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Women Have Always Directed Movies

by Linnea Crowther

Women have been a part of moviemaking since the earliest days of cinema’s beginnings – on both sides of the camera. From the first silent films to today’s Oscar nominees, many great movies have been directed by women. Join us as we celebrate the legacies of female filmmakers who have died but live on in their great work.

Lynn Shelton (1965–2020)

Lynn Shelton was best known for directing episodes of TV shows including “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Mad Men,” and “GLOW,” but she was also the director of indie films including “Humpday,” Laggies,” and “Sword of Truth.”

View Lynn Shelton’s obituary

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Penny Marshall (1943–2018)

Penny Marshall not only was a talented comic actor; she was also one of the leading female directors in Hollywood. Her comic fantasy “Big,” starring Tom Hanks, was the first movie by a female director to gross over $100 million dollars. She also directed the Oscar nominated “Awakenings,” starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, and the hit “A League of Their Own.”

View Penny Marshall’s obituary

Nora Ephron (1941–2012)

Nora Ephron was one of the best-known and most successful woman filmmakers of the 20th century. Among the films she wrote and directed were “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), “Julie & Julia” (2012), and the romantic-comedy classic “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993). (If you thought “Sleepless” recalled another romantic classic, 1957’s “An Affair to Remember,” that’s because seeing it was a hugely formative experience for the young Ephron.)

View Nora Ephron’s obituary

Adrienne Shelley (1966–2006)

Adrienne Shelley was poised to become a major force as an indie filmmaker before she was murdered in 2006. She had completed “Waitress,” the third film she wrote and directed, and it had just been accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. After her death, “Waitress” received honors including the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the Sarasota Film Festival, and it was a hit with critics and audiences alike. In Shelley’s honor, the Women Film Critics Circle created the Adrienne Shelly Award, given annually to a film that “most passionately opposes violence against women.”

Read more about Adrienne Shelley

Kayo Hatta (1958–2005)

Kayo Hatta was an Asian-American filmmaker who told a story of Japanese immigrants to her home state, Hawaii, in her feature film “Picture Bride” (1994). Released by Miramax Films, “Picture Bride” was an official selection at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Reviewers said that it was “exceptionally lovely” and that it had “tremendous warmth and respect for its characters.”

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Anita Addison (1952–2004)

Anita Addison was one of the first Black women to be a senior producer at a major television network, producing shows including “Sisters” and “That’s Life.” As a director, she earned an Oscar nomination for her short film “Savannah,” and she directed episodes of “Knots Landing,” “ER,” and “Judging Amy” as well as the full-length features “Eva’s Man” and “There Are No Children Here.”

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Sarah Jacobson (1971–2004)

Sarah Jacobson only had time to complete one feature film before her death from cancer at 32, but with it and her short films she became the “Queen of Underground Film” for a time in the ’90s. She built up to her biggest success with short films including “I Was a Teenage Serial Killer” (1993), and when she wrote and directed the feature-length “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore” (1997), she captured the look, sound, and vibe of the Riot Grrrl movement. The film sold out at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival and was named by Film Threat Magazine as one of “25 Underground Films You Must See.” In her honor, the Free History Project awards an annual grant to a filmmaker whose work echoes her spirit.

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Ida Lupino (1918–1995)

Ida Lupino was one of a kind: She was the only woman to work as a director within the all-powerful Hollywood studio system during the 1950s. She got there, in a roundabout way, by being a “difficult” actor. Critically acclaimed as a talented performer, she refused to take roles that she saw as “beneath her dignity.” Under contract with Warner Bros., she was suspended several times for refusing roles. While she was benched, she found herself closely watching the filmmaking process — and, fascinated with it, she decided to step behind the camera herself. She went on to direct seven feature films including 1953’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” which made her the first woman to direct a film noir.

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Nancy Walker (1922–1992)

Nancy Walker is most recognizable to some audiences as Ida Morgenstern, a recurring character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spin-off “Rhoda.” An actress for decades, she got her start as a director with those sitcoms, helming several episodes of each. She worked on other classic TV sitcoms as well, including “Alice,” but her lone feature film was a different kind of classic — a cult classic. “Can’t Stop the Music” (1980) is a campy disco musical starring the Village People, and it’s notable for winning the first ever Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture. It’s often ridiculous, but that’s what makes it so loveable.

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Kathleen Collins (1942–1988)

Kathleen Collins only directed two movies, but she made history as the first known black woman ever to direct a feature length film. That film was “Losing Ground” (1982), which starred Bill Gunn alongside Seret Scott and Duane Jones, and while it never saw wide release, it was a winner at the Figueroa International Film Festival and has come to be praised for its quality as well as its pioneering status.

Read more about Kathleen Collins

Barbara Loden (1932–1980)

Barbara Loden was poised for a fine acting career, and she did have roles in classics including “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) and “Wild River” (1960). She never quite achieved leading-lady status, but she did discover a new passion for screenwriting when a friend offered to bankroll a movie if she created it. She wrote the screenplay for “Wanda” (1970), a semi-autobiographical story of a woman leaving her married life behind. When Loden couldn’t find a director, she directed the film herself, also starring. “Wanda” was featured at the Venice and Cannes film festivals, and it became inspirational to filmmakers including John Waters. Loden wrote additional screenplays and was preparing to direct a movie about Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” when she died of breast cancer.

Read more about Barbara Loden

Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979)

Dorothy Arzner got her start in the early days of cinema, editing and then directing silent films. She continued through the dawn of talkies, when she became the first woman to direct a film with sound — and she directed the legendary Clara Bow’s first talkie, “The Wild Party” (1928), during the production of which Arzner rigged up a device that’s considered the first boom microphone. She helped launch the careers of stars including Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball. Arzner directed 16 feature films through the 1940s, making her one of Hollywood’s most prolific female directors in the post-silent era. Her success was all the more remarkable since she was not particularly concerned about concealing her homosexuality and lived for decades with her partner, Marion Morgan, even as anti-gay witch-hunts were conducted in Washington, D.C. and echoed across the nation.

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Dorothy Davenport (1895–1977)

Dorothy Davenport came from a family that was well-known for their acting; the Davenports were some of the 19th century’s greatest theatrical stars on Broadway and beyond. Dorothy took the Davenport name to the big screen, first as an actor in silent films and then as a writer, producer, and director. Among the films she directed — sometimes under her own name and sometimes as Mrs. Wallace Reid — was “Road to Ruin” (1934), a sometimes risqué pre-Code film that sensationalized the dangers of sex and drugs.

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Frances Marion (1888–1973)

Unlike many of the women who became directors in Hollywood’s early days, Frances Marion started her career not as an actress but as a writer. She became one of the most respected screenwriters of her era, scripting films for her good friend, early Hollywood superstar Mary Pickford. Marion was the first person ever to win two Oscars for screenwriting; she also directed several films, including the Pickford silent movie “The Love Light” (1921).

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Esther Eng (1914–1970)

Esther Eng was a Chinese-American director who made feature films, some made in China and some in the United States. All her films were in Chinese, exploring the Asian-American experience. Working in the 1930s through 1960s, Eng directed 11 films, most of which are now lost. Eng was an outspoken lesbian at a time when homosexuality was often hidden, and she remained successful as a filmmaker and later as a restaurateur.

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Maya Deren (1917–1961)

Maya Deren was a Ukrainian-American avant-garde filmmaker working in the 1940s and ’50s. Her dreamy, surreal, black and white short films are all but unknown to the general public, yet they were highly influential on generations of experimental filmmakers. “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943) is the best known of her works among devotees of the avant-garde. The American Film Institute carried Deren’s legacy forward with the Maya Deren Award, given to independent filmmakers from 1986 through 1996.

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Lois Weber (1879–1939)

Lois Weber was an important cinematic pioneer: She was the first American woman to direct a feature-length film, 1914’s “The Merchant of Venice.” In 1917, she became the first woman director to own her own studio when she established Lois Weber Productions. She was one of the first directors to experiment with sound, adding it to her films as early as 1913, and she is considered the first to have used the split-screen technique to show two distinct scenes simultaneously. She directed the first Tarzan film as well as the first cinematic scene of full-frontal female nudity. Perhaps best known today is the 1921 film considered her masterpiece, “The Blot.”

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Mabel Normand (1892–1930)

Mabel Normand became known as one of Charlie Chaplin’s most frequent leading ladies, but behind the scenes, she was doing much more than playing a pretty foil to the legendary comic. Normand also wrote and directed a number of Chaplin’s movies. Normand was funny, both as one of the era’s top onscreen comedians and as a writer – a contemporary reviewer called “Caught in a Cabaret,” a 1914 film she wrote, directed, and starred in alongside Chaplin, “mighty close to… the funniest film ever produced.” Normand’s career declined after a series of scandals that she was adjacent to – though not actually involved in – and today, Chaplin is remembered much more than his costar, writer and director. But Normand was immortalized in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard” – main character Norma Desmond was named in part for her.

Read more about Mabel Normand

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