This summer marks an important milestone: the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. So we're taking this momentous occasion to celebrate female trailblazers, including those in the world of film.
I’ve been obsessed with movies since childhood; they’ve been my sustenance, my comfort and my education through good times and bad. However, there is one thing that’s better than watching movies, and that’s discussing them with a like-minded individual — in this case, my colleague, WGBH Digital Producer Meghan Smith.
While we’re technically both Millennials, Meghan sits right on the cusp of Gen-Z, while I’m sometimes confused for a Gen-Xer. It’s not a significant gap, but it’s enough that the span of my movie knowledge outpaces Meghan’s in some ways, while her natural curiosity continues to catch things from my favorite films that I never noticed before.
Last month, we took our film chats from Slack to your screen, looking at seven pioneering female filmmakers from the dawn of the industry. We’re back this month with five more, this time from the 1950s-80s. For each of the five films, I’ll provide some context within that time period, as well as society at large, and Meghan will share her reactions upon watching the films for the first time. Let’s go!
The Hitch-hiker by Ida Lupino, 1953
Andrea: Ida Lupino may have been an actress first, but she was no demure Hollywood starlet. While she often made it a point to play up her feminism on set and in the media, she knew what she wanted, and that was to be in control — not just of her performance or roles, but of the entire film. In 1948, she married Collier Young, an aspiring producer himself. When the two pitched their first film from Columbia Pictures, the studio at which they both worked, they received no support, so they went indie with their own production company, “Filmakers” [sic].
This was already a daring move in studio-controlled Hollywood, but then, when the director of their first film had a heart attack, Lupino stepped up to become the first female Hollywood director since Dorothy Azner. What came next was an astounding series of social justice films that covered a gamut of women’s issues: single motherhood, rape, and fraught mother-daughter relationships. The Hitch-hiker was one of Lupino's most acclaimed films, and also her first to feature a male-heavy cast, proving that female directors could tell stories beyond their gender.
Meghan: It’s crazy to me that so few women have directed in the film noir style. As women we’re so inherently skeptical of situations like this — picking up a strange hitch-hiker off the street — that a female director seems uniquely suited to direct a film requiring subtle and careful observations about how humans interact. Lupino’s direction develops a heightened sense of mystery and paranoia in the harsh desert locations where the story unfolds.
And Lupino clearly knows how to work with actors; so much of the film hangs on the facial expressions of the three men as they try to hide their true emotions. Especially William Talman, the titular hitch-hiker whose subtle charisma is just creepy enough to make him an ideal serial killer. I love this as an example of a woman directing a film that does not have to be all about women or women’s issues. Women should not be pigeon-holed to tell certain stories. Bonus points for how efficient the film is with its running time.
Cleo de 5 a 7by Agnes Varda, 1961
Andrea: Agnés Varda was. THE. BEST. Not only was she absolutely punk rock and adorable, but her work was amazingly creative and incisive. One of the key pioneers of the French New Wave, she was dedicated to realism and social commentary, giving her fictional films a veneer of the documentary. But Varda wasn’t content to be restricted to one medium or even one focus. While she started her schooling with a degree a in literature and psychology from the Sorbonne (“stupid, antiquated”), she went on to study curation at the Louvre, but soon left that esteemed venue to study photography instead. After becoming a filmmaker, she continued to practice photography, as well as sculpture and writing.
But the story of how she got into film is just as interesting as the work itself. She wrote a story, and thought that she’d like to see it on screen… and so she made it! That willingness to try, to experiment, was something that would follow her throughout her career, as seen so poignantly in Cléo de 5 a 7, considered one of her great early works.
Meghan: This was my first time watching an Agnès Varda film, which was long overdue. By following a woman facing a serious medical diagnosis, Varda allows us to walk in her (beautiful) shoes for two hours. Cleo seems to be always surrounded by mirrors, and she is constantly trying on new clothes, hats, and hair styles, trying to figure out how she can present her authentic self to the world. Has the potential of a terminal illness allowed her to do this for the first time? Varda captures 1960s Paris so vividly, and reminds me of the simple pleasures of walking through a city: the bustling cafes and restaurants, music spilling out of windows, hearing snippets of strangers’ conversations. In a city, surrounded by people, you can use the anonymity of a crowd to try on new identities, as Cleo is doing.
Varda also cleverly turns this film into an examination of how women are treated, which is still relevant today. Cleo finds that women’s pain is not always taken seriously by the medical establishment. As she strolls through the streets, she is catcalled, called hysterical, and told to smile by people around her. Little do they know she has a pretty good reason to not smile, but that shouldn’t matter. And I’m adding this line to one of my favorites: She explains that she won’t settle for a man not up to her standards. “I’m too good for men!” she declares, as she sits on a swing in her beautiful apartment, wearing a luxurious fur and silk robe.
The Spooky Bunch by Ann Hui, 1980
Andrea: As I explored recently in myarticle about Chinese cinema, there is a vibrant, if complex, history of film in mainland China. And while the history of Hong Kong’s film industry might be less complex than that of its sister country, its films are no less remarkable. Ann Hui, perhaps one of the most notable female filmmakers of Hong Kong (but by no means the only one), is a fascinating combination of both histories, having been born and raised in Manchuria until the age of five, when her family left Communist-leaning China for Hong Kong.
This change is apparent in her portfolio. Hui’s not a writer, but her script selection often reflects themes of displacement, identity, ancestry and family. Her films Summer Snow and A Simple Life both deal with family and identity in a multitude of ways, and notably were the only two films to ever win all the top awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards. But at heart Hui is a working director, so her work tends to cross genres and styles. And nothing displays both sides of her portfolio like The Spooky Bunch, a wild film that takes on Chinese history, tradition, family, and our responsibility for the actions of our ancestors.
Meghan: This was a fun, if at times bewildering, journey. The Spooky Bunch is part family comedy, part rom-com, and part horror. A ghost comedy isn’t the type of movie I get to watch often, but this one shows there should be more. It’s always a delicate balance for a director to handle a story with so many varied tones, but Hui succeeds in telling this goofy story about ghosts haunting a traveling opera group. This feels like a quintessential "popcorn movie" that gives you a chance to escape the world for a few hours. And there’s always value in watching a film that pays close attention to cultural details. From the costumes, to the music, to the cars people drove, I felt like I was getting a literal backstage look at Hong Kong culture in the 1980s.
Salaam Bombay! by Mira Nair, 1988
Andrea: Mira Nair is so dear to my heart as a filmmaker; not just her amazing awareness of setting and space, but her fearless ability to portray her characters at their most vulnerable. While attending Harvard on a full scholarship, Nair first became involved in theater and film, culminating in a documentary that explored the people and streets of Old Delhi. After school, she made three additional docs about her home country before filming Salaam Bombay!, which won the Camera D’or and the Audience Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Salaam Bombay! paved the way for a successful career, allowing Nair to have her choice of projects. Fun fact? She turned down directing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to direct The Namesake with Kal Penn. The 2000s saw her hit Hollywood, taking on a slew of female-led films: Vanity Fair, Amelia, and Queen of Katwe. If her resume isn’t enough to impress you, her activism might: she used the profits from Salaam Bombay! to create the Salaam Baalak Trust, which provides for street children in India. And in Uganda, Nair founded the Maisha Foundation, which hosts scholarship-based film labs for filmmakers in East Africa, and boasts alumni like Lupita Nyong’o.
Meghan: I love when a documentary filmmaker starts making scripted films, because those skills are valuable at portraying an authentic perspective of its location. In this case, Nair captures not only the lives of street children in India, but also the humming city of Bombay (now Mumbai) as its own character. I’m fascinated by how difficult it must have been to film in this fly-on-the-wall style on location all over the city. The story, about a young boy who gets separated from his family and ends up in an exploitative job in a dangerous slum, is difficult to watch at times. It explores the trappings of extreme poverty, prostitution, drug addiction and life on the margins in an informal economy that seems inescapable. But it’s not hopeless: Nair portrays some real moments of joy.
When I visited Mumbai, I remember driving around the streets and being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of activity and color around me. As you move through the bustling city, you see tiny glimpses of other people’s lives for a second, and then they’re gone. I love that this movie invites the viewer to spend time with some of those people and experience a very human story of India. I hope more Americans will watch it.
A Dry White Season by Euzhan Palcy, 1989
Andrea: Euzhan Palcy was the first Black female director to direct a film for a Hollywood studio (in this case, MGM Studios) and also the first Black director to win an award at the Venice Film Festival. In addition, she was the first Black director responsible for an actor’s Oscar nomination. Born in Martinique, Palcy grew up loving classic films, and left the island to get her degree in theater and literature from the Sorbonne. While in Paris, a friend introduced her to the daughter of François Truffaut, a meeting that had a big impact on the young creator. Truffaut mentored the young mentored Palcy on her screenplay adaptation of Sugar Cane Alley, and supported her when the distributor tried to strong-arm the edit.
Sugar Cane Alley became a success, and Palcy was approached by Hollywood to direct. Despite initial hesitation, Palcy answered the call and directed A Dry White Season, a film that took on the Soweto riots and the politics of apartheid. Palcy not only got the notoriously stubborn Marlon Brando to come out of retirement for the film, but she also went undercover in South Africa to research the film. Palcy’s career has continued in Hollywood and out, directing the musical Simeon, Disney’s Ruby Bridges, Paramount’s The Killing Yard, and the documentary Aimé Césaire, A Voice for History, among others.
Meghan: This is a fascinating era in world history, and feels incredibly relevant with the protests against racial inequity currently happening in our own country. It’s interesting to look at apartheid South Africa not through politics and presidents, but ordinary people, and children especially. The violence is heartbreaking. Although the story focuses mostly on a legal dilemma, Palcy takes special care to show how racial conflict affects children. Palcy portrays the separate lives of white and Black South Africans so effectively. The story illustrates how white people can think they are well-meaning despite the fact that they are benefitting enormously from institutionalized racism. What will it take for people in power to actively fight the injustices from which they have benefitted? “We can never go back to the way it was,” Donald Sutherland’s character says after he sees the violence first-hand, and commits putting his life on the line to make change in his country. Also, how cool is it to see Marlon Brando fighting for human rights? I never knew he took on a role like this.