While I may be personally disappointed that no Oscars went to Atonement last night, I was even more dismayed to read that in 2007 a meagre 6% of Hollywood films were directed by women. While we like to talk about what gains women are making in virtually every area, this represents a net loss from 11% in 2000! Not great. Christopher Goodwin writes about the dearth of women in yesterday’s Sunday Times…"When the Oscars are handed out in Hollywood tonight, it will be surprising if the films with the most nominations – No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, with 16 between them – don’t walk away with the big prizes. Bleak, violent, male-orientated, these films seem to have touched the dyspeptic, Iraq-shaded nerve of the times. They have certainly wowed the critics, even if they have not become huge audience pleasers, especially with women."
What were your favourite films of 2007?
It’s not just critical acclaim and Oscar nominations these films are attracting. Juno is conclusively proving that if a studio is willing to nurture a film that crosses gender demographics, it can make big money. Juno cost just $7m to produce, but has taken $124m at the box office in the USA alone. That’s more than the two big Oscar front-runners, No Country for Old Men ($61m) and There Will Be Blood ($31m) combined, and much more than the most recent teen male sensation, Cloverfield ($78m).
Does all this presage a new era in Hollywood in which women get a fairer crack of the whip? Not so fast, say some observers.
“It’s wonderful that these women have been nominated, but it’s important to keep it in perspective,” says Dr Martha Lauzen, who publishes The Celluloid Ceiling, an annual survey of the employment of women in key creative positions on the 250 top-grossing films made in Hollywood each year. “What’s really remarkable is that so many women have been nominated when they represent just 10% of writers of Hollywood films.” But Lauzen points out that this year, as usual, no women are included in the five best director nominees. The last time a woman was nominated for best director was 2004 – Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation. Then you have to go back a decade, to Jane Campion for The Piano in 1994. Only one other woman has been nominated: the Italian director Lina Wertmüller, in 1977, for Seven Beauties. No woman in the Academy’s 80-year history has ever won a best director Oscar.
“It’s not surprising to me that, once again, there are no women nominated as best director,” says Lauzen, “because to be nominated, you have to be in the game, and in 2007, the last year we surveyed, only 6% of Hollywood films were directed by women.” Lauzen’s survey suggests that while slightly more women may be writing films, the situation for female directors worsened considerably in this decade: in 2000, 11% of Hollywood films were directed by women. It’s difficult to think of any profession – outside gigolo – with a worse male/female ratio.
Part of the reason is that so many more big films now open simultaneously all over the world, to maximise that crucial opening-weekend box office, which is predominantly generated by teenage boys. And the studios believe male directors are better attuned to exciting that audience. If truth be told, they’re probably right. But the studios don’t seem to trust women directors to have the toughness or stamina to be given the big guns and big themes the boys are allowed to play with. “As long as the studios see the female audience as a secondary one, or not as easy to get into cinemas on the first weekend, there’s going to be a lid on us,” says Callie Khouri, who directed the recently released Mad Money, which starred Diane Keaton, Katie Holmes and Queen Latifah.
The question now is: are women choosing to write and direct more intimate and character-driven films because those subjects interest them? Or is it because they know they have a better chance of getting those subjects made, rather than the big action movies, such as the Bond franchise, which are the traditional and exclusive province of boys? “I would like to work outside the female-centric world,” says Khouri, who spent years trying to make a film about baseball and also one about Nascar motor-racing. “But if it’s got a woman in it, I’m going to have a much better chance of getting it made.”
Whatever the subject, even when women do manage to direct a successful first feature, it seems much harder for them to get their next film off the ground than it is for men. Tamara Jenkins went nine years between directing her well-received debut, Slums of Beverly Hills, and The Savages. It has taken Kimberly Peirce – who caused a sensation in 1999 with Boys Don’t Cry, which won Hilary Swank a best actress Oscar – eight years to get her next film into theatres (see below). And despite having a huge cultural success as the writer of Thelma and Louise in 1991, and a box-office hit in 2002 as the director of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Khouri is only on her second film with Mad Money.
Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman director, giving all to just one film
After the incredible and unexpected success of her first film, Boys Don’t Cry, which won Hilary Swank an Oscar for best actress as a troubled, transgendered teen, the writer-director Kimberly Peirce had Hollywood at her feet. But that was eight years ago, and only now does she have her second film, Stop-Loss, ready for release. Starring Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish, it’s a tough drama about a charismatic army sergeant who goes Awol when, under a policy called Stop-Loss, the government unilaterally extends his army service and wants to send him back to Iraq.
“What happened to me?” laughs Peirce. “When all of Hollywood says, ‘We want to work with you, we want to pay you a lot of money,’ creatively and professionally you want to do it. But the bureaucracy of Hollywood kind of pares down creativity and productivity.” After Boys, Peirce was, as they say, “attached” to a number of high-profile films, including Memoirs of a Geisha. She also had a couple of pet projects she just couldn’t get off the ground at the studios. “They even get you to cast the whole thing,” she says. “Do you know how much time of your life that is? Casting, meeting actors? I would get these big new projects because I represented a certain cachet. But as we moved forward, the studio would say, ‘We’re going to turn it into a musical’, or ‘We’re going to have a clothing line.’ It wasn’t culturally authentic. For me, it’s all about the emotions and the relationships.” In the aftermath of September 11, Peirce became fascinated by the reasons young American men were signing up to fight, including, to her family’s shock, her younger brother. So, initially intending to make a documentary, she just started interviewing people. “It was fascinating to get inside the thinking of this generation.” Peirce was amazed when she found that her brother, home on leave, had cut together a kind of Iraq war home movie, driven by intense rock music. “Some of it was very patriotic, all standing there, saluting. Some of it was comic; some of it was in the streets, blood everywhere, a gore-fest. There were 20 different home movies, all made by kids in his unit.”
Soon, Peirce felt the stories she was collecting – Boys Don’t Cry had originated with similar, on-the-ground research – were instead a way into a feature. She wrote a spec script, which she sent to producers, accompanied by a five-minute trailer of interviews and war footage from the young soldiers. The self-starting process rekindled her enthusiasm for film-making.
“There hasn’t been a moment – and it was the same with Boys – where I haven’t been completely fascinated,” she says. “There are a lot of reasons to work. It’s fun to shoot; it’s fun to work with actors. But at the end of the day, the way I work, I go to bed with it and I wake up with it. If I can’t make it emotionally truthful, I’m just going to be tortured, so it’s, like, why bother?” CG Stop-Loss opens in the UK on April 25 To some extent, as both Jenkins and Peirce admit, their lack of productivity was aggravated by the seductions that only Hollywood can offer. They were both enticed by the big money that can be earned by working on prestigious projects that are never made, or end up being directed by someone else.
Jenkins says that getting sucked into writing uninteresting generic scripts was “a disaster. I got involved in projects that wasted my time. You meet with people, it sounds interesting, then it disappears”. Some women directors also acknowledge that directing, especially when a film is in production, is one of those all-consuming, 24-hours-a-day jobs that make it almost impossible to balance family and work.
Being squeezed out of the studio system and barred by gender from tackling the blockbusters can at least lead women to the small but juicy themes they choose – and to screenplay nominations. And who is to say that the “theme” of The Savages, coming to terms with the impending death of a parent, is any less important than that of No Country for Old Men? Khouri, at least, hasn’t lost her sense of humour yet. As she points out: “Whenever the annual meeting of the Directors’ Guild takes place, there’s never a line for the Ladies.”