Random Review 5: Nonfiction Monday: Fantastic Female Filmmakers by Suzanne Simoni

As Jen Robinson announced in this post last week, we are experimenting with sharing hosting duties for the weekly Literacy and Reading News round-ups. “Collaboration is the future” is one of the key themes that I took from reading the posts about the Kidlitosphere conference. The round-ups seemed like a logical place to start. As soon as Jen posts the new, I’ll post a link.  So what did I do with all that “extra time” this weekend? I wrote my first Nonfiction Monday review.

Fantastic Female Filmmakers
(Women’s Hall of Fame Series)
written by Suzanne Simoni
Second Story Press, 2008

First let me say that movies are not my thing. The last movie I saw in the theater was National Treasure. The one before that was Good Morning, Vietnam. Even at home, it is rare that I will sit down to watch movies on TV. I want to watch movies in the same way I read books: in a quiet space, with few distractions, no commercials, and no one to spoil the ending. This book has given me a reason to find some great films … and spend more time reading the credits.

Over the years I’ve seen interviews about famous women actors trying to “break into” the field of directing; a 60 Minutes interview with Barbra Streisand about Yentl and Prince of Tides comes to mind. But I don’t remember Ms. Streisand (or any of the high-profile actors-turned-director) talking about the women who paved the way. These are the stories you’ll find in Fantastic Female Filmmakers.

In her introduction, Suzanne Simoni gives us a quick recap of the history of movies. The first movie camera was invented in 1896, and by the time “talkies” came on the scene, the business of filmmaking was already transitioning itself to an industry. It didn’t take long for men to dominate the industry and use access to money to hold onto their power. Still, as in every other profession, women persevered and consistently made significant contributions to the field. Did you know that it was a woman who invented the boom mike? Yep, Dorothy Arzner, circa 1920.

Fantastic Female Filmmakers offers biographies of ten women of great accomplishment in the movie industry.  Because the stories are presented chronologically, you can  piece together the history of movies and get a sense of broader themes: how Hollywood works, the acting/directing culture, and different approaches to directing. That said, it is the individual stories that make this book such a compelling read. Although these are women of different eras and different cultures, they share one thing: their work takes an incredible toll on their personal lives. Fractured relationships and serious health problems are not uncommon. Nell Shipman, who wrote the screenplay for and directed the first full-length wildlife film in Hollywood, divorced her husband in 1920. Today, we wouldn’t find it extraordinary that a woman divorces her husband. But 1920?

There are some elements to their stories that are timeless: watching a movie as a child lit a spark of interest that ultimately grew into a passion for film. In the early 20th century, the filmmaking ladder for women started with acting. Ida Lupino starred with Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra in 1941. In 1949, Ida wrote a screenplay for the film Not Wanted. She hired a director, but just before filming, the director had a heart attack. She stepped in as the director, asking for advice from recovering director who sat on the set. She didn’t take credit as the director, but she went on to direct other films. Not Wanted grossed $1 million … in 1949.

Before making Not Wanted, Ida spoke with Roberto Rossellini, the famous Italian director. He told her that Hollywood had not yet made stories about ordinary people; their movies focused on “stars and murder.” That conversation inspired Ida to turn a screenplay about an unwed mother into a movie: Not Wanted. Although this may have been one of the first times a movie covered a “taboo” topic (remember this was the 1940s), women are routinely creating films that bring real stories to life.

  • Mira Nair, born in Bhubaneswar, India in 1957, began her career by making documentaries. Although she won awards for her work, she didn’t feel they challenged her enough. In the late 1980s, she began seeking funding for Mississippi Masala, a story about the lives of Indians forced to leave Uganda in 1972 and who resettled in Mississippi. She wanted to “bring the cultures of the East to the West.” The “experts” told her that interracial loves stories didn’t make money, and it took a long time to get funding. She got an unknown actor, Denzel Washington, to star in the film. The rest is history.
  • In the mid-1970s, Euzhan Palcy, who was born and grew up on the French-speaking island of Martinique, wrote a screenplay for the novel Sugar Cane Alley, which is set on a slave plantation in Martinique.  Where she saw a “universal story of passion, struggle, love, and dreams,” industry insiders saw it as a story about color. It took until 1983 to create the film. As a result of the film’s success, Hollywood Studios called to offer her films to direct. At the time, black women directors did not receive these invitations. She declined, “because they were about white characters.”
  • After studio executives re-edited her film Camilla (1994), Deepa Mehta learned a valuable lesson: she would keep full control of the final cut in future films.  She wrote the screenplay for and directed Fire, a film about two sisters-in-law in India who, trapped in arranged marriages, turn to each other for comfort. The film caused such controversy in India that there were threats against Mehta’s life and  Indian authorities ordered the film withdrawn from theaters for public safety reasons.

Each of the other directors — Margarethe Von Trotta, Anne Wheeler, Martha Coolidge, Sally Potter, and Patricia Rozema — are still making huge contributions to filmmaking. Reading their stories has changed my thoughts about movies. No, I’m not more likely to go to the theater, but I had never heard of some of these movies, and now I’ll be seeking them out. I’ll also spend more time studying, not just reading, the credits.

Fantastic Female Filmmakers is an exceptional book. Whether you are a novice movie-goer like me or someone who is fascinated by film, you’ll learn something new. If you are interested in reading about lthe lives of  women of achievement, you wil close the book inspired.

You can read everyone’s contributions for Nonfiction Monday here.

2 responses to “Random Review 5: Nonfiction Monday: Fantastic Female Filmmakers by Suzanne Simoni

  1. Collaboration is indeed the future. And I see that you spent your extra time this weekend writing a fabulous review. I hardly ever go out to the movies, either. I think the last time was probably 2 Harry Potter movies ago. I prefer watching from my comfortable couch, with the ability to pause when I need to get a drink or a snack.

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