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Film

International Women's Day: An essential history of female filmmakers

@Russellisation

“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle.” – Kathryn Bigelow

As the scales of equality in the entertainment industry begin to ever-so-slowly balance, female filmmakers and screenwriters have seen an increase in opportunities, leading to a diverse range of more challenging, more innovative and more radical cinema experiences. Having long been dominated by male media moguls, dismissing the power and influence of female filmmakers, the recent reclamation of the art form from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion and Céline Sciamma, have led to some of the finest films of contemporary cinema.

Surprisingly, however, this power in the industry was once harnessed by a female workforce at the very dawn of American cinema, with women having a majority hand in the medium during the years of silent cinema. As the industry reached its commercial potential, however, bullish male producers shoulder-barged their way in and flung female talent to the sidelines of filmmaking. 

Thankfully, it was in the 1970s that such fortunes changed, with a resurgence of talent leading the line for change toward the end of the 20th century. Allowing modern female filmmakers to thrive, it is the rich history of women in the industry that has built such a foundation for success. Marking out the key moments in the female drive for better representation in cinema, let’s take a look back at the history of women in film. 

Silent cinema dominance

At the dawn of cinema, when the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix were a mere twinkle in the eyes of such innovators as Georges Méliès and Auguste and Louis Lumière, women dominated the film industry. 

Such began shortly before the dawn of the 20th century in 1896, when the French film The Cabbage Fairy, directed by Alice Guy-Blaché would be released, making her the world’s first female director in the process. Writing, producing and directing several projects, Guy-Blaché created the company Gaumont et Cie in 1894 that began motion picture production shortly after and quickly became one of France’s leading film studios. 

Inspired by Méliès and the Lumière’s, Guy-Blaché’s innovative take on cinema established female filmmakers as some of the most important creatives in the contemporary industry, leading to a rise of women in the arts across the Atlantic.

Influencing each and every facet of silent cinema, female filmmakers, screenwriters and editors found great joy in this brand new experimental technology, with no contest from industry fat cats who had not yet witnessed the potential of this lucrative new industry. Outnumbering male screenwriters from 10 to one, in this era of filmmaking, it was ideas, creativity and innovation that was favoured over anything else.

Such produced film stars both in front of and behind the camera, with Florence Lawrence becoming the first ‘movie star’ after her debut in 1907 in Daniel Boone alongside Mary Pickford who made 51 films in 1909, averaging around one new film every week. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Gene Gauntier would write the screen adaptation of Ben Hur and Lois Weber would become the highest-paid director of the silent film era, becoming the first woman to write, direct, produce and star in a movie.

A pioneer of female filmmaking, Weber addressed such social issues as abortion, capital punishment and discussions about race throughout her highly groundbreaking filmography. If just for a moment, cinema thrived under the leadership of women in cinema.

Rejection at the dawn of commercial Hollywood

As Hollywood headed into the 1920s, cinema was on course for one inevitable innovation, the dawn of sound and movie ‘talkies’. Even before this, movies had become a significant business and male producers were beginning to barge their way into the industry to sculpt it as they saw fit. Once movie production became the most profitable industry in Los Angeles, the industry began to draw more money-hungry eyes and soon, the small female-led independent film companies were put out of business. 

Cinema was becoming commercial and adopted a business model to follow suit, with the movie industry organising itself like a well-oiled car manufacturer, with sectors split into story, camera, props, set design, publicity, costumes, makeup and more. As these structures were implemented, such jobs became gendered and men headed to the top of the pile in directorial roles whilst women were left to work in smaller roles, editing, marketing and providing hair and makeup assistance. 

As movie studios unionised many refused to accept women as members, with female film producers, editors and cinematographers vanishing as a result, despite decades of success prior. In such a volatile time for female filmmakers, Dorothy Arzner was able to rise up and achieve considerable success between the late 1920s and the early 1940s, thriving in the burgeoning golden age of Hollywood. 

Arzner’s films Get Your Man, Christopher Strong and The Bride Wore Red served as beacons of hope for other female filmmakers throughout this period, with a small resurgence of women working in screenwriting occurring in the 1930s. In fact, at the dawn of the talkies, more women were working as screenwriters than any other and the freedom of dialogue allowed them to discuss the world around them with more humour and self-expression than ever before. 

Despite several major setbacks, female screenwriters found considerable success during this time, with Sarah Y. Mason winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1932 for Little Women and Eleanore Griffin winning Best Original Screenplay in 1938 for Boys Town.

Continued post-war struggle

Following the end of the Second World War, the film industry experienced a tumultuous time as inflation and labour unrest boosted domestic production costs, making filmmaking an expensive game. Social trends had also shifted, making it difficult for studio executives to predict what audiences, still reeling from the impact of war, really wanted as men returned from war and forced many women out of industry jobs. 

The advent of television in the late 1940s also spelt trouble for Hollywood, finding itself challenged for the very first time in the industry as it vyed for audiences’ attention alongside the permanent boxed fixture situated in everybody’s living rooms. As the studio system of Hollywood’s golden age began to break up, many contracts were torn and female screenwriters and editors lost considerable ground.

In response to the rise of television, Hollywood tried to harness this new technology to their own potential, broadcasting the 1953 Academy Awards on TV for the first time in the ceremony’s history. Despite the struggle for female film creatives, several screenwriters continued to persist throughout this period and were duly rewarded for their successes, with the likes of Edna Anhalt, Ruth Orkin and Sonya Levien each being nominated for Best Original Screenplay throughout the course of the decade, with Levien even winning for the Academy Award for her Interrupted Melody script. 

These Hollywood troubles spilt over into the 1960s when the decade of fun, fashion, rock ‘n’ roll and dramatic social change spelt an identity crisis for the film industry. A major decade of change and disruption for Western cinema, 1963 represented the worst year for US film production in fifty years with only 121 feature films released to 361 foreign releases in the same year. The stage was set for a female resurgence. 

Late Century Resurgence 

As Hollywood waved goodbye to the archaic studio system, American cinema was renewed, refreshed and inspired by the growth of ‘free love’ that was emanating through contemporary culture as it entered into the 1970s. Allowing the industry to be freer and to take more risks as the stiff movie moguls of the past died out, such a change allowed an influx of female filmmakers and feminist films to flourish. 

Forming production companies or going freelance as screenwriters and cinematographers, the 1970s saw a significant increase in the number of women who were hired to pen some of the most significant films of the decade. Represented in nine of the ten Academy Award seasons in this decade, female writers enjoyed considerable success, with the likes of Nancy Dowd finding Oscar success with the hockey film, Slap Shot as well as the 1979 film Coming Home

In addition, Julia Phillips broke new ground in 1974 when she became the first female producer to receive an Oscar for Best Picture, winning the award for the film The Sting before sharing another nomination in 1977 for the Martin Scorsese movie Taxi Driver. Further breakthroughs were made when Lina Wertmuller became the first woman nominated for Best Director for the film Seven Beauties in 1977, whilst editor Margaret Booth was handed an Honorary Award for her years of outstanding work by the Academy in 1978. 

Marked by countless Oscar successes and several iconic films including 1977s Between the Lines by Joan Micklin Silver 1979s Old Boyfriends by Joan Tewkesbury and 1980’s Fatso by Anne Bancroft, released at the turn of the new decade.

As the decade began, another significant event occurred when Sherry Lansing became President of 20th Century Fox and several other women were hired by major studios to fill positions at the very top of the industry hierarchy. More power meant more control as Barbra Streisand co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in Yentl in 1983 and Gale Anne Hurd co-wrote and produced The Terminator in 1984.

Women were once again finding their feet in the film industry, reclaiming the ground they once held in the glory years of silent cinema. 

Breakthrough in the new millennium

Several distinct female voices flourished in the 1990s, with the likes of Claire Denis, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay and Jane Campion each thriving with the releases of Beau Travail, Point Break, The Virgin Suicides, Ratcatcher and The Piano, respectively. In all fields of filmmaking, women were granted the creative freedom to play out their cinematic desires and the culmination of decades of work had finally been realised. 

As Hollywood entered the new millennium, such milestones simply persisted, with Halle Berry becoming the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball, whilst Sophia Coppola became only the third woman ever to be nominated for Best Director for her 2004 film Lost in Translation. Though female creatives had not yet reached the widespread prevalence of male filmmakers, they were beginning to be recognised for their impressive achievements. 

Enjoying a decade of awards breakthroughs, women gained ground across almost every aspect of the industry, including, most interestingly, in the technological innovations of the new century. Dr. Kristina Johnson worked closely on new technologies that helped create RealD 3D imaging for example, with her crucial findings leading to the 3D craze of the 2010s, led by the release of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009. 

Illustrated by a great number of successes in the Academy Awards, female filmmakers were beginning to see the fruits of their persistent defiance in the face of industry oppression throughout the 20th century, with more glittering success just around the corner. 

Contemporary triumph

Hitting back at generations of male dominance in cinema the start of the 2010s saw continued proof of female power in the contemporary film industry, with Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female director ever to take home the award for Best Picture, praised for her modern war film The Hurt Locker in 2010. Though this victory was just the start of a contemporary cinematic revolution, with the looming presence of the #MeToo movement due to shake up the whole industry in 2017. 

Addressing inequity in Hollywood, asking for improvements of opportunity and pay, this movement also sought to address the sexual harassment that had long been festering in the industry since its inception at the start of the 20th century. This movement was emblematic of the new power female filmmakers held, becoming key figures of cinema were in the perfect position to strike back at decades of systemic abuse by the industry. 

Through such liberation, a celebration of female filmmakers and movies has occurred with the careers of Kelly Reichardt, Jane Campion, Mira Nair and Cheryl Dunye each being reevaluated and enjoyed, whilst brand new filmmakers join this cultural blossom and bring their own creativity.
Fuelled off the success of those who came before them, Chloé Zhao and Julia Ducournau have both achieved considerable feats in recent years, with Zhao becoming the third woman to ever win Best Picture in 2020 with Nomadland, whilst Ducournau won the Palme d’Or with her stylish body horror Titane in 2021.

These modern triumphs are the result of generations of female accomplishments in the film industry, constantly fighting back at systemic male dominance to enhance the movie industry and bring innovation, diversity and vibrancy to contemporary cinema.