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Step by Step, Women Gain A Foothold in Filmmaking

This first installment in a new series traces the history of pioneering women behind the camera

When women make movies, are the results different from pictures directed by men?

It's a compelling question, and the answer is far from obvious - not because of some mysterious difference between the sexes, but because women have received few chances to express themselves behind the camera. Men have dominated moviemaking in general, and Hollywood in particular, since cinema began more than a century ago.

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This situation may now be changing, as directors like Kathryn Bigelow, producers like Gale Anne Hurd, and studio executives like Sherry Lansing attest. But the evolution is so slow and uncertain that an understanding of the subject's history - and recognition of the occasional female filmmakers who have broken the industry's glass ceiling - seems more important today than ever.

To state the matter briefly, cinema has always been controlled by men. Women have prospered in certain niches traditionally set aside for them - the "continuity persons" who keep track of on-camera details used to be called "script girls," for instance - but males have always grabbed the power jobs. Female directors, producers, and studio bosses have been the exceptions to a virtually unbendable rule.

All of which is highly ironic, since one of the first people ever to make a narrative film was Alice Guy-Blach, a former office worker who took a secretarial job at France's powerful Gaumont Pictures a year after it was founded in 1895. Rising quickly in the ranks, she became a director and then a supervisor of other directors on innumerable one-reel movies.

Her pictures may not have told sophisticated tales - titles like "The Blood Stain" and "The Heart of a Painted Woman" pepper her career - but she showed great creativity and adaptability, conducting rare experiments with sound more than 20 years before "talkies" triumphed.

Later she moved to the United States, ran her own production company, and directed films at major studios like Path and Metro before returning to France with her young children. There she was utterly ignored by an industry she had helped to build, relegated to obscurity and unemployment by the men who had inherited it.

American studios rarely handed the directorial reins to women during the silent-movie era, although Lillian Gish used her acclaim as an actress - in pictures like "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," two of D.W. Griffith's most important works - to become the director of "Remodeling Her Husband" in 1920. Not until the late '20s did Hollywood allow a woman to develop a major directing career, when Dorothy Arzner used low-ranking jobs as steppingstones to film editing and then the director's chair.

Her first movies were low-prestige projects like "Fashions for Women" and "Get Your Man," but while the subjects were minor, Arzner's talents were enormous. In subsequent years she turned what might have been routine entertainments into bold statements on social and moral issues.

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Her most renowned work is the 1933 drama "Christopher Strong." It starred Katharine Hepburn as an ill-fated pilot whose experiences - touching on sensitive issues like adultery and abortion - illustrate the difficulties of an independent woman who fails to conform with social rules. Her later films include "Craig's Wife," with Rosalind Russell as a domineering woman, and "Dance, Girl, Dance," with Lucille Ball as a stripper.

But even a personality as resourceful as Arzner's could survive just so many years on Hollywood's male-dominated sound stages. By the late '40s, she had left the major studios for the worlds of advertising and academia.

If there was an heir who continued where she left off, it was certainly Ida Lupino, who starred in such Warner Bros. hits as "High Sierra" and "They Drive by Night" before turning director with "The Bigamist" and "The Hitch-Hiker," among other pictures. Known for her no-nonsense style both on and off the screen, she moved from feature films to TV assignments on hard-edged programs like "The Fugitive" and Richard Boone's western series "Have Gun Will Travel," not to mention "The Untouchables," still celebrated for its hard-driving energy.

Other women were briefly active as directors during Hollywood's so-called golden age, but most found little work and were quickly forgotten by public and industry alike.

The decline of the studio system in the '60s and '70s allowed a modest renaissance of female filmmaking in the '80s, however, when a small number of independent-minded artists made their voices heard in projects with widely differing agendas.

Those with commercial ambitions included Amy Heckerling, who made the racy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and the smash hit "Look Who's Talking" pictures as well as Penny Marshall whose directing credits include box-office hits "Big" (1988) and "A League of Their Own" (1992). Others had feminist ideas in mind, as Lizzie Borden did in the militant "Born in Flames" and the ribald "Working Girls."

Still others tried to make personal statements in commercial contexts. One was Joyce Chopra, who scored with "Smooth Talk" in 1985 but floundered with "The Lemon Sisters" five years later. Another was Bigelow, whose "Near Dark" and "Blue Steel" were cult-movie critiques of the western, horror, and cops-and-robbers genres.

Today women are a slowly growing presence in Hollywood, directing and producing more movies than ever before, but still outnumbered and outpowered by their male counterparts. Even cases of female success are often laced with revealing details. Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, producers of "How to Make an American Quilt" and other films, say they often encounter female executives when they ask for studio meetings - only to find male executives taking over when significant decisions have to be made.

And even movies focusing on female characters are often made by male directors. Examples include "Waiting to Exhale," a huge hit with African-American women, and "The First Wives Club," coming later this year.

While their influence is gradually increasing, moreover, women haven't yet found the financial or aesthetic freedom to answer the already-stated question: Are pictures made by women inherently different from those created by men, or is there something inherently feminine about them?

Theories abound even though evidence is slim. Kathleen Shannon, former head of the all-woman Studio D at the National Film Board of Canada, maintains there is such a thing as distinctively female moviemaking.

Send a team of men and a team of women to film a street scene, she says, and the two groups will come back with markedly different footage. The men will film people as they move about and do things on their own. The women will film people as they stand and interact in groups.

Some female-made Hollywood films suggest the gender gap may not be so pronounced, however. Lansing's career provides a case in point. Twentieth Century Fox underwent no drastic change of course when she became the first-ever studio president in 1980. Her films as a producer have ranged from the tough-minded feminism of "The Accused," with Jodie Foster as a rape victim, to the dangerous-woman horrors of "Fatal Attraction," with Glenn Close as a scary psychopath.

Indeed, some female directors seem determined to prove they can be as macho as the guys in their business. Bigelow's movies include the action-filled caper movie "Point Break" and the apocalyptic science-fiction fable "Strange Days," which uses unusually large doses of death and degradation to make its cautionary point. Hurd counts explosive adventures like "The Terminator" and "Aliens" and offbeat thrillers like "The Abyss" and "Raising Cain" among her credits as a producer.

Do such movies represent triumphs of gender-free filmmaking? Or are they cop-outs by women who imitate male moviemaking patterns for the sake of box-office success? Answers may become clearer as more women are able to take on projects that reflect their own interests and concerns.

Agnieszka Holland brought uncommon conviction to "The Secret Garden," about a 10-year-old girl who makes new friends in a mysterious old garden; Bronwen Hughes did the same for "Harriet the Spy," based on Louise Fitzhugh's popular novel; and it's unlikely that any man could be as attuned to the Valley Girl scene as Heckerling was in "Clueless," her most recent hit. Barbara Kopple has expressed her political passions in documentaries like "Harlan County USA" and "American Dream," both Academy Award-winners about labor strikes.

Women are active outside the US, too, often sharing many of Hollywood's strategies and sensibilities. New Zealand director Jane Campion has explored women's lives in sharply honed dramas like "Sweetie" and "The Piano," winner of the Cannes filmfest's highest prize.

Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse scored a down-under hit with "Proof," the story of a blind photographer, and a Hollywood success with "How to Make an American Quilt," about women of various ages. British director Sally Potter interpreted a great Virginia Woolf novel in "Orlando," a comedy-drama that extended the avant-garde tradition pioneered by women like Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke.

It's clear that female filmmakers are on the march. But it's equally plain that their crusade still has much progress to make.

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