Before Kathryn Bigelow: Women Directors in 20th-Century Hollywood

March 8, 2010 § 3 Comments

Kathryn Bigelow & Twin Oscars/Courtesy

Last night I was gratified when the most deserving of this year’s nominated films, “The Hurt Locker” won for Best Picture and Best Director. But rather than excitement, I felt relief–and annoyance that the film industry remains such an inhospitable place for women. Does anyone really believe there aren’t more qualified women directors than the handful working today? The fact is that the average municipal fire department, if only because of affirmative action, is less sexist than Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow won big last night, but it remains to be seen whether her victory will mean anything for the rest of us.

It’s instructive to note that women directors have existed since the medium’s beginnings. The first woman to have directed a film is generally agreed to be Alice Guy-Blache, a contemporary of the Lumiere Brothers whose “La Fee Aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”–my apologies about the lack of accent marks) came out in 1896. In Hollywood, the first woman director with a substantial body of work was probably Lois Weber (1882-1939) who directed 40 films, beginning in 1908. By 1920, she had opened her own studio and headed a group of women directors. She also wrote, produced and acted in many of her films and was by far the highest paid woman director of her time.

Dorothy Arzner/Courtesy

Dorothy Arzner (b. 1897) landed her first job at Paramount in 1921 as a script girl, the traditional way for women who weren’t costumers or makeup artists to get on set. An offshoot of secretarial work, script supervision was a crucial but deadend job that never led to the director’s chair. Arzner’s way up was via editing–also a female-dominated job in early Hollywood. Her first film was the Rudolph Valentino hit “Blood and Sand,” which launched her as a successful editor at Paramount. Then in 1927, Arzner threatened to defect to Columbia unless allowed to direct.

Fortunately for Arzner, her first effort, “Fashions for Women,” was a success. She went on to direct 18 more features, becoming an independent director in the 1930s and the first woman member of the newly formed DGA in 1936. Although she stopped directing features in 1943, Arzner stayed busy: in addition to directing Army training films and commercials, she taught film at UCLA until her death in 1979.

Ida Lupino/Courtesy Wikipedia

Better known than Weber or Arzner was Ida Lupino, an actress (“High Sierra,” “The Hard Way”) who began directing features in 1949. Her films were notable for their exploration of sexuality, freedom and oppression–controversial territory for any director in the 1950s. “Outrage” (1950) was about a rape; “The Bigamist” and “The Hitch-Hiker” depicted the lives of male characters in complex and nuanced fashion.

Although Lupino’s directing career was relatively short, she stayed active as an actress, continuing to work in movies and television. But it was as a director that Lupino attained lasting fame and a posthumous following. Her films are still screened, in part because they have been championed by Martin Scorsese. He wrote of Lupino, ” Her work is resilient, with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.”

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