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A Scholar’s Reflections on Women Directors: Discrimination and Mentorship, Then and Now

A Scholar's Reflections on Women Directors: Discrimination and Mentorship, Then and Now

October is Women
Directors Month on Turner Classic Movies, and my stint as a co-host has been a
wonderful excuse to revisit over 100 years of women directors and their films. For
the first 20+ years of filmmaking, female directors were not a rarity.
In fact, Alice Guy-Blaché was not only the first woman director; she was one of the
first directors period. Lois Weber might be the most famous name from the teens
(and I highly recommend Shelly Stamp’s recent biography of her), but she had
dozens of contemporaries. I wrote a piece on the history of women directors for
the TCM website, and that, along with preparing my remarks for the co-hosting, led to
conversations with current female directors that gave me new insights, raised
questions and left much to be discussed.

We know
that for at least the last fifteen years, fewer than ten percent of studio
films have been directed by women (according to the annual Celluloid Ceiling reports), and it was just announced that the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission, at the urging of the ACLU and others, will
investigate whether therefore studios are violating Title VII. The legal challenges
are important, but one of the realizations that comes from discussions with
women directors is just how systemic and nuanced the discrimination is. 

And it’s not
just in America. Some countries such as France and Australia support the arts and
sometimes insist on a certain number of women participating in state-run
programs, but women are still in the minority. I just wrote the foreword to a
forthcoming book, “Women Screenwriters: An International Guide,” which
features 300 writers from 60 different countries, and their struggles to follow
their passions and tell their stories are both revelatory and all-too-familiar.  

Of course the directors I spoke with had blatant
examples of outrageously sexist comments as well as quantifiable resistance
to acknowledging the work of women. Exhibit A: Randa Haines’ “Children of a Lesser God” was nominated for Best Picture, Best
Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Marlee Matlin won Best Actress in
1987. Something missing here? Best Director. Haines was at least nominated for
a DGA award, but she — and most everyone else — never made a peep about it. Of
course, that is far from the only example; we all know how directors such as Barbra
Streisand have been snubbed over the years and the furor last year when Ava
DuVernay’s directing of “Selma” went
unacknowledged.

Yet while awards
are nice, what really matters is focusing on those doing the hiring. The
Academy can be criticized for its lack of diversity, but it is the pantheon, and
until women and minorities have an equal place at the creative table, inequality
will persist. The guilds can talk a good game and more than a dozen committees
have been formed over the years, but they don’t hire. And hiring is the key.

Many directors would not talk for the record, but agreed I could use their
quotes without names attached.  I don’t
blame them. Tone is always a concern because it is so easy to make women sound
bitter and angry (even though the numbers tell them they have every right to
be). Here is hoping they will be forthcoming with the EEOC.

I heard several jaw-dropping stories
of overt sexism, often followed by the explanation that as bad as that was, it
wasn’t the worst part. That was the emotional toll of little digs, eye-rolls
and smirks: “After years of the drip, drip, drip of misogynistic remarks and
actions, you are always waiting for the next shoe to drop and, that is
exhausting.” They also commented on the sense that if they asked the opinions
of others, they were deemed to be weak; if they just announced their decisions,
they were a bitch.

“Hollywood is built on power and fear, and that is what keeps women down
and out,” said one veteran director when I asked her to summarize the big
picture. “When people are afraid for their jobs, terrified of losing power, they
revert to old stereotypes that make them less afraid. A director is an
authority figure and in our society, that is almost always a man. A white man. So that is who they choose; even a mediocre known quantity is better than dealing
with something or someone who doesn’t look like the rest of you. For me, it was never overtly ‘the woman question’ (though it HAD to be behind a lot of the things I
experienced, and certainly what I observed around me). It was more the culture
of MEANNESS and CRUELTY that seemed to exist — just for its own sake. The pleasure in the power certain people felt and enjoyed playing with — and the
receivers of that nastiness were often women.  I always said I never could
point to an occasion where I lost work or was victimized because I was a woman,
but in retrospect I think I decided NOT to see it in order to avoid the
self-defeating anger that I saw in many women.”

I heard similar summations from several
other directors, often wrapped in stories that were both sad and funny. And
exhausting. So what can we do? We can continue to speak up when we learn such
things as Disney’s upcoming slate of 18 films containing only one directed
by a woman. There is no question that the inequities faced by women in
Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera is in the zeitgeist now, and when
public figures as famous as Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence are willing to
step up to the microphone, let’s hope the people who hire hear them. Or will at
least be shamed into changing their ways.   

Another topic
that emerged in my discussions with women directors was the power and
importance of female friendships. Whether as friends, mentors or just drinking
buddies, female friends can break through the isolation and add laughter and
insights that make all the difference — both personally and
professionally.  

In the fall
of 1999, Allison Anders invited me to join what she then thought might be
twenty or so of her friends who were planning to spend a weekend at the Miramar
hotel in Santa Barbara. They wanted to come together just to talk, hang out and
share ideas on how to get financing for second films, how to get tickets sold
on the all-important first weekend when the studio wasn’t promoting their film
and other issues of concern to women directors. Allison asked me to show a few
films by Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino so the women could get a
sense of their history.

Well, you
can guess what happened: Over 100 women ended up coming to the Miramar for what
turned out to be the most incredible weekend. Half a dozen of the women I met
for the first time there have become some of my closest friends, and the sense
of camaraderie that emerged from that magical weekend has stayed with many of
us.

And that
“Miramar weekend,” as it has come to be called, is illustrative of our long
history of women supporting and nurturing each other. The writer/director Frances
Marion entered the business as Lois Weber’s protégée, and Frances in turn went
on to support dozens of other women in a variety of ways. When Dorothy Arzner
left directing in the mid ’40s, she turned to teaching and influenced many. Joan
Darling, whose feature film “First Love”
is in the TCM women directors line up, found success as a television director,
but she too became a teacher who was an important figure in the career of Lesli
Linker Glatter, who is now a director and executive producer of “Homeland.” 

Lesli returned
to Los Angeles from Berlin, where she is now working, to attend the Emmys because
she was nominated (as she has been multiple times for both “Homeland” and “Mad Men”) and
afterwards shared a wonderful story with me. 
Lesli, like many other women directors such as Randa Haines and Allison
Anders, has participated in Sundance Labs over the years, helping to nurture
new talent and having found themselves inspired in the process. It was at a Sundance Screenwriting & Directing Lab
eight years ago that Lesli first met a promising student named Dee Rees. This September, they
met again on the Emmys’ red carpet because Dee was nominated for writing and
directing “Bessie” starring Queen
Latifah.

May we all have similar stories to
share.

Cari Beauchamp is the award-winning writer, speaker, documentary filmmaker and author of “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of early Hollywood” and five other books of film history, including her latest, “My First Time in Hollywood.” She writes for Vanity Fair and other magazines, has appeared in multiple documentaries, serves as the Resident Scholar for the Mary Pickford Foundation and is the only person to twice be named an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Scholar.

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