Tamara Jenkins knows about dry spells. Before boot-strapping her critically acclaimed drama “The Savages” into existence — and scoring an Oscar nomination this year for original screenplay in the bargain — the writer-director went nine years between jobs. Nine. Years.
Surely an Oscar-caliber filmmaker is more employable than that?
There is a tempting and plausible explanation for Jenkins’ parched Hollywood resume: her gender. Statistically speaking, behind-the-camera female film professionals — in particular, directors — work even less than they did in the late 1990s. And why is that? Do studios lack confidence in female directors? Has the door locked behind such past-prime talents as Penny Marshall (“Big”) and Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”)?
“I have no idea,” says Jenkins. “I do know it’s harder to get movies made that are challenging, different than what Hollywood is used to. Then you throw in the added bonus of gender discrimination … it doesn’t make things easy.”
This issue of gender disparity in Hollywood’s directing ranks is one that gains traction every few years, last when Sophia Coppola garnered an Oscar nomination for “Lost in Translation” (2003) and most memorably when Barbra Streisand’s snub for “The Prince of Tides” (1991) prompted the star to openly lament Hollywood’s so-called “celluloid ceiling.”
This year, the issue again seems timely, for the paradoxical reason that female screenwriters are flourishing, while female directors are not. Of the five movies nominated for original screenplay, four were written partly or solely by women. A fifth movie, Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her,” was nominated for adapted screenplay. Those five female nominees represent 500 percent of the total in 2007, when Iris Yamashita of “Letters From Iwo Jima” stood alone in an otherwise monolithically male screenwriting field.
Unfortunately, the parity outlook for directors isn’t so bullish. For the fourth straight year, Oscar’s achievement in direction category is an all-male affair. And that’s just the tip of the celluloid iceberg. According to a recent study conducted by University of California San Diego professor Martha Lauzen, only 6 percent of the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2007 were directed by women. That’s down 3 percentage points from 1998. The gap, clearly, is holding.
Is chauvinism the cause? If so, it encompasses a cultural landscape far more massive than Hollywood. One must also consider the possibility that fewer women are drawn to directing as a career, or have an affinity for the types of rip-roaring event films that Hollywood studios prefer to make.
To the first point, one would assume that film festivals — with their emphasis on independent production and diversity — would boast a more equal division of female- and male-directed films than Hollywood. And so they do, but often not by much. For instance, of the 125 feature films listed on the Sundance Film Festival’s 2008 Web site, roughly 80 percent were directed by men. If one peers deeper into the crust of independent filmmaking — the film schools — there’s still a disparity. At the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, arguably the nation’s most prestigious program, about six out of 10 students are male. Is gender bias the reason? Unlikely — the dean of the program is a woman.
These numbers raise the question: Is gender parity in the ranks of feature film directors realistic, or even desirable? Terry Lawler believes passionately in the affirmative. As executive director of the 1,700-member-strong New York Women in Film & Television, it’s essentially her life work.
“I think that when women have the same numbers (as male directors), they’ll be winning just as many awards and making just as much money,” she says. “Then, we’ll see that women can make movies that are just as important.”
Lawler proposes that female directors are hardly ever included on the short list that studios compile when staffing blockbuster productions like “Transformers.” As such, they rarely boast the gaudy box-office resumes of their elite male counterparts. (None of the top 25 domestic grossing movies of 2007, from “Spider-Man 3” to “Juno,” was directed by a woman.)
Filmmaker Callie Khouri (“Mad Money”) tacitly agrees with Lawler. Though she won a screenwriting Oscar for “Thelma and Louise” (1992), Khouri fought for 10 years to get her directing career off the ground. Today, ironically, she’s rarely recruited to direct the kind of general-appeal crossover projects that initially made her famous. Like most female filmmakers in Hollywood, she’s made do in the demographic ghetto of female-friendly comedies and romances.
“I don’t know exactly what appeals to (female directors) or what they do or don’t get offered,” says Khouri. “I do know what kind of scripts come my way. And I do think the system has built-in prejudices.”
When asked if certain male stars in Hollywood would have a problem working with a female director, Khouri replies: “Maybe … but you’d probably have to shoot ‘em up with sodium pentothal to admit it, even if it was true.”
Undoubtedly, there are scores of directors — female and otherwise — who would leap at the chance to helm a big-budget franchise such as Harry Potter or James Bond. And you can bet that if, say, Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break”) had been hand-picked to direct “Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix” instead of David Yates — a journeyman director without so much as a $10 million-grossing film to his credit before he directed “Phoenix” — it still would have cleaned house.
Why hasn’t that happened? Why does Hollywood continue to resist the idea of a female event-movie go-to director? One explanation — and there’s no way to put this diplomatically — is that the overall body of directorial work by American women is hardly overwhelming.
There has never been an unqualified, female-directed classic in the vein of “The Godfather.” None of the movies in the American Film Institute’s much-ballyhooed Top 100 List was directed by a woman. And on those rare occasions when a big-budget movie has been wedded to a female director, the box office results have generally ranged from solid (Mimi Leder’s “Deep Impact”) to somewhat less than solid (Bigelow’s “K-12: The Widowmaker”).
Anecdotally speaking, the most exciting, visionary female directors working today — artists such as Jenkins, Mary Harron (“The Notorious Bettie Page”) and Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) — gravitate toward edgier, more personal projects in which they maintain supreme creative control. Peirce and director Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins”) came to prominence around the same time. They have comparable skills. Nolan has directed four movies in the last six years; Pierce has directed one, the Iraq vet drama “Stop Loss,” opening later this month. Is her relative lack of productivity by choice, or necessity? Only she knows for sure.
Ultimately, if Hollywood is to be relieved of its patriarchal bias vis-à-vis directors — a mind-set, notes Jenkins, that still envisions the ideal filmmaker “as a macho guy in jodhpurs and whips” —– there will need to be a female Steven Spielberg; in other words, an unstoppable commercial titan who shifts the male-dominated paradigm.
But that’s a Catch-22, isn’t it? Even Spielberg needed someone to take a chance on him.
Or, as Lawler notes: “I think there is a Spielberg-caliber female talent out there. She just hasn’t had the chance to do her thing yet.”