A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)

A Book Review Essay by Madeline Hawk.

83 years after Dorothy Arzner became the first female to direct a Hollywood feature film in 1927, Kathryn Bigelow became the first to win an Oscar for Best Director in 2010. But what happened in the 83 years in between? Maya Montañez Smuckler, in her book Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of the American Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2018) notes the considerable lack of female directors in the early years of American cinema, focusing on women in Hollywood in the 1970s. Though a time of great socio-political change for women across the country, little scholarship exists about the role female directors played in carving out a space for themselves in Hollywood at this time. With this in mind, Smuckler’s study “examines the relationship between the feminist movement and the film industry during the 1970s, specifically how the movement affected the hiring patterns and creative output of women directors” (2). During the decade, sixteen directors emerged in the commercial film industry; it is these sixteen women that Smuckler focuses her study on. Smuckler’s main interest lies in how these women managed to navigate the patriarchal culture of Hollywood and produce films that many females had attempted to make and failed. Using interviews, oral histories, journal articles, Hollywood industry union reports, and preexisting texts on the subject, Smuckler situates her study into larger arguments of what was happening at this exact moment in time to allow a greater influx of female directors than ever.

Liberating Hollywood is divided into four chronologically comprehensive chapters which document the rise of female directors in the American film industry. The introduction details Hollywood’s resistance to change during this pivotal decade for civil rights. Though the number of female directors was rising, they still represented a small demographic in comparison to the overall number of directors. Between 1970 and 1978, 25 films by 12 female directors were made, constituting 0.6% of MPAA films of that time period. This lack was based in patriarchal beliefs that women were physiologically ill-suited for directing. This reductive belief system would bar women from ascension in the industry.

Smuckler’s first chapter on the female directors of the early to mid 1970s details eight directors’ struggles and occasional success with financing and distributing their films. Beginning with Elaine May, who was signed in 1968 to write, direct, and co-star in A New Leaf, May’s labor was ultimately exploited by the studio to save money. The era was the time of the director as superstar, but only for men. Women, instead, would turn to independent films to make their name. Barbara Loden, an actress often typecast as the dumb blonde in her career, turned to independent directing. Her first film Wanda (1971), unlike May, was independently produced. Though Wanda was critically successful, Loden never made another feature film again. Karen Arthur, also having her film roots in acting, found her break into the film industry through an AFI internship where she was introduced to future collaborators John Bailey and Carol Littleton. Her first film, Legacy (1975), struggled to get distribution in the U.S.

Distribution proved easier for Joan Micklin Silver; her husband, Raphael Silver, produced and distributed her first two films successfully. Her first feature, Hester Street (1975), was able to obtain European distribution after successfully promoting it in festivals. Penny Allen would also use the festival circuit to acquire distribution for her films. With the help of government funding via a Comprehensive Employment Training Application (CETA) grant, Allen was able to direct her first film Property (1979), which won a $1K prize at the opening year of Sundance. As Smuckler demonstrates in these women’s shared experience, “women directors in the early and mid-1970s shared the woes of obtaining financing and the limited distribution typical of the time” (127). Outside of independent films circulated through festivals, there was another route women could take to direct films: exploitation cinema. Stephanie Rothman, working under Roger Corman, directed three exploitation films for the independent producer-director. Though successful in her career, she was never able to make the transition from exploitation to mainstream cinema. Barbara Peeters also started in exploitation films, managing to make feminist films well-received by feminist critics despite the exploitation genre limitations. Beverly and Ferd Sebastian had a successful career self-producing and distributing exploitation films which Beverly directed, capitalizing on the “sex education marriage manual documentaries” that were popular at the time (142). The female directors of the early 70s were challenged by ranges of financial and distribution limitations, as well as being pigeonholed into sensationalist exploitation genres. Nonetheless, they managed to obtain the resources to make and distribute films that didn’t always conform to genre or studio restrictions.

Chapter two details how by the end of the 70s, Hollywood began to notice how feminism was profitable. From 1977-78, the industry added six more female directors to its payroll. Yet, the industry wasn’t finding itself a wholly progressive industry: “While Hollywood seemed occasionally willing to appropriate feminism to boost its revenues and reputation, its unwillingness to hire women…illustrated how the film business was determined to contain its female employees’ success” (163). The six female directors of this period had varying experiences negotiating star power, studio control, and a changing social climate as women’s liberation began to infiltrate Hollywood. Joan Darling (after directing several famous TV show episodes), was approached to direct First Love for Paramount in 1976. Power dynamics (producer control), and a poor understanding of contracts as a first-time director, made the experience poor for Darling, who returned to TV directing. Paramount, however, capitalized on its female director publicity: “As presented in the publicity materials, Paramount was not only in line with contemporary social issues (women’s equality), but was also on the right side of history (by hiring a woman)” (169).

Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury, 1979)

Jane Wagner, under Universal, became the third woman to direct a feature for a studio in the 70s. Since she was a successful script writer, Lily Tomlin approached her to work together, thus starting their relationship, and Wagner was able to use Tomlin’s star power for opportunities to direct impossible for other female directors. Joan Tewskebury already had an established career as a screenwriter (writing the famous Nashville (1975)), when she was advised by Robert Altman to direct. Struggling to get her own written features produced, she was hired to direct Old Boyfriends in 1979. Though it was received with mixed reviews, her potential as a director came through, and she transitioned (like so many of the directors in this study) to TV and TV movies. The famous comedian Joan Rivers, though married to producer and future collaborator Edgar Rosenberg, managed to leverage her own star power to gain interest (as Ida Lupino had done years earlier) for her self-funded film Rabbit Test (1978) which was distributed by Avco Embassy Pictures. Claudia Weill had an easier transition from documentary film to mainstream film. Her first film, Girlfriends, received positive reviews as it made the festival circuit until Warner Bros agreed to distribute the film in 1978. WB too capitalized on the “good publicity for its ‘investing’ in new talent outside the establishment” (197). These female directors were able to break into the studio in part because of their star power and status as women in an industry beginning to realize the positive effects of employing women.

Chapter three details an important method into the industry: the Directing Workshop for Women (DWW). The DWW presented a “practical intervention into Hollywood’s sexism” which trained potential female directors (205). The DWW would help establish new female filmmakers trying to break into the industry as a whole. Anne Bancroft was accepted into the DWW in 1976, where her short film for the workshop, Fatso, was later developed into a feature length film under 20th Century Fox (the film also had the first female DP, Brianne Murphy). Bancroft successfully leveraged her husband Mel Brooks’ relationship with Fox for a studio deal before ultimately returning to acting. Nancy Walker, another DWW recipient, was hired by her manager Alan Carr to direct Can’t Stop the Music in 1979. The production was harmonious for Walker, but the film was not loved due the waning popularity of disco. Lee Grant was accepted into the pilot year of DWW, and later was called to direct Tell Me a Riddle (1980) where she realized she needed to be more emotionally invested in her future projects. This led her to a successful career in documentaries and TV movies with “strong social themes” (229).

Though the DWW was a radical step forward for helping female directors break into the industry, the most important influence and ally/opponent was the Directors Guild of America. Chapter four describes the court cases and legal battles of the DGA with its female members. In 1977, six female members of the DGA approached the DGA national executive secretary about the lack of job opportunities they faced and in 1979, the Women’s Committee (WC) was formed. The WC began collecting data on its female guild members, focusing on female directors of feature films and prime time TV drama between 1949-79. The data illustrated that these weren’t being hired, but the deal memos and statistics didn’t account for who was responsible. On March 1, 1980, the DGA approved the WC’s request for an Affirmative Action Committee (AAC). The AAC’s goal was “to ensure that a woman would direct at least one of every thirteen episodes of a series” as well as an overall increase in female directing job opportunities (258). Since the AAC’s regulations were not legally enforceable, the industry didn’t take the requests seriously. On July 25, 1983, the DGA sued WB and on December 21, sued Columbia “with employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866” (262). The judge ruled in favor of the studios, ultimately ruling the unfair hiring practices was a DGA result and not a studio problem. The studios would fall back on their argument that the creative hiring process was hindered by strict regulations, and the qualification lists of potential hires curated by the DGA was discriminatory in itself. The DGA would go on to try to amend this, adding “Article 15 to the DGA Basic Agreement” in order to include a “‘nondiscrimination’ section to its contract” (274), though the DGA continues to have a low percentage of female and minority hires.

Smuckler ends her study on a quick analysis of the effects of the female directors in the 70s. In the 1980s, there was a “180 percent increase in the number of women directors from the previous decade” (279). The hard work of the female directors of the decade prior opened the door for females in the next generation. Along with this, there was an increase in females in executive positions of power in the 1980s. Smuckler ends on a note of resilience about the gains these female directors made, though they were able to navigate the social, political, and changing economical climates of a rigidly patriarchal industry, “what is of equal historical importance is how these women, as individual filmmakers, contributed to a mythic and monumental era of American cinema” (291).

Smuckler’s book is expansive and impressive, managing to provide the necessary social background of the feminist changes undergoing not only Hollywood, but also throughout America. She notes the lack of scholarship on mainstream female film directors of the period as analysis mainly falls on the female counter-culture cinema and avant-garde directors of the decade. She clearly charts the 16 directors’ careers and thematically and chronologically finds consistencies in their experiences and successfully groups them together. Her attempts to address other minority issues in Hollywood and the DGA are commendable, though she doesn’t pay considerable analysis to the LGBTQ experience of Jane Wagner, which would provide fruitful given the time period. Though slightly hard to follow in its chronological timeline as the book seems to jump in time throughout the individual director biographies, the study proves to be a necessary addition to feminist film scholarship, and scholarship of the important decade of film in the 70s in general.

Madeline Hawk is a postgraduate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Her research interests include contemporary Korean cinema, Japanese anime, gender and queer media theory, and fan studies.

Read also: