It’s no secret that misogyny is rife in Hollywood.
Irrelevant of their talent or knowledge, aspiring female filmmakers have to push and shove their way through the doors of studio executives. Female filmmakers have to work harder and longer than their male counterparts to prove themselves capable of handling the projects expected to make the big dollars. And in the Academy Awards’ eighty eight year history, only one woman has won the little gold statuette for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, 2008).
Clearly a symptom of a broader societal issue, this prejudice in filmmaking has been called into question time and time again, and although there appears to be no clear or long-lasting resolution in sight, there is hope in the form of female directors and screenwriters who are willing to smash through the glass ceiling and pave a way for future generations of female cinematic storytellers.
Such as the late, great Carrie Fisher, who was renowned not only for her iconic role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise, but also for her work as a novelist and script doctor. And Callie Khouri, who became the first woman to win a solo Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her script Thelma & Louise in 1992. And Diablo Cody, who won Best Original Screenplay for her debut script Juno in 2008.
In addition to the revolutionary storytelling by these pioneers, the works of other remarkable female filmmakers have been inspiring audiences around the world for decades. Below, in this third and final special edition post of Fan Girl Corner, is a summary of my favourite female auteurs, and the techniques that elevate them above average filmmakers. Warning: may contain spoilers
My favourite Coppola films include the Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006)
Growing up as the only daughter of one of the most revered filmmakers of the 2oth century mustn’t have been easy. But Sofia Coppola has gracefully risen above the long shadow cast by her father, Francis Ford Coppola, to shine a light all her own on the cinematic storytelling experience.
In 2003, Coppola became the third woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, for her comedy-drama film Lost In Translation. She lost, but won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, proving to the critics who’d cried nepotism during her short lived acting career that she is a storyteller to be taken seriously.
It’s not easy being a woman. And it takes a woman to eloquently and evocatively display the hardships we face, which is why repression is a common theme in Coppola’s films. In the Virgin Suicides, it is repression of women’s sexuality in adolescence; in Lost in Translation, it is the suppression of true self and internal desires, while Marie Antoinette is a study of the repression women have faced over the centuries through the eyes of one of history’s most subjugated women.
It is this combination of tortured yet enigmatic heroines and bold exploration of issues that patriarchal society is unwilling to even acknowledge that elevates Coppola’s style of storytelling from commercial films to literary cinema.
- WORLD BUILDING
From the neon nightlife of Tokyo, to 1970s suburban Michigan, to the courts of Versailles during the reign of Marie Antoinette, Coppola leaves no stone unturned when it comes to world building in her films.
The part-time fashion designer, who interned at Chanel when she was fifteen years old, understands the significance of costumes in period films (Marie Antoinette won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Costume Design) and, like a little girl, she seemingly relishes the opportunity to play dress ups any chance she gets.
With her naturally sophisticated style and one of the most celebrated filmmakers in history as her father, Coppola’s knowledge of how to use cinematic techniques to their full literary advantage is almost like a sixth sense.
Soft, subdued colours such as creams, beiges and white are used in the Virgin Suicides to emphasise the innocence of the five Lisbon sisters and, perhaps more significantly, their unattainable status in the eyes of the neighbourhood boys who watch them from afar. And in Lost in Translation, bold and vivid colours are used to emphasise humour and romance, while darker tones are used to emphasise character’s feeling of despondency.
But it is in Marie Antoinette that Coppola most effectively evokes the audience’s emotions. Purposely evading the inevitable beheading, Coppola instead uses sound, light and a strategically placed balcony to hint at the doomed queen’s fate. The result is a poignant sorrow that lingers in the audience’s mind long after the credits have rolled.
From Hollywood Brat to an acclaimed filmmaker, Coppola has managed to establish her individual and compelling style away from her family of famous storytellers. And that is what makes Coppola a role model to aspiring female filmmakers everywhere.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: SIMONE de BEAUVOIR
My favourite Marshall films include: Big (1988), A League of Their Own (1992) and Driving in Cars With Boys (2001)
Ask anyone over the age of 50 how they know the name Penny Marshall, and chances are they’ll say from her television days on Laverne and Shirley; ask anyone under the age of 30, and they’ll say they know Penny Marshall from her cameo in Hocus Pocus as the bitterly sarcastic, curler-wearing wife of the witches’ “Master”. But ask any film buff, and they will launch into a critical analysis comparing Marshall’s directorial work to that of her brother’s, the late, great Garry Marshall.
Perhaps it was Marshall’s eight years on television that developed her understanding of cinematic storytelling. Or perhaps storytelling was a genetic trait, and the Marshalls discussed cinematic techniques around the dinner table the same way some families discuss an upcoming family holiday. Wherever the inspiration originated, the female Marshall auteur can undoubtedly hold her own in the arena of cinematic storytelling.
- STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS
Set in America during World War II, A League of Their Own is a sports comedy-drama film with an ensemble cast. Set in middle class America from the mid 60s to the mid 80s, Riding in Cars With Boys is a book-to-film adaptation based on a memoir; however, both examine the inner strength of women and the desire for freedom from the patriarchal system.
The fictional women in A League of Their Own are from different walks of life, but they all live during a time when society was in a tug-of-war between new ideas and old values. With men off fighting a war, gaps were left in industries such as medicine, manufacturing, business, and even sport; not only did women find that they enjoyed the “masculine” roles they’d filled, but that they excelled at them too.
Riding in Cars With Boys depicts an intelligent but impulsive young woman who has big plans for her life, only to find herself a married teenage mother after a series of bad decisions. Not only does she struggle to cope with the massive detour from her life plan, but she also refuses to accept responsibility for the situation she finds herself in. On the surface, these two films have little in common. However, both explore the conflicting emotions women have towards freedom through its major characters – sisters Dottie and Kit in A League of Their Own, and central character Beverly in Riding in Cars With Boys – and the consequences that come with too much freedom, such as resentment.
Additionally, theunderlying message of both films is that it doesn’t matter what happens to you, what matters is how you let it affect you.
The benefits and disadvantages of youth, striving to achieve one’s dreams, taking responsibility for our own mistakes and actions, the bond between siblings, and the value of life are some more of the universally appealing themes that can be found in Marshall’s films.
- PLAYING A MAN’S GAME
With less than 50 films ever made about female athletes, sport comedy/drama films are quite literally a man’s game.
A benchmark for films about women in sport, A League of Their Own not only gave audiences one of the best film quotes of all time – when Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) screams at his tearful right-fielder, “There’s no crying in baseball!” – but also proved that female filmmakers are more than capable of handling a genre that is predominantly played by men.
In the thirty two years since Marshall stepped behind the camera, critics have dismissed her films as “corny emotional manipulation”. However, Marshall is unapologetic. “I like corny,” she says. “I like what moves me.” As the first female director to have two films gross more than $100 million at the box office, it’s fair to say that audiences around the world also like Marshall’s “corny” style of storytelling.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: VIRGINIA WOOLF
My favourite Heckerling films include: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Look Who’s Talking, Look Who’s Talking, Too, and Look Who’s Talking Now (1989, 1990 and 1993), Clueless (1995), A Night At the Roxbury (1998) and Loser (2000).
During a career spanning nearly forty years, Heckerling has become one of the few successful female filmmakers in Hollywood, and a vocal advocate for the equality of women both on and off screen.
Unafraid to take on John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) for the title of Teen Film King/Queen, Heckerling’s films are among the biggest box office hits of the 80s and 90s. And her fresh approach to one of the most profitable film genres, as well as her ability to write relatable female characters, has been subtly influential over filmmaking ever since.
- MODERN INTERPRETATION OF A CLASSIC
According to Hollywood legend, Amy Heckerling was approached by Paramount to write a film for teenagers; she instantly remembered a novel she had read as a teenager, Emma by Jane Austen, and the rest is cinematic storytelling history. In the 21 years since its initial cinematic release, Clueless has reached a level of cult status usually reserved for boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and acting heartthrobs à la Leonardo Di Caprio or Zac Efron. The fashion, the Valley teen vocabulary, the fashion, the beautiful and popular girls you wanted to be best friends with and the mansions they lived in, the fashion… did I mention the fashion?!?! The success of a book to film adaptation usually lies in the film’s faithfulness to its literary source, and although modern adaptations of older novels, short stories and plays are common (eg. Cruel Intentions = Les Liaisons dangereuses, Bridget Jones’s Diary = Pride and Prejudice, the Lion King = Hamlet, 10 Things I Hate About You = the Taming of the Shrew ), their success is not.
Heckerling ‘s interpretation of Austen’s classic novel was not only applauded by film critics and audiences, but it also completely revolutionised the standard for contemporary book to film adaptations.
Very few filmmakers have embodied teenage culture so precisely – from the stoner culture of the 1980’s, to the Valley Girl of the 1990s, from the clubbing mania of the early 2000’s to the sometimes painful clashes between nerds and the cool kids, Heckerling understands the pressures of adolescence and young adulthood better than most child psychologists.
But despite the presumed restriction of Heckerling’s target audience, her films have universal appeal because adult audience members can appreciate the satirical overtones, as well as sympathising with the dramatic themes including identity, self esteem, sexual frustration and peer pressure. Other, more mature themes of Heckerling’s films include family, motherhood, single parenting, consumerism and vanity, abortion and drug use.
- WORLD BUILDING
Heckerling understands that teenagers are image obsessed, and as a result, settings, “props” (i.e., modes of transportation), sound (i.e., music) and especially fashion all play an important role in the world building of her films.
From the bright pastels, fluoros, animal prints, and block colours used in Clueless to emphasise Cher’s cheerful yet naïve disposition, to stoner Spicolli’s slip-on Vans (slackers ain’t got time for laces, duh) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and identity-confused Dora Diamond’s forced “angry grunge” look in Loser, the fashion in Heckerling’s films is not only a “hook” to her storytelling, but a window into each character’s personality.
One of the advantages films have over novels as a storytelling medium is the use of music to emphasise the mood of a scene, and evoke the audience’s emotions. Music is the most identity-defining creative platform for teenagers, and Heckerling uses music the same way a novelist uses slang and profanity to connect with her audience.
Due to her target audience, Heckerling’s style is unlike most of her peers, in that it is constantly evolving to adapt to the teenage culture of each generation. And perhaps Heckerling’s ability to successfully readjust her craft in order to meet the needs of her audience is the mark of a true genius storyteller.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: GAYLE FORMAN
© Tara Jenkinson 2017