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The DGA Celebrates International Women’s Day with a Tribute to Kathryn Bigelow by Laura J. Shapiro

The DGA Celebrates International Women's Day with a Tribute to Kathryn Bigelow by Laura J. Shapiro

The DGA and its Women’s Steering Committee celebrated International Women’s Day on Tuesday night with a heartfelt tribute to director Kathryn Bigelow as part of their year long 75th Anniversary Celebration, the fifth in a series of twenty-five events honoring the Guild’s “Game Changers.”

Though Bigelow has rightly resisted being defined by her gender, that was the subject most discussed throughout the evening. Though her creative achievements are significant, her designation as “Game Changer” is based on her success as a female director.

DGA President Taylor Hackford’s opening remarks charted the Guild’s female history, from the DGA’s first legal counsel, Mabel Walker Willebrandt (also U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921-29), who negotiated the union’s original deal with the studios and stayed at the DGA for 30 years, through the early female members of the union. The first, in 1938, was Dorothy Arzner; twelve years later in 1950, Ida Lupino became the second female member of the Guild. Meetings were called to order with the phrases “Gentlemen and Madam’, or “Fellow Directors and Mrs. Lupino.” Today, the DGA has 14,500 members; 25% are women.

75th Anniversary Advisory Committee Chair Michael Apted introduced Mistress of Ceremonies (and the DGA’s first woman President) Martha Coolidge. A “ground breaker” herself, Coolidge is from the same generation of filmmakers as Bigelow, directing major features at a time when working female directors could be counted on one hand. Her statement that directing is a “profession formerly dominated by men” as a result of Bigelow’s achievements set the tone for the rest of the evening.

The series of colleagues made their way to the stage included a charming Walter Hill, who met Bigelow just after her first film, The Loveless. He thought that she was Amazonian imperial, calm, with a great smile and possibly too intellectual, ivy-league educated and well read. “No good will come of this in show business,” he said, to knowing laughter form the audience. Actor Bill Paxton cheerfully told anecdotes about his first meeting with Bigelow and making Near Dark. Angela Bassett, who was unemployed for a year and a half after her Academy Award nomination for What’s Love Got To Do With It, described her excitement about ending that drought with a role of substance in Strange Days, and shared stories about the long, grueling night shoots and Bigelow’s stamina under tough conditions. An articulate and funny Lori Petty related an anecdote about the time she was yelled at by baseball manager Tommy Lasorda telling her that she was the only woman to have ever crossed the foul line after she threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game when she was promoting A League of Their Own, and her hope that due to Bigelow there will not be any foul lines to cross for the next generation of female filmmakers.

Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker producer Tony Mark praised her vision and the loyalty she inspires with the cast and crew. When the special ammo they needed for the sniper rifle Ralph Fiennes uses in a pivotal scene was held up at customs, making Bigelow’s vision for the shot impossible to achieve in the single day they had with Fiennes, the armorer was so committed to her vision that he volunteered to stay up all night alone on the desert set fabricating custom ammo. The Hurt Locker screenwriter/producer Mark Boal told a series of affectionate stories about Bigelow’s vision and stamina in debilitating and dangerous conditions, praising her energy, calmness and creative collaboration.

Finally, Kathryn Bigelow took the stage to a standing ovation. She was warm, natural and genuinely moved by the evening, briefly praising and thanking everyone who participated.

Kathryn Bigelow is certainly a “Game Changer.” Her artistry and achievements are inspiring. But despite Martha Coolidge’s best intentions, directing is not yet “a profession formerly dominated by men.” Readers of this blog know that the 25% female membership of the DGA is not even close to the actual employment of women as directors. (This 25% figure would also include other positions represented by the DGA—Unit Production Managers, Assistant Directors, Stage Managers, etc.) The evening was about honoring Bigelow, so there was no discussion of the fact that the long-standing barriers have not yet changed as a result of her success. The danger of stating that the change has already occurred implies that the problems faced by woman directors have been solved by her Oscar win, and that is far from the truth.
Laura J. Shapiro is a producer, writer and aspiring director. Most recently, she produced the independent feature, Beautiful Wave. She is the co-editor of the book “The First Time I Got Paid For It: Writers’ Tales From The Hollywood Trenches,” a project of the Writers Guild Foundation, now in its third printing.

Photo credit: DGA/Howard Wise

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