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10 pioneering female figures of Hollywood

Historically, men have been the dominating force behind the film industry, or at least, that’s what we are told. However, there were countless women that drove the industry forward and made important steps to diversify Hollywood, making it a more inclusive and innovative place.

The first-ever female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blanche, was also the first person to ever create a narrative fiction film, since other filmmakers of the period (the likes of Louis Le Prince and the Lumiere Brothers) captured real-life scenes, such as workers leaving a factory, or a baby in a garden. But Alice Guy-Blanche’s film La Fée aux Choux (1896) introduced a new concept – it was the first example of a fictional story told via the medium of cinema.

The film industry is notoriously male, especially in the area of directing – in 2018, it was found that only eight per cent of directors working on the top two hundred and fifty domestic grossing films in the US were women. The powerful position of a director is one that is rarely awarded to women in comparison to their male counterparts, but the last few decades have seen an increase in the number of women in such roles.

But we cannot forget the women that have made massive leaps in cinema, and who will inspire generations of filmmakers to come. From silent era female filmmakers to current Hollywood stars that are actively taking steps towards a more diverse cinema, here are ten women that have taken pioneering steps in Hollywood.

10 pioneering female figures of Hollywood:

Jane Fonda

Despite being the daughter of famous Hollywood star Henry Fonda, Jane has continuously proved herself to be more than that. Starring in such critically and commercially successful films as Barbarella (1968), Klute (1971), and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Fonda has won countless awards, such as two Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes, and two BAFTAs.

However, one of Fonda’s main pursuits besides acting is activism. From co-founding the Women’s Media Centre with Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, which aims to amplify female voices in media, to speaking out against LGBT discrimination as far back as the 1970s, Fonda is one of Hollywood’s most outspoken activists. She was even blacklisted from Hollywood for some time in the 1970s, after posing on an anti-aircraft gun whilst protesting the Vietnam war.

Alison Bechdel

You may be more familiar with the concept of the Bechdel test rather than Alison herself, but the American cartoonist is partly responsible for the measurement of female representation in film. Influenced by her friend Liz Wallace, as well as the writings of Virginia Woolf, to pass the test, a film must feature at least two women that talk to each other about something other than a man. In some instances, the Bechdel test also requires that the women are named.

Much research has been done into how many films pass the test, and results suggest that only half of the films do. This doesn’t necessarily mean that if a film fails to include women it is a misogynist piece of work, rather, the test acts as a framework for the presence of women in film as a whole. Research has shown that films that pass the test are more financially successful than those that don’t.

Ava DuVernay

The American filmmaker Ava DuVernay is one of Hollywood’s current most pioneering women. With the release of her second film Middle of Nowhere, she became the first black woman to win the directing award at Sundance Film Festival in 2012. Following that, her film Selma resulted in a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture, making her the first black director to ever be nominated.

The director is also the inspiration behind the ‘DuVernay test’ which is the racial equivalent to the Bechdel test. It seeks to gauge whether minority characters have fully realised lives that don’t serve to just accompany white characters. The test points out the lack of diversity in Hollywood cinema and aims to bring awareness to the way that minority characters are often cast in relation to their white counterparts.

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong is considered to be the first ever Chinese American Hollywood actress. She began acting in the silent era and became known as one of the first women to sport the ‘flapper’ style of the 1920s. She starred in many European films as she was frustrated by the Asian stereotyping that was so widespread in Hollywood. In 1935, MGM even refused to cast Wong in The Good Earth because of her race, instead using a white actress in yellowface.

In 1951 however, Wong became the first Asian-American to play a leading character in a U.S. television show, (The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong). Wong also starred in multiple B-movies that portrayed Chinese people in a positive light, and alongside this she studied her ancestral history extensively, visiting her family’s Chinese village and touring the rest of the country.

Dorothy Arzner

For many years, Dorothy Arzner was the only female director working in Hollywood. Beginning in the silent era and working up until the 1940s, Arzner made such films as Christopher Strong, The Bride Wore Red, and Dance, Girl, Dance. Not only was Arzner a dedicated filmmaker, she was also an openly gay woman, who maintained a 40-year relationship with dancer Marion Morgan. She never hid her sexuality, and often wore suits and typically masculine forms of dress.

Unfortunately, Arzner retired from directing in the 1940s, and it is speculated that this is due to much homophobia and sexism in the industry. Later in Arzner’s career, the director joined the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television, where she taught the young Francis Ford Coppola, who, of course, went on to direct such films as The Godfather.

Kathryn Bigelow

American director Kathryn Bigelow made history when her film The Hurt Locker won her the Academy Award for Best Director, marking the first time a woman had ever won this prize. Bigelow’s films often centre around action and crime, subverting the typical Hollywood expectations of female directors to create romance and drama. Other filmmaking credits of Bigelow’s include Point Break, Zero Dark Thirty, and Strange Days.

Bigelow’s exploration of the action genre also includes meditations on gender and race, making her a stand-out in her field. By working in a male-dominated genre, and winning countless prestigious awards in these endeavours, Bigelow has paved the way for more female directors to be taken seriously in such a masculine area of Hollywood.

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino was one of the biggest female filmmakers working in the 1950s, beginning as an actress before creating her own independent production company called The Filmakers Inc. and directing a handful of her own films. Lupino was one of the first directors to make a film about rape – the 1950 Outrage, as well as the first female filmmaker to make a film noir, The Hitch-Hiker.

Although Lupino directed less than ten films, she was incredibly influential, exploring themes that were deemed as controversial and subversive for the time period. Many consider her films to be examples of proto-feminism, as she frequently attacked the social conventions of the period, in particular, the patriarchy. As well as tackling the theme of rape, she also explored illegitimacy, bigamy, and even the story of a young woman stricken with polio, which she herself had contracted at sixteen years old.

Lois Weber

One of the greatest silent film directors, Lois Weber, sadly gets overlooked despite her prolific filmography and pioneering cinematic work. She has been labelled one of “the American cinema’s first genuine auteur[s]” who used cinema to portray her ideas and philosophies, beginning in the early 1910s. She has been credited on IMDB as directing one hundred and 35 films, however, it is estimated that she was involved in a considerably larger amount, which have since been lost.

Weber was a pioneer in many different ways – she was the first to use a split-screen technique in her film Suspense, alongside her husband Phillips Smalley was one of the first to experiment with sound cinema, and the first American woman to direct a full-length feature film. Furthermore, she explored controversial early feminist themes in her work, such as Where Are My Children? which discusses birth control and abortion, despite being released in 1916. In 1915 her film Hypocrites became the first ever to show female full-frontal nudity.

Dorothy Dandridge

Raised by a single mother in the early 1920s, Dorothy Dandridge made a name for herself as an extremely talented actor, dancer, and singer, becoming the first Black woman to ever be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Dandridge and sister Vivian, along with friend Etta Jones, formed the Dandridge Sisters and became hugely popular amongst the nightclub scene, eventually performing in films together.

By the early 1950s, Dandridge was an established actress in her own right, and most notably, had a starring role in 1954’s Carmen Jones, which landed her the Oscar nomination. However, Dandridge struggled to gain more successful roles, which she attributed to her race, stating that “If I was Betty Grable, I could capture the world.” She took an active stance against racism in Hollywood, refusing to play a slave in the major picture The King and I, as well as becoming involved with the NAACP.

Virginia Van Upp

Beginning as a child actress in the silent era, Virginia Van Upp took on roles as a script girl and film cutter before working her way up to the executive positions of producer, screenwriter, editor, casting director, and agent. For an extended period of time during her career, she was one of only three female producers working in Hollywood. Van Upp was hired by Columbia Pictures to work on films that would appeal to women, (since most men were at war) and she went on to become incredibly successful – between 1942 and 1944, Columbia’s profit exceeded $2 million, which had never happened before.

When actor Gene Kelly told Van Upp that she wrote “just like a man!” she was unimpressed, replying, “writers of either sex are writers.” In fact, Van Upp proved to be a better writer than most men in the industry and went on to co-write and produce the Rita Hayworth picture Gilda. Van Upp had a particular talent for witty phrases that female characters would deliver – mainly depicted as independent and smart career women.