Lorraine Smith ponders the role of women in film-making. What will it take for women to be accepted behind the camera – and how long will it be before a womans win the Academy Award for Best Director?
The evening of February 29th 2004 could have been a landmark one in cinema history. People all over the world were watching the televised Academy Awards ceremony with great interest as always, but the winner of the Best Director category was especially eagerly awaited this year. Not only has no woman ever won this coveted prize, but only three have actually been nominated: Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993) and, this year, Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation. The smart money was always on Peter Jackson to win the Oscar for the final part of his Lord of the Rings adaptation, but there was always the hope that the judges could give Coppola her ‘Halle Berry moment’ and bring Hollywood a bit more equality. Although it would have been wonderful to see her take the prize, it was no surprise when she went home with Best Screenplay instead as, with five previous female winners, the odds in that category were always a little more in her favour.
Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted Coppola to win solely because she is a woman. Although it would make a great deal of difference to women working in the film industry in the future if the Oscar had been awarded to a female director this year, it would seem a shame if she’d won because the Academy wanted to effect change rather than because they felt she was a better director than the other nominees. It would help if the pool of directors that those compiling the short list had to choose from wasn’t so testosterone heavy but, when 93% of the directors of 2002’s top 100 grossing movies were men, it looks like it will be a while before that happens. As the Guerrilla Girls put it in their 2003 billboard, “Even the US Senate is more progressive than Hollywood”!
In front of the camera we don’t fare much better. Can you think of many films (not ‘chick flicks’ though) where the actor who carries the story is female? Many people criticised Quentin Tarantino for his vicious portrayal of women in the movie Kill Bill Vol. 1, but it was one of very few non-rom-com films where the girls get the best parts. Of course, for years now there been plenty of great films that were not dominated by the male characters. The 1950 classic, All About Eve, is a fantastic example of a film featuring fascinating and believable characters played to great effect by extremely talented actresses. Bette Davis plays a woman whose ego is only matched in size by her insecurities and the performance won her an Oscar nomination. Compare that to the simpering and almost pointless supporting character of Brigid in The Maltese Falcon nine years earlier and it is clear that there was a time when progress was being made.
After some mediocre years where female roles were designed purely to add some eye candy and a spot of romance to a movie, the end of the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s really gave women a chance to shine in front of the camera. Instead of the formulaic production-line offerings of the big studios, smaller independent companies were now making more diverse films. For the first time, actresses could stretch themselves by portraying more realistic and varied characters than ever before but it would still take a lot of work to be deemed enough of a star to take top billing. By the 1970s though, Hollywood had become a pretty macho place again with most top grossing and critically acclaimed films having a predominantly male cast (e.g. Apocalypse Now, The Godfather), with only a few iconic movies like 1979’s Alien really demonstrating how a good strong female lead doesn’t have to reduce the appeal of a picture.
It was only by the 1990s, however, that this idea of mass appeal movies with strong rather than traditional female leads really took hold. Fargo was more interesting and amusing than it could have been because the investigating officer was a woman who wasn’t letting her pregnancy affect her ability to do her job. Thelma and Louise would have just been another dull ‘buddy’ movie if the main characters were men (except if the part about being taken for granted by a spouse and the rape scene had been left in!), but there still aren’t many of this type of film around. When a trip to the cinema is enjoyable it never really matters who I saw on the screen and, with a qualification in film studies and a lot more research, I’m sure some deeper conclusions about the portrayal of women on the screen could be reached, however, what really amazes me is that the majority of people working behind the scenes in Hollywood are also male.
Taking as an example this half term’s slab of family entertainment, Cheaper by the Dozen, a mere 27% of those credited for off-screen work on the movie were women. Quite an astonishing figure when many other large industries have a far more balanced workforce, as would be expected in the 21st century. On this evidence, I wonder if it really would help if a woman were to receive the coveted Best Director award from the Academy, even if it was just a token gesture. It would surely help more women break into directing – especially with the help of campaigns like Directing Change – and could inspire many to take up other roles behind the camera. Film-makers will always need actresses to play female parts, no matter how secondary these characters may be to the plot, but we should make them realise that they also need women in technical roles too. For that to happen, something needs to change… and soon.