This season will bring a number of female-driven movies, including new work from Nicole Holofcener, Karyn Kusama and other directors who just might be poised for a breakthrough. These films are reminders that even as female activists continue to demand industry reform post-Harvey Weinstein, women — much as they have always done — are also working hard as writers, directors, producers and costume designers.
Women have been on the cinematic front lines from the start. While men took most of the credit for building the movie industry, women — on camera and off, in the executives suites and far from Hollywood — were busily, thrillingly, building it, too. That’s the reason for our list of Movie Women You Should Know, which is not a canon or a pantheon but a celebration and an invitation to further discovery. Here are some of the art’s other pioneers — its independents and entrepreneurs, auteurs and artisans.
Anita Loos wrote the book, How to Write Photoplays, a manual on screenwriting
One of the most prolific and powerful screenwriters of her time — with a career that began in 1912 and stretched into the late ’50s — Anita Loos was in some ways bigger than Hollywood itself. She brought the clout and cachet of a best-selling novelist and successful Broadway playwright to the nascent movie industry, adapting her own work and those of her peers to the new medium. In 1920 she and her husband, John Emerson, published How to Write Photoplays, an early example of an enduring genre. This manual for aspiring movie scribes included a wealth of advice both practical (“Writing for the Camera”, “Marketing the Story”) and existential.
Marione Wong directed the first Chinese-American film
The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West, as it is fully titled, proved to be Wong’s only film. The earliest known movie by a Chinese-American filmmaker, it was long thought lost until the director Arthur Dong happened upon some surviving material while making his 2007 documentary Hollywood Chinese. Even in its current truncated form, Wong’s film beguiles partly because of its melodrama — a young couple, a lonely bride, cultural dissonance, the promised misfortune — and because of flourishes of beauty, like the image of a woman gazing into a mirror before her life is cleaved in two.
Dede Allen edited gangsters so they flew
“Make it go faster.” That’s what the director Arthur Penn told Dede Allen when she was editing Bonnie and Clyde. She did, brilliantly. Over a decades-long career, she edited six films by Penn, who saw her as a true collaborator, calling Allen “an artist” and an “essential part of the creative process”. She worked hard, memorising every frame until the footage ran in her head. Likening herself to the actors, Allen said she, too, became the roles to “viscerally, emotionally feel the way the characters feel”.
Alice Guy Blaché was the first woman in the director’s chair
Alice Guy Blaché helped invent cinema as we know it. The first female filmmaker and among the first to make a fiction film, she made her debut in 1896 with the one-minute The Cabbage Fairy. She shot this charmer — which shows a sprite smilingly plucking real babies from a cabbage patch — on a Paris patio while working as a secretary for Gaumont, which would soon be a film powerhouse. Historians ignored and even rejected that date perhaps, as the theorist Jane M Gaines has suggested, it was unthinkable that a young female secretary supporting a widowed mother could be responsible for an early-cinema milestone.
Barbara Loden had it with men and made a film about it
Wanda, the only feature Barbara Loden directed — she was not yet 50 when she died, in 1980 — is a movie both of and ahead of its time. Like many American films of its time, Wanda, made in 1970, is the story of an earnest quest for freedom set in a vividly naturalistic American landscape. But most of the rebels and seekers of the New Hollywood were men, heirs of Huck Finn in flight from social conventions and, as often as not, the demands of women. Wanda Goronski, played by Loden herself, tells a different story. An unhappy housewife in Pennsylvania’s coal country — where Loden grew up — her prospects are defined, thwarted and betrayed by men. There is a blunt, brutal matter-of-factness in the way Loden portrays Wanda’s fate as she leaves her husband and drifts through problematic love affairs.
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