ELAINE MAY (born 1932)
Signature work: Tootsie (1981)
Her story: Like Gordon and Comden, Elaine May initially rose to prominence as one half of a duo, in this case with Mike Nichols. The pair developed an improvisational comedy act in 1950s New York which was considered groundbreaking and highly acclaimed, but in 1961 at the height of their fame, the pair decided to head in separate directions - Nichols as a director, May as a writer. May did subsequently direct films herself as well as working as a writer-for-hire - her work on “Tootsie” went uncredited, but as the sole woman involved in the creative process, there are many lines in the final film that one suspects bear her touch. She resumed her collaboration with Mike Nichols after a more than thirty year absence by writing the screenplay for his 1996 remake of “The Birdcage” - still the most financially successful film ever with a gay lead character.
In her own words: What is important in life and art? You know, when I was very young, I thought it didn't matter what happened to me when I died so long as my work was immortal. As I age, I think, Well, perhaps if I had to trade dying right now and being immortal was just living on, I would choose living on.
NORA EPHRON (1941 - 2012)
Signature work: When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Her story: Nora Ephron was born into the business - her parents Henry and Phoebe were a screenwriting duo, while two of her sisters became screenwriters. Despite this, Ephron herself went into journalism, a career at which she thrived until the day she helped her then-husband Carl Bernstein re-write the screenplay adaptation of his book All the President’s Men. Her version of the script was never used, but it led to her first screenwriting work in television, and Hollywood came calling soon after. Her screenplay to “When Harry Met Sally” is considered a classic of the genre, while scripts she directed herself range from “Sleepless in Seattle” to her final film “Julie and Julia”. Despite the occasional misfire (The "Bewitched" remake), she remained until her death last year one of pitifully few women in Hollywood regularly entrusted with large budgets to tell original tales.
In her own words: Most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments.
CALLIE KHOURI (born 1957)
Signature work: Thelma and Louise (1990)
Her story: Callie Khouri’s current hit television series “Nashville” has been acclaimed for its multi-layered female leads, but such praise can be no surprise to the woman best known as the writer of “Thelma and Louise”. Her first produced screenplay, it made Khouri the first woman to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for a solo-authored script. She has frequently spoken of her desire to create flawed female characters, explaining of Hayden Panettiere’s character in “Nashville” that “I’m putting out a character right now who needs a serious talking to about the way she deals with people and the way she so happily exploits herself. But I’m also showing that she’s more than that”. “Thelma and Louise” may not have turned out to be the game-changer for women’s representation in Hollywood that many hoped it might be, but it remains an iconic and enduring classic, both on feminist and purely cinematic terms.
In her own words: Let them get their deal worked out about the way women are treated in films before they start hassling me about the way men are treated. There's a whole genre of films based on the degradation of women, and until there's a sub genre of women doing the same thing to men in numbers too numerous to court, then just shut the fuck up.
RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA (1927 - 2013)
Signature work: Howard's End (1992)
Her story: The only woman to win two Oscars for screenwriting (for “Howard’s End” and “A Room with a View”), and the only person to win both the Booker Prize and an Academy Award, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was one third of the legendary production outfit Merchant Ivory. Along with producer Ismael Merchant and director James Ivory, their output in the 1980s and 1990s was so prolific and distinctive that the term “Merchant Ivory” became shorthand for a genre. An acclaimed novelist, Jhabvala did not even consider filmmaking until approached by Merchant and Ivory well into her thirties. Despite her huge subsequent success in the field, with twenty three screenplay credits, she retained a self-deprecating disdain for the discipline, listing “writing film scripts” among her recreations in her Who’s Who entry.
In her own words: I told them I’d never done anything like this before. But they said 'It doesn’t matter. We haven’t either’.
DIABLO CODY (born 1978)
Signature work: Juno (2007)
Her story: Diablo Cody matched Callie Khouri’s achievement in winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for her debut produced screenplay. Cody has faced plenty of criticism, but she is one of very few women in Hollywood succeeding in seeing her original screenplays produced on a regular basis. This is no mean feat - as Cody describes, “the attitude toward women in this industry is nauseating. There are all sorts of porcine executives who are uncomfortable with a woman doing anything subversive. They want the movie about the beautiful girl who trips and falls, the adorable klutz”. This only makes it more impressive that Cody’s output includes screenplays such as “Young Adult”, a film featuring a female anti-hero in a mould almost always male.
In her own words: Only male writers can afford to be coy and self-deprecating.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.