In the mid-’70s, when women (among them Claudia Weill, Joan Micklin Silver, Joan Darling) were getting the chance to direct mainstream movies, Pauline Kael cautioned against expecting great things right away. Filmmakers needed a chance to learn and develop, she said, and there was always a chance they might not, or might simply become proficient hacks. It didn’t matter, she was quoted as saying, whether there was a king or a queen on top of the garbage heap.
Daphne Merkin’s profile of Nancy Meyers in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks back was an attempt to claim that a Garbage Queen was a step forward. The trouble with the piece, as with almost every plight-of-women-in-film article, is that the relentless focus on Hollywood winds up saying that the women directors working outside the mainstream don’t exist.
The institutional sexism that still cripples Hollywood is appalling. When Mira Nair’s “Amelia” opened poorly at the box office, there was talk about how it had just become harder for all women directors to get big assignments. We remember the remarks — later hotly denied — from the Warner Bros. executive who declared no woman would ever again star in a WB release when Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One,” starring Jodie Foster, wasn’t a hit. Like the partnership at a law firm, or a slot on the board of directors, getting a chance to work in Hollywood is a chance to earn attention, clout and big money.
But treating the movies as if they were solely a business has, since the late ’70s when “Star Wars” showed the enormous profits to be made from blockbusters, been the main thing eroding the quality of American mainstream movies over the last 30 years. It’s not wrong for any filmmaker to want a shot at that kind of success. But this far into the game, any filmmaker, female or male, has got to realize the odds against doing good work there.
For Merkin and all the other writers who have filed similar pieces, women making it behind the camera in Hollywood is a question of basic fairness. For film critics, who see good films ignored or buried as a matter of course, there’s something bigger at stake than gender parity atop the garbage heap — namely, the chance for talented directors to develop their own styles and do good work without having to worry about a mainstream increasingly geared towards spectacle and merchandising.
Merkin mentions the notable 2009 films from female directors, among them Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” and “Julie & Julia” directed by Nora Ephron or, as she might be called, Meyers Mach I. But the view of the article is expressed by John Burnham, executive vice-president at the talent agency ICM, who says, “There are about four women directors in the business, only two of whom are working.”
Merkin calls Burnham’s view cynical, but pretty much allows it to stand. And as an example of the myopia that affects Hollywood, it’s close to perfect. If it didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen.
Thinking of the women who made films in the last year, I came up with Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, Agnès Varda, Lynn Shelton, So Yong Kim, Catherine Breillat, Karyn Kusama, Havana Marking, Anne Fontaine, Drew Barrymore and Andrea Arnold. I’m sure I’m leaving out plenty of others. And that list doesn’t include other contemporary women directors like Sofia Coppola, Nicole Holofcener, Lynne Ramsay, Barbara Kopple, Darnell Martin, Stacy Cochran, Kasi Lemmons, Gillian Armstrong, Catherine Hardwicke, Allison Anders, Lynne Stopkewich, Kimberly Peirce and Patty Jenkins.
Those names carry their own untold stories, the years between projects (during which many got by on TV work), the films that didn’t get released, the projects that went to more established directors (to think we lost Lynne Ramsay’s “The Lovely Bones” only to get Peter Jackson’s disaster). But it’s not a list you come up with if your idea of a movie is limited to what’s at the multiplex.
What’s so insidious about making Nancy Meyers Hollywood’s little-engine-that-could is that her films present perhaps a particularly retrograde notion of womanhood.