Winter 2016

The New Wave of Women

In the 1970s a handful of female directors got a shot at making features. It didn’t change things, but it was a start. Film critic and historian Carrie Rickey looks at their accomplishments—and legacy.


Elaine May on A New Leaf (1971) (Photo: Everett)

The sands were shifting in Hollywood during the late 1960s and 1970s. Corporations acquired Hollywood studios. The so-called movie brats, film school-educated directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, began knocking on studio doors. "Women’s libbers," as popular magazines dubbed those crusading for equal rights and equal representation, asked, "Where are the women on screen?"

From the evidence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, M*A*S*H, and Midnight Cowboy, they were primarily lust objects, not leading characters. Molly Haskell summed up the trend in the title of her 1974 call-to-action, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. And the big question became, where are the women behind the camera?

By 1974 I had seen exactly one movie directed by a woman, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) by Agnès Varda, and didn’t know the names of any others. Then at a UCLA festival of women’s films, I read Dorothy Arzner’s name on the director’s card of Dance, Girl, Dance and wept. Because the field of women’s studies was in its infancy, few of us knew that there had been a clutch of women directors early in the 20th century, including Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber. Or that Arzner, the first female member of the DGA, directed 17 features and Ida Lupino, the Guild’s second member, directed seven, the last in 1966.

Even fewer were aware that we were living in an era when the window for the "femme helmer" (as Variety had dubbed Arzner) was opening—if only a sliver. The good news: From Stephanie Rothman’s feature debut in 1967 to Gillian Armstrong’s first film in 1979, a dozen or so femme helmers entered the scene, among them Elaine May, Lina Wertmü ller, and Joan Micklin Silver. The less-good news: Unless you lived in New York or Los Angeles, you might not have been aware that, apart from May, Wertmü ller, and perhaps Barbara Kopple, other female filmmakers were out there.

Claudia Weill (left) on Girlfriends (1978), (Photo: Everett)

In hindsight, the late 1960s and 1970s were a pivotal era for women directors whose films looked askance at society, social arrangements, and men. At a time when Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed that all he needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun, filmmakers like Rothman proved the directorial necessities were a script and an Arriflex.

Rothman was a graduate of UC Berkeley and the USC film school. In 1965 Roger Corman hired Rothman to direct It’s a Bikini World (released in 1967), one of the last of the beach-party films. In her subsequent films, Rothman employed classical filmmaking techniques to tell stories of social transgressors, such as the Mexican revolutionaries in The Student Nurses (1970), the omnisexual predator in The Velvet Vampire (1971), and the exotic dancer in The Working Girls (1974). To one sector of the audience, these were sexy films; to another, they were allegories of women’s liberation.

As Student Nurses played grindhouses in 1970-71, two other movies directed by women appeared in art houses and major theaters. Barbara Loden, screen and stage actress, wrote, directed, and starred in Wanda (1970), her filmmaking debut. Shot in grainy 16 mm in cinéma vérité style—handheld camera and blunt cuts without dissolves—the story of a coal-country wife and mother who abandons her family was, like Rothman’s movies, a rejection of the status quo and a search for personal identity. In the euphemism of The New York Times, the film was "a critical hit that failed to create excitement at the box office."

So it was with A New Leaf (1971), comedian Elaine May’s directorial debut, which she wrote and co-starred in with Walter Matthau. The satire of a gentleman gold digger (Matthau) and the millionairess/botanist (May) he plans to marry and murder, it played at Radio City Music Hall to many glowing reviews and too few in the seats.

For A New Leaf, May created a droll film language that contrasts realistic scenes of said gold digger meeting a potential spouse with exaggerated, surrealistically rendered fears of what his life with her might be like. May would continue her directorial career looking through a cocked eye at male mating rituals in her biggest hit The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and male friendships in Mikey and Nicky (1976) and Ishtar (1987). Though she continued to work as a screenwriter, May’s promising directorial career stalled after Mikey and Nicky and derailed after Ishtar flopped. Female directors, even of May’s stature, are rarely given second chances.

Barbara Kopple on Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), (Photo: Cabin Creek Films)

Among feminists of the 1970s, the films that won the most attention came from Europe. In pointed defiance of how male directors depict women, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) surveys the outer and inner life of a full-time mother and part-time prostitute. Unlike most European films of its era, it purveyed the details of cleaning and cooking, and hid sex behind closed doors. Akerman would complete some 47 shorts, features, and documentaries before her suicide last year at 65.

The films of Italian director Lina Wertmü ller—including Swept Away (1974) and Seven Beauties (1975)—were zeitgeist litmus tests and lightning rods. These role-reversal stories of dominant women and submissive men wrestled with the politics of power and class, as well as gender. The first concerns a female aristocrat and a Communist male deckhand on her yacht. The film shows them at sea, where she has the upper hand, and shipwrecked on a desert island, where he does. In this overheated sexual melodrama, nowhere can they be equals.

Her follow-up, Seven Beauties, depicts a similarly melodramatic role reversal, this time in a Nazi concentration camp where the female commandant pressures a male inmate for sex. In all, Seven Beauties received four Oscar nominations, including one for Wertmü ller as best director—the first woman so honored. Likewise, she was the first woman to get a DGA nomination for a feature film.

At the same time Wertmü ller surveyed power struggles between the sexes, Joan Micklin Silver made Hester Street (1975), about a power struggle within a marriage. Set in 1896, the film is framed, lit, and shot in black and white and is mostly in Yiddish with English subtitles. It chronicles the tale of a Jewish immigrant to the U.S. who does not want to assimilate and her husband who does. Silver gently mimics the style of early cinema to underline that our foremothers were feminists too. Her subsequent 1970s films, Between the Lines (1977) and Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), held out the promise of a long and prolific career as a feature director. Yet the path to that goal did not run smoothly. Though she directed a few more features, her later efforts failed to gain traction either with distributors or at the box office, and her career continued largely in television.

Joan Darling on First Love (1977), (Photo: Photofest)

Aside from theatrical features, female directors had long been associated with documentaries. Nancy Hamilton and Shirley Clarke directed Oscar-winning documentaries about, respectively, Helen Keller and Robert Frost. In 1976 Barbara Kopple became the first woman to win a solo Oscar. Harlan County U.S.A., her unapologetically pro-union movie about coal miners who refuse to sign a contract with a non-strike clause, emphasized the voices of female folk singers and activists fighting for better wages, health, and living conditions. Its urgency and subsequent popularity paved the way for the partisan documentary filmmakers of today who reject the impartial approach to their subject. It is not an overstatement to say Kopple changed the course of documentary. Just as important, she maintained a career (winning a second documentary Oscar, in 1991, for American Dream) in a way few female filmmakers of the 1970s were able to.

Like Kopple, Claudia Weill was a significant force in nonfiction film as the co-director, with Shirley MacLaine, of The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir (1975). Their Oscar-nominated film chronicled the experiences of seven American women learning Chinese medicine, among other things, from their counterparts.

Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) is an intimate account of a young photographer (Melanie Mayron) unmoored when her best friend and roommate moves out to get married. Weill employed a cinéma vérité style to lend a documentary feel to the story of a woman more focused on making a career than on getting married. She has casual sex (and is not punished for it, unlike the doomed heroine of Looking for Mr. Goodbar the previous year). Unfortunately, Girlfriends was released in the middle of a newspaper strike in New York, and with few reviews, it failed to find a wide audience. But there was strong word of mouth, and women, especially, were thrilled to see themselves represented on screen in a more realistic way.

Weill would direct another feature, It’s My Turn (1980), an affable romance with Jill Clayburgh, many plays, and work consistently in episodic television, including Cagney & Lacey and Girls. But when her second feature failed to connect with audiences, she too had trouble getting financing for another big-screen project.

Joan Micklin Silver on Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), (Photo: Photofest)

The same thing happened to Joan Darling. Darling, a pioneer television director who received a 1976 Emmy nomination for the celebrated "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and helmed many episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, directed only two feature films. First Love (1977), an unusually sensitive coming-of-age tale, told the story of a college boy who believes love is the context for sex. The sex sequences between William Katt and Susan Dey are very poignant, but were considered old-fashioned in the era of Porky’s. Darling didn’t get another feature film opportunity until 1986, and continued to direct for TV.

Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Nashville and Thieves Like Us for director Robert Altman, made her directorial debut with the feature Old Boyfriends (1979). Starring Talia Shire as a recently widowed psychiatrist who looks up old beaus to find how she got to her present place in life, the film featured excellent performances by Shire and John Belushi. Her feature was a one-off, and for the rest of her long career she continued to work as a director on movies for television (The Tenth Month, The Acorn People) and episodic shows.

Australian-born Gillian Armstrong made her feature debut with the auspiciously titled My Brilliant Career (1979), featuring an electrifying performance by Judy Davis. The film is based on a memoir by Miles Franklin, the Louisa May Alcott of Australia, with Davis as the personification of the island continent: free-spirited, brash, impetuous, and rough around the edges. Armstrong came to the movie after nearly a decade making shorts and documentaries and demonstrated an eloquent command of film language. This is a movie about textures, colors, and social contrasts. The vivid heroine comes from the outback, where the land, trees, and pig slop are the same dun colors. To acquire social polish, she is sent to her grandmother in town where the interiors are floral wallpapers, oriental rugs, and lace curtains. Armstrong frames Davis as the raging bull in the china shop of her grandmother’s serene world. Armstrong would eventually bring her talents to the United States to make Mrs. Soffel (1984) and Little Women (1994) and in Australia she directed such films as High Tide (1987) and Oscar and Lucinda (1997), all about heroines who live against the grain.

Not all the female directors of the ’70s had the opportunity to continue making features. Yet every one of these women pushed the boundaries and helped make way for Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, and Nora Ephron in the ’80s; Nancy Meyers, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Betty Thomas in the 1990s; and Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, and Anne Fletcher in the new century.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

More from this topic
More from this issue