Scott character (Kate Capshaw) is helpless. And in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” archeologist Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) is the enemy.

Despite such trends, the late 1980s and 1990s proved to be boom years for female directors in Hollywood and Indiewood, as independent film is known. In 1987, Kathryn Bigelow, a onetime sculptor and graduate of Columbia University’s film program, made her second feature, the “vampire Western” “Near Dark.” And though Elaine May’s studio film, “Ishtar,” was almost universally panned upon release, it earned belated respect. Richard Brody of The New Yorker correctly described it as “an unjustly derided masterwork.” In 1987, 6 percent of films were directed by women, higher than at any time since 1916.


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