Film’s Female Powerhouses — Part 1: The Hollywood Hitmakers

(Re-posted from Limité

Part 1

March is Women’s History Month, so it’s only fitting that we turn our attention to some of the most notable female filmmakers working today. A rarity among the ranks of Hollywood filmmakers, women represent only 7% of the field (according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University). Though there’s still much room to grow, women have come a long way since the days of Alice Guy (b. 1873), the French pioneer who’s considered the first female director. With Guy paving the proverbial way, women like Julie Taymor, Phyllida Lloyd, Sarah Polley, Brenda Chapman, Dee Rees, and Lena Dunham have come up through the ranks, imprinting their unique stamps on some of the most interesting films today. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, and in 2011, two of the 10 Best Picture-nominated films were helmed by women (Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right and Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone). But the road is still long.

Beginning today, Limité launches its three-part series on female filmmakers, paying tribute to just some of the women representing three categories of filmmakers: “The Hollywood Hitmakers,” “The Indie Darlings,” and “The International Cineastes.” This week, we focus on those women who have made their mark in big studio releases. Join us next Friday for Part 2.

This series is dedicated to the memory of trailblazer Nora Ephron, beloved writer-director of such romantic comedy classics as Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), and writer of When Harry Met Sally… (1989). Her valuable contributions to the genre—and to filmmaking, as a whole—are no doubt felt in the works of so many female directors working today.



by Saidah Russell

Catherine Hardwicke is something of a rock star. Her films, which are often beloved by the teenaged and angst ridden, display an edginess that Hardwicke, herself, embodies. Raised in McAllen, Texas, a town near the border of Mexico, the filmmaker describes her youth as “wild.” Perhaps her childhood spent on the border influenced the development of her voice as a filmmaker, given that Hardwicke—especially in the beginning of her career—is often drawn to emotionally intense and fast-paced subject matter.

Hardwicke’s path to becoming one of the most commercially successful female filmmakers began after she abandoned her original career as an architect and moved to LA. As a result of her background, she was able to quickly put her talents to use as a production designer and ended up working side by side with a number of well-known and influential filmmakers, including Cameron Crowe, David O. Russell, and Richard Linklater. During her time behind the scenes, Hardwicke was encouraged to direct her own films. She was inspired to write the film Thirteen (2003) after talking with the film’s co-star and co-writer Nikki Reed (Twilight series) about her experiences as a young teenager. Hardwicke went on to direct Lords of Dogtown (2005) and The Nativity Story (2007) before she was chosen to help bring the remarkably successful Twilightnovel to the big screen. What followed can only be described as fangirl/fanboy mayhem as Hardwicke is mostly to blame for introducing the pop culture juggernauts Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart into mainstream consciousness. Twilight (2009) was a huge commercial success, but the filmmaker chose to focus her attention on new projects instead of continuing with the franchise. Her next film was Red Riding Hood (2011), a darker, more adult take on the classic fairytale. She’ll next take the helm of thriller Plush, which is due for a 2013 release.


by Curtis John

When it comes to female filmmakers, Penny Marshall and her body of work always makes the top of the list. As an actor, alone, she has had tremendous success, starring for eight seasons as Laverne DeFazio on the lauded television sitcom Laverne & Shirley. But after being prompted by her brother Garry Marshall, creator/writer of Happy DaysLaverne & Shirley, and innumerable other hits, it was with her directing talents that the female Marshall achieved even more success. Following 1986′s Jumpin’ Jack FlashBig (1988) was her sophomore film. It starred a then barely known Tom Hanks as a boy who wishes to be a grown-up and wakes up the next morning to find himself in an adult body. A box office success, Big was the first film directed by a woman to gross over $100 million.

Marshall followed up Big with the Robert De Niro-starring Awakenings(1990), and she reunited with Hanks for A League of Their Own (1992), the mega-hit fictionalized account of the real-life 1940s All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. League also grossed over $100 million.

Though she has not directed a film in over 11 years, Marshall remains busy occasionally directing television shows, as well as making several movie guest appearances. But be on the lookout for Effa, her newest directorial project about Effa Manley, a white woman passing as black during segregation who crashes through barriers in the male-dominated world of sports as the first woman to own and manage a professional sports team.



by Janice Y. Perez

When she was 18 years old, Nancy Meyers caught Mike Nichols’s breakthrough comedy-drama film, The Graduate, a moving experience which started her journey into screenwriting. Born and raised in Philadelphia as the younger of two daughters, Meyers, who acted in local stage productions since she was 12, had a shift of interest to film when she saw the fateful movie.

Before becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable female writer-directors, Meyers first worked as a production assistant on the CBS game show The Price Is Right in 1972 in Los Angeles. She eventually quit so she could study filmmaking and hone her craft as a screenwriter, while baking and selling cheesecakes on the side to support herself.

Meyers’s film What Women Want (2000) became the most financially successful film directed by a woman at the time, raking in over $370 million upon its release. Her 2003 film, Something’s Gotta Give, had trouble finding a studio at first because of the fear that the lead characters, played by Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, were too old. It ultimately grossed over $266 million worldwide.

The secret to the shattering success of the latter film was with Meyers herself, a storyteller noted for her stylistic ability to craft stories about mature women who are strong, independent, and nothing like your typical romantic comedy damsels. The filmmaker’s filmography spans 30 years of remarkable female characters, such as Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin (1980), Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap (1998)and Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated (2009).


by Morgan Goldin

Beginning her career documenting the punk rock scene on the streets of LA to then helming comedy vehicles for SNL’s most bankable stars, Penelope Spheeris has carved a niche for herself in the entertainment industry. Few who watched her gritty exploration of the burgeoning subculture in the seminal “rock doc” classic The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) would have pegged her to direct such light-hearted fare as The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) andThe Little Rascals (1994). However, Spheeris is showing that transitioning from independent filmmaker to Hollwood hitmaker doesn’t have to entail the oft-cried moniker of “sell-out.”

The filmmaker spent her youth with a traveling carnival troupe. Her father owned The Magic Empire Shows circus carnival and was, himself, a sideshow attraction, the circus strong man. The family traveled all over the United States, where Spheeris was exposed to people from all walks of life. Perhaps it was this kind of unconventional upbringing that gave Spheeris a certain empathy and compassion towards society’s outsiders. She imbues a humanistic touch in portraying the gutter punks in Decline. After that breakthrough, she kept working on edgier films like Suburbia (1984) and The Boys Next Door (1995). The market for aggressively bleak fare would’ve been cornered by Spheeris if she didn’t land the assignment for Wayne’s World (1992).

Wayne’s World was a massive hit, and its success paved the way for other comedies like Black Sheep (1996), Senseless (1998), and The Kid & I (2005). However, Spheeris never betrayed her rock ‘n roll roots. She followed up Decline with two more entries and another rock doc,We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll (2001).

As the godmother of celluloid punk and the one who brought Wayne and Garth to the big screen, Spheeris has made a career for herself that is unheard of in the Hollywood echelon.


by John Lee

A future in animation seemed to be in the stars for Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Born and raised in South Korea before immigrating to the United States with her family, Nelson spent her childhood in Lakewood, CA watching martial arts movies, playing with cars, and drawing. As a girl, she would sit at the kitchen table for hours and watch her mother draw, copying her every stroke. Nelson traces the start of her career to those early family experiences.

The filmmaker attended Cal State Long Beach and graduated with a degree in illustration. She had no animation experience and began her career making photocopies for an animation house. She spent a brief time in television before joining DreamWorks Animation in 1998 as a storyboard artist on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), quickly moving through the ranks to become head of story on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) and work as a storyboard artist on the 2005 animated feature Madagascar. As a fan of martial arts movies, Nelson asked to work on Kung Fu Panda (2008). After the success of the film, DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg approached her to direct the sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, becoming only the second woman to solely direct an animated feature from a major Hollywood studio. The film was released in 2011 and was a critical and box office success, becoming the highest-grossing film ever by a female, earning $663 million worldwide.

Nelson hopes that her example will inspire young girls who dream of a future as a director or animator. She said, “Young girls tell me that they never envisioned themselves as directors, but after meeting me they can picture themselves doing it. That’s been the best reward from what I do.”

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