Women in the director’s chair

By the 1990s, women were directing films in every conceivable genre, a far cry from the 1950s when Ida Lupino was the only woman working in Hollywood. Amy Heckerling’s first movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), a parody of high school comedy films, was a hit and introduced Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, and Jennifer Jason Leigh to general audiences. Heckerling also directed the gangster comedy Johnny Dangerously (1984), a clever homage to 1930s gangster films, and European Vacation (a k a National Lampoon’s European Vacation, 1985), but neither was successful at the box office.

On her next movie, however, Heckerling was able to work with her own script, and Look Who’s Talking (1989) became one of the biggest draws of the year, starring John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and the voice of Bruce Willis. The movie quickly spawned a sequel, Look Who’s Talking Too (1990), which she again wrote and directed. Clueless (1995), a modern-day version of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, continued

Heckerling’s triumphs, but Loser (2000), like Clueless a comedy of young adult angst, was overlooked at the multiplex. Underneath the laughs, Heckerling’s films have shown her ability to use comedy to expose sexism, hypocrisy, and the absurdities of the American consumer-oriented lifestyle.

Kathryn Bigelow has developed a reputation as a director of action movies. Her claustrophobic psychological thriller The Loveless, co-directed with Monty Montgomery, is a cerebral, punk biker film starring a young Willem Dafoe. The movie was inspired by dark and gritty “B” pictures such as Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (a k a Deadly Is the Female, 1950) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), a brilliant thriller that exposes a horror latent in rural America, is about a mysterious young woman who is actually a vampire, part of a gang of vampires who drive through the Midwest in search of victims. Point Break (1991), a visually stunning portrayal of power and relationships between men and women, stars Patrick Swayze as a macho surfer and part-time bank robber who buddies up to an undercover

FBI agent (Keanu Reeves). The movie’s success led to Bigelow’s next assignment, Strange Days (1995), a futuristic mind-control film with a distinctly sadistic edge. The Weight of Water (2000) is a much more subdued film about two women living in different centuries, both trapped in destructive relationships. One is a news photographer, while the other is part of a story the photographer is researching for a book, about a nineteenth-century Norwegian immigrant who may be a murderer. Bigelow’s next movie was K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), a submarine action drama that was a substantial box office hit.

Allison Anders directed Gas Food Lodging (1991), a low-budget film that was an immediate hit with both critics and audiences. Based on a novel by Richard Peck, the movie is a representative example of the new American cinema that revels in realism as much as romantic narrative. Anders created a film that effectively depicts not only the difficulties of single motherhood but also the pain of female adolescence in contemporary American society. Anders followed with the teen gang film Mi vida loca (My Crazy Life, 1994), which further consolidated her reputation as an uncompromisingly honest director. In 1995, she was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

Sofia Coppola made a splash with her first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), but won more attention for Lost in Translation (2003), starring Bill Murray as an over-the-hill star who travels to Japan to make a whisky commercial for some quick cash. Feeling culturally isolated from his immediate surroundings in Tokyo, physically and emotionally isolated from his wife, and temporally isolated from his earlier successes as an actor, he meets a young woman (Scarlett Johanssen) with doubts about her own life and marriage. Together they lend each other perspective about where they are in their lives. The film is deeply reminiscent of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, My Love (and at one point we see the pair watching Fellini’s La Dolce vita on television in the hotel), but it is an entirely original film and an assured and surprisingly mature work. Coppola won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was the first woman nominated for Best Director.

Rose Troche’s experimental lesbian feature Go Fish (1994) became the first breakthrough lesbian feature film. The movie is crafted as a series of deeply textured, carefully sculpted black-and-white images, and the narrative structure of the film pushes far beyond anything previously done in commercial cinema. Nancy Meyers is another highly successful director, with the hit films The Parent Trap (1998, a remake of David Swift’s 1961 original film), What Women Want (2000), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), and The Holiday (2006). Mary Harron created the deeply disturbing I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and American Psycho (2000), reveling in the spectacle of sexual violence, while Jamie Babbit directed the cheerfully “pop” lesbian comedy But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), in which a sexually confused teenager (Natasha Lyonne) is packed off to the New Directions “repro-gramming” center when her parents fear that she is gay. Nancy Savoca directed the coming-of-age romantic drama Dogfight (1991), in which folk song enthusiast Rose (Lili Taylor) and raw marine recruit Eddie (River Phoenix) fall in love during a twenty-four-hour leave on the eve of the Vietnam War. In all these films, the audience is given a vision of human existence remarkably different from that of male genre artists; one could argue that in the 1990s through the current era, women filmmakers have finally found a permanent home in Hollywood.

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Women in the director’s chair