Despite being instrumental in the development of the film industry, history tends to edit out the great female contributors to the craft and instead focuses on their male contemporaries. Women such as Alice Guy-Blaché, Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber acted as both the innovators of and inspiration for modern cinema. Whereas the world freely honours movie legends such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin, their female counterparts seem to have become somewhat lost to the annals of time. However, the modern film world is addressing this by encouraging more female lead roles in blockbuster titles, awarding more female directors deserved accolades and appointing a higher percentage of women to management positions in big studios. Here we’ll take a look at some of the female main players in the film industry, both past and present.
Arguably the first female film director was a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché, who originally worked for engineer and inventor Léon Gaumont in Paris. Gaumont became instrumental in the formation of the movie industry and, during her time working for him, Guy-Blaché gained access to his cameras and equipment. In 1896 she began directing films of her own, starting with the narrative of La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). She went on to direct somewhere in the region of 1000 films over the next quarter of a century, as well as experiment with the early use of audio recordings and found her own production company called Solax, one of the first to be owned by a woman.
Solax Studios was founded in the USA in 1910, around the same time that an American woman named Lois Weber was entering the film industry. Both Guy-Blaché and her husband, Herbert, made claims that they gave Weber her initial start in the business, but she went on to eclipse the both of them in her movie career. She has been hailed by some as one of the most important film directors of her era. Although she was never as prolific as Guy-Blaché, she wrote, directed and acted in hundreds of films. She pioneered the full-length feature film, the use of sound and the use of split-screen techniques to the delight of a dedicated audience. She pushed boundaries through her depiction of controversial topics and her trailblazing use of her own directing style.
Dorothy Arzner began her career as a stenographer at Paramount in 1919, just as Guy-Blaché’s film career was coming to an end and Weber was hitting her stride whilst also working with Paramount Pictures. Arzner quickly worked her way through the ranks at the studio to become a script writer, a film editor and, eventually, a director in her own right. Her greatest contributions to the movie industry include the invention of the boom mic, the fearless portrayal of lesbian themes in her work and the introduction of many a Hollywood starlet, such as Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball. In a time when the film industry was already starting to disown its female innovators, Arzner held her own and was responsible for some major stylistic and technological advances in the profession.
Fast forward a hundred years and Hollywood doesn’t look so dissimilar to how Arzner left it. Films directed and written by women are grossly misrepresented at the box office, but numerous mavericks are refusing to allow that status quo to stand. This decade in particular has seen the industry make leaps and bounds towards becoming a more inclusive business, with box office records set for female directors and films with female leads. We are currently living in the age of such blockbusters as The Hunger Games, and female-directed, female-led films like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman seeing real box office success.
One recent endeavour to include more women in leading roles for blockbuster movies has been to add a new twist to an established format. This was achieved with great success in 2016 by Colombia Pictures’ Ghostbusters reboot. Established female actress-comedians Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon were joined by newcomer Leslie Jones to present a different version of the 1984 classic. The film enjoyed prolonged publicity which led to it earning its place as a firm favourite with fans.
Riding on Ghostbusters’ success is the upcoming Ocean’s 8 movie, starring an all-female stellar cast list. Some of the most recognisable and highest-earning actresses in Hollywood today have banded together to tell the story of the sister of the infamous Danny Ocean: Debbie. The story of Ocean’s 11 debuted in 1960 with a production starring Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack as they attempt to pull off a heist involving five Las Vegas casinos in one night. It was then rebooted in 2001 with an all-star (male!) cast including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and the list goes on… The 2018 film will include all the original elements like a heist-focused plot, plenty of glitz and glamour, and the thrill of the casino but with an all-female cast. Movies like these respond to female cinema-goers’ desire to see fictional versions of themselves depicted on screen, where they too get involved in typically ‘masculine’ activities like playing 21, fighting the bad guys and masterminding a heist.
Despite the change represented by these woman-led productions, more recognition still needs to be given to those women who work behind the scenes. Those following in the footsteps of Weber and Arzner are slowly but surely being acknowledge but more could be done. To end on a positive note, let’s focus our attention on recent winners: Sofia Coppola goes from strength to strength in her work as a first-class film director, Amy Pascal remains the only female head of a major studio (Sony Pictures), and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird won Best Picture at the 2018 Golden Globes.