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The Female Director: Why Is She So Elusive?!

Here's a question:

Name a female film director. Name just one... One teeny, tiny little film director who just so happens to be a woman, I dare you.

Hard isn't it?

The more astute film fans out there may have had the immediate knee-jerk reaction of shouting "Best Director Oscar nominee Sophia Coppola! She directed Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, come on!" That would put you in the 'good for you' category. Unfortunately, knowing just one female director is about as exciting to me as knowing who Akira Korusawa is, however it DOES puts you in the 'wow, you read the credits sometimes' zone, and though it's not that impressive, it's a good start. Alright smart guy, can you think of ANOTHER woman who has directed a film? Yeah, that's harder.

In this little segment, I thought I'd introduce you to a few talented ladies who are directorial legends by their own right, and who also have made strides in this niche of the industry for womankind. But first, let's delve into the topic a little. Why on earth are female directors so rare?

Women accounted for 7% of directors in 2005.

The first and most obvious reason that females direct less than 5% of the top 100 films in a year is the fact that the industry is filled with men. Women who go into film as a career know that they will be in the minority. This does not inspire them to go into direction.

When you think about it, most people don't go into a career knowing there's a bold and thick glass ceiling preventing them from succeeding. In fact, it is clearly stated by professors and industry leaders that they might want to consider production or writing before thinking about direction, namely because such a role as 'Female Director' is so difficult to carve out. Women wanting to succeed in film need not do so by directing, they can still work and even get rich in other areas of the industry. I'm sure that any woman who happens to be a successful producer does not consider themselves a failure. Ask Kathleen Kennedy, executive producer of Schindler's List and The Sixth Sense if she's up nights because she didn't strike a blow for the women's movement. I'd think not.

But what about those that DO want to direct and DON'T come from a film guild family with one of the most famous American Directors as a daddy, like Sophia Coppola was lucky enough to have?

The business is still a male-dominated club that views women as incapable of directing anything other than "chick-flicks" or getting to grips with technical skills.

Imagine this scenario: You're a young and upcoming Director. You have an idea for a film. You go to parties, start networking with executives, talk about your idea, make friends and pitch ideas. Eventually someone says, 'fine, let's meet we'll have dinner and discuss your idea, then we'll spend countless hours in my office hammering out the details.' Now imagine that you're a woman, and remember that these executives and industry leaders are mostly middle-aged married men. When a young woman suggests private meetings, it can still be considered merely as flirting. A wife could (or does) get jealous of her possibly philandering husband. The impropriety of a woman being alone with a man is still strong today, and is often a major stumbling block to those people trying to begin this sort of career.

The sad truth seems to be that the phenomenon of "Female Director" will be a slow and steady climb, but fear not, there are plenty of women directing out there now, and here's a few names to add to your repertoire. Take a few minutes, memorize your favorites and show off to your lady friends how sensitive you have become!

In my usual fashion, Top 5 Female Directors (not including the obvious Sophia) in no particular order.

Julie Taymor is the brilliant director of Shakespeare's highest bodycount play Titus. Given Julie's background in theater, it's not surprising that she succeeded in making such a spectacular film. Sadly her film directorial career is only 7 films so far, but it does include another great film, Frida.

You may not remember the name Mary Harron, but there's no doubt you've heard of her films. Director of such a little-known arthouse film as American Psycho, you might also remember The Notorious Betty Page and I Shot Andy Warhol, which she also directed. When you add the occasional television show, like Oz and Six Feet Under, the fact that she's an HBO regular makes hers a name worthy of remembering.

What's a Top 5 Female Director list without it's controversy? Let's throw in maniacal Nationalist filmmaker (her films are maniacally Nationalist, not her) Leni Riefenstahl. I wouldn't be surprised if you've never heard her name, but she directed many a Deutschlandic film during Hitler's reign, including the proud and strong military documentary Triumph Of The Will, and 1938 Olympic Documentaries Olympia: Festival of the Nations and Olympia: Festival of Beauty.

Penny Marshall is one of the bigwigs I'd say, with such films under her belt as the hits Big, Awakenings and A League Of Their Own, which I've all seen and thought were great (actually Big was my favorite movie for years after I saw it). besides that she's done Riding In Cars With Boys, Renaissance Man and Jumpin' Jack Flash, not to mention having directed television's Laverne & Shirley. Clearly Penny is one of the few women who truly succeeded in this industry, and still is succeeding.

Kathryn Bigelow is quite the versatile Director indeed. With such films as Near Dark (Horror), Blue Steel (Thriller), Point Break (Action), and Strange Days (Sci-Fi), it seems more like she's out to try new things and have fun rather than being concerned with leading any causes. Isn't that just the best way to do it? Oh for those of you who don't recognize the previous titles these might click: K-19: The Widowmaker and The Hurt Locker. Yeah I thought that would do it for you.

So there you go. Hopefully I've enlightened you a little on the names and faces of the less prevalent but influential feminine directors out there. And just so you don't go thinking I could only come up with only five, here's a few other directors of note, just for good measure, who've made pretty cool films.

Spanish Director Isabel Coixet has made several films, most of which are European titles, but My Life Without Me, is a most memorable film, regardless of the sex of its director.

Nicole Kassell directed the heavy hitting and tastefully done The Woodsman.

Amy Heckerling directs more quirky comedies, including such classics as Fast Times At Ridgemont High and National Lampoon's European Vacation. Yeah directed by a woman. Weird eh? She's also done Look Who's Talking and its sequel, Johnny Dangerously and Clueless. She's certainly not one of MY favorites, but her films are no doubt popular.

As you'd expect there IS a popular niche of women directing Romantic Comedies, and Nora Ephron's one of the big names, with such titles under her belt as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, but she also made Michael and Bewitched, so she's not ALL Rom-Com.

Finally, a piece of Oscar trivia. Aside from Coppola, Jane Campion was one of the three women ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the important The Piano, the other being Italian Lina Wertmuller for her film Seven Beauties, which earned her the 1977 Best Director Oscar Nomination.

So far no woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Director. Here's hoping that trend ends soon.


Interesting post. I'm glad you included Leni Riefenstahl. yes, she was a monster - but she made a very real and important contribution to cinema.

I would've put Jane Campion and Lina Wertmuller in the top 5. 


I would nominate Alice Guy-Blache to list. A pioneer of narrative filmmaking in the silent era, she's one of the most prolific early filmmakers with nearly 250 films to her credit. She also supervised other directors, created a production company, and built a studio.

I'd add Mira Nair and Jane Campion to an expanded list too. 


wow....you predicted the Hurt Locker back in 2006? Please, you must only use these powers for good.

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