By Bianca Garner
First off, it’s damn near impossible to pick just ten women who have inspired me over the years. I have heard and read so many stories of hell blazing women who have stood up against discrimination in the film industry throughout the years, whether it’s the brave women who spoke up against Harvey Weinstein and shared their #MeToo stories, or women like Frances McDormand, who have actively campaigned for the Inclusion Rider in filmmakers’ and actors’ contracts in order provide a certain level of diversity in the casting and production process.
We tend to think that strong, independent women in film have only emerged over the last few decades, but throughout the history of film there have been amazing, pioneering women such as Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner and Alice Guy-Blaché. I wanted to share with you ten women and their incredible stories, and how they’ve personally inspired me. So, without any further ado, let’s get to it!
Cleo Madison (March 26, 1883-March 11, 1964)
There’s a high chance that you haven’t heard of Cleo Madison, a theatrical and silent film actress, screenwriter, producer, and director who worked in the film industry from 1910 until 1924. Like so many of her contemporaries, Madison was pushed out of the filmmaking industry in the 1920s, when the studio system began to emerge. However, for a short period of time, she was one of the most well-known women working in the industry, not only as an actress, but as a screenwriter, director and producer. What makes Madison so inspiring is the fact that she always took on a challenge head-on. In her 1914 film “The Trey of Hearts”, her character endures a number of physical challenges such as being in a car crash, being shot at, and escaping a forest fire. In 1915, she began her short-lived directorial career, directing sixteen shorts and two feature-length pictures.
Madison was known for her progressive views, and she was also very confident in her own ability. She believed being female positively influenced her directing style, remarking once that each of her directed pieces had to have a certain “feminine touch”. She was quoted in Photoplay magazine:
“One of these days, men are going to get over the fool idea that women have no brains, and quit getting insulted at the thought that a skirt-wearer can do their work quite as well as they can. And I don’t believe that day is very far off.“
Sadly, in 1916 Madison stopped directing, and by 1924 she withdrew from the film industry all together. Many film historians have speculated that she suffered from a nervous breakdown and exhaustion due to her incredible output of work throughout the 1910s.
Bette Davis (April 5, 1908 – October 6, 1989)
With a career spanning over 50 years and with an astonishing 100 acting credits to her name, Bette Davis was a force not to be reckoned with. This is the woman who famously stood up to Warner Bros. in order to free herself from the contract she had with them. Bette had to fight for the roles she wanted throughout the early stages of her career. After her contract with Universal wasn’t renewed in 1932, Davis nearly left Hollywood for good before getting her break in the film “The Man Who Played God” but it was her role as wanton Mildred Rogers in the RKO Radio production of “Of Human Bondage” (1934), a film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, which earned Davis her first major critical acclaim. Many other actresses turned down the role fearing it would affect their reputation but she saw it as an opportunity to show off her acting abilities. Her role in the 1935 film “Dangerous” saw her pick up her first Oscar.
“Without wonder and insight, acting is just a trade. With it, it becomes creation.”
Convinced that her career was being damaged by a succession of mediocre films, Davis accepted an offer in 1936 to appear in two films in Britain. Knowing that she was breaching her contract with Warner Bros., she fled to Canada to avoid legal papers being served on her. Eventually, Davis brought her case to court in Britain, hoping to get out of her contract. She later recalled the opening statement of the barrister, Patrick Hastings, who represented Warner Bros. that urged the court to “come to the conclusion that this is rather a naughty young lady, and that what she wants is more money”. He mocked Davis’ description of her contract as “slavery”.
Davis lost the case, and returned to Hollywood, in debt and without income, to resume her career. However, she paved the way for Olivia de Havilland who mounted a similar case in 1943, and won. During the late 1930s and 40s, Davis was actually Warner Bros.’ most profitable star and was given the most important of their female roles. In January 1941, Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but antagonized the committee members with her brash manner and radical proposals. Davis rejected the idea of her being just “a figurehead only”. Faced with the disapproval and resistance of the committee, Davis resigned. Again proving that she wasn’t one to play the rules and couldn’t be tamed.
Hedy Lamarr (November 9, 1914-January 19, 2000)
The story of Hedy Lamarr and her incredible achievements is proof that women aren’t simply just pretty faces to be gazed upon. Not only was she an actress, but she was also an inventor, and a film producer. She starred in over 30 films in an acting career spanning 28 years, and co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum.
Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and acted in a number of Austrian, German, and Czech films in her brief early film career, including the controversial “Ecstasy” (1933). In 1937, she fled from her husband, a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer, secretly moving to Paris and then to London. There she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood, where he began promoting her as “the world’s most beautiful woman”.
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Dismayed by often being typecast, she co-founded a new production studio and starred in its films: “The Strange Woman” (1946), and “Dishonored Lady” (1947). At the very start of World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. She also helped improve aviation designs for Howard Hughes while they dated during the war. Although the Navy didn’t begin using Lamarr and Antheil’s invention until 1957,various spread-spectrum techniques are incorporated into Bluetooth technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi.
Ida Lupino (4 February 1918 – 3 August 1995)
Ida Lupino started her career as an actress, starring in films like “They Drive by Night” (1940), “High Sierra” (1941), “The Man I Love” (1947), “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) and “The Big Knife” (1955). Acting was in her blood. Her father, a top name in musical comedy in the UK and a member of a centuries-old theatrical dynasty dating back to Renaissance Italy, encouraged her to perform at an early age and he even built a backyard theatre for Lupino and her sister Rita.
Dubbed “the English Jean Harlow”, she was discovered by Paramount in the 1933 film “Money for Speed”. However, Lupino did not enjoy being an actress and felt uncomfortable with many of the early roles she was given. And, she often felt that she was pushed into the profession due to her family history. By the mid-40s, she had been placed on suspension for rejecting an acting role. While on suspension, Lupino had ample time to observe filming and editing processes, and she became interested in directing. She described how bored she was on set while “someone else seemed to be doing all the interesting work.”
“Often I pretended to a cameraman to know less than I did. That way I got more cooperation.”
For many years Lupino was the only female filmmaker working in the male-dominated film industry: she not only co-wrote and co-produced but directed a number of very impressive movies. She often tackled taboo subjects which included: pregnancy outside of marriage in her 1949 film “Not Wanted” and the subject matter of rape in her 1950 film “Outrage”. Her 1953 film noir, “The Hitch-hiker” was inspired by a true crime case and is regarded as the first American mainstream film noir directed by a woman.
In a career that span nearly 5 decades, she made acting appearances in 59 films and directed eight films, she also directed more than 100 episodes of television productions in a variety of genres, and was the only woman to direct an episode of the original “The Twilight Zone” series.
Agnès Varda (30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019)
She was not only a film director, but was also a screenwriter, photographer, and artist. Varda’s work was pioneering to the development of the widely influential French New Wave film movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, it is now agreed by many film scholars that her film “La Pointe Courte” (1955) was the true forerunner to the French New Wave, although for many years it had been Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” (1958) which had been listed as the “first French New Wave film”. Agnès Varda’s films focused on replicating documentary realism, as well as addressing feminist issues. Perhaps her most well-known film is the 1962 film “Cléo from 5 to 7” which follows a young singer, Florence “Cléo” Victoire (Corinne Marchand), from 5pm on June 21, as she waits until 6:30pm to hear the results of a medical test that will possibly confirm a diagnosis of cancer. The film raises questions about how women are perceived, especially in French society.
Varda originally intended to become a museum curator but later studied photography. While working as a photographer, Varda became interested in making a film, although she stated that she knew little about the medium and had only seen around twenty films by the age of twenty-five. She later said that she wrote her first screenplay “just the way a person writes his first book. When I’d finished writing it, I thought to myself: ‘I’d like to shoot that script,’ and so some friends and I formed a cooperative to make it.” She found the filmmaking process difficult because it did not allow the same freedom as writing a novel; however she said that her approach was instinctive and feminine.
“I think I was a feminist before being born. I had a feminist chromosome somewhere.“Agnes Varda
Martin Scorsese has described Varda as “one of the Gods of Cinema”. On hearing the news of her death, Scorsese wrote the following, “I seriously doubt that Agnès Varda ever followed in anyone else’s footsteps, in any corner of her life or her art. Every single one of her remarkable handmade pictures, so beautifully balanced between documentary and fiction, is like no one else’s — every image, every cut … What a body of work she left behind: movies big and small, playful and tough, generous and solitary, lyrical and unflinching … and alive.”
Among several other awards and nominations, Varda received an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, an Academy Honorary Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Varda became the very first woman director to ever be honoured with an Academy Honorary Award.
Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919 – September 3, 2001)
It was the writing of Pauline Kael which really inspired me to step into the world of film criticism. Kael unabashedly liked what she liked and often caused shockwaves throughout the world of film criticism when she attacked critically acclaimed films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Shoah” and “Dances With Wolves”. When asked about the purpose of her writing, she had this to say, “I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice.” Her film criticism career began in 1953, when Peter D. Martin, the editor of City Lights magazine overheard Kael arguing about films in a coffeeshop with a friend and asked her to review Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight”. Kael dubbed the film “Slimelight” and began publishing film criticism regularly in magazines.
Kael continued to juggle writing with other work until she received an offer to publish a book of her criticism. Published in 1965 as I Lost It at the Movies, the collection sold 150,000 paperback copies and was a surprise bestseller. During the early 1960s, she was a film critic for the women’s magazine McCall’s. She dissed the popular “The Sound of Music” in her view she called the film: ” [a] sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat.”
“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
Her dismissal from McCall’s led to a stint from 1966 to 1967 at The New Republic, whose editors continually altered Kael’s writing without her permission. In October 1967, Kael wrote a lengthy essay on Bonnie and Clyde, which the magazine declined to publish. William Shawn of The New Yorker obtained the piece and ran it in the New Yorker. Her review was at odds with her peers who criticised the amount of humour and violence in the picture. According to critic David Thomson, “she was right about a film that had bewildered many other critics.” A few months after the essay ran, Kael quit The New Republic “in despair.” In 1968, Kael was asked by Shawn to join The New Yorker staff; she alternated as film critic every six months with Penelope Gilliatt until 1979, and became sole critic in 1980 after a year’s leave of absence working in the film industry.
Roger Ebert argued in an obituary that Kael “had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.” Kael, he said, “had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her ‘approach’ to a film. With her it was all personal.” It’s for this reason alone, that I find her so inspiring.
Thelma Schoonmaker (1940-)
Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese go hand-in-hand. In her fifty year career she has been the editor for many of Scorsese’s well-known films including “Raging Bull”, “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, “Gangs of New York”, “The Departed” and most recently “The Irishman”. Schoonmaker has received eight Academy Award nominations for Best Film Editing, and has won three times—for “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Aviator” (2004), and “The Departed”(2006), which were all Scorsese-directed films.
Schoonmaker was primarily raised in Aruba, in a community she described as “a colony of expatriates from over the world”; she also spent part of her childhood in Portugal. Schoonmaker did not live in the United States until she was an adolescent in 1955, and was initially alienated and dumbfounded by American culture. At first, she wanted to pursue a career in International diplomacy but it was her support of the Civil Rights Movement, and her opposition of the Vietnam War which lead her to pursue a different career path. While taking a graduate course in primitive art at Columbia University, Schoonmaker saw an advertisement in The New York Times that offered training as an assistant film editor. She responded to the advertisement and got the job.
“I’m not a person who believes in the great difference between women and men as editors. But I do think that quality is key. We’re very good at organizing and discipline and patience, and patience is 50 per cent of editing. You have to keep banging away at something until you get it to work. I think women are maybe better at that.”
She signed up for a brief six-week course in filmmaking at New York University, where she came into contact with young Martin Scorsese, who was struggling to complete his film “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” A previous editor had butchered his film, so a film professor asked her to help Scorsese. It was the start of a beautiful partnership.
At NYU, Schoonmaker also met filmmaker Michael Wadleigh and later edited his influential music festival documentary, “Woodstock” on which Scorsese also worked. Her first major film editing work on Woodstock gained Schoonmaker an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing. Her use of superimpositions and freeze frames brought the performances in the film to life, and added to the movie’s wide appeal, thus helping to raise the artistry and visibility of documentary film-making to a new level.
It took time for her career to get off the ground. Despite being an Oscar nominee, Schoonmaker could not work on feature films unless she became a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. The union’s entry requirements included spending five years as an apprentice and three as an assistant, which she was unwilling to meet. In the 1980s, with Scorsese’s help, Schoonmaker was finally admitted to the union. The two collaborated on “Raging Bull”, which led to Schoonmaker winning an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.
She was introduced to the film director Michael Powell by Scorsese. The couple were married from May 19, 1984 until his death in 1990. Since Powell’s death, Schoonmaker has dedicated herself to preserving the films and honouring the legacy of her husband.
Geena Davis (January 21, 1956-)
Geena Davis has always been a hero of mine ever since watching “Beetlejuice”, “Thelma and Louise” and “Cutthroat Island” as a kid. Not only does Geena play awesome characters on-screen, she’s also pretty darn awesome in real life too. In 2004, Davis launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which works collaboratively with the entertainment industry to dramatically increase the presence of female characters in media. Through the organization, she launched the annual Bentonville Film Festival in 2015, and executive produced the documentary This Changes Everything in 2018.
As a young child, she learned piano and flute and played organ well enough as a teenager to serve as an organist at her Congregationalist church. Davis attended Wareham High School and was an exchange student in Sandviken, Sweden, becoming fluent in Swedish. She began her career as a model, and was approached by director Sydney Pollack for his film “Tootsie” (1982) where she was cast as a soap opera actress whom she described as “someone who’s going to be in their underwear a lot of time”. However, it was “The Fly” and “Beetlejuice” which really placed Davis on the map. And of course, she also starred in the fantastic “In a League of Their Own” in 1992 which was a Box Office Hit.
Davis teamed up with her then-husband, director Renny Harlin, for the films “Cutthroat Island” (1995) and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996), with Harlin hoping that they would turn her into an action star. While “The Long Kiss Goodnight” managed to become a moderate success, Cutthroat Island flopped critically and commercially and was once listed as having the “largest box office loss” by Guinness World Records. For many, it was her role in this film which led to her career downturn.
“The motto of my institute has always been, ‘If they can see it, they can be it.’ And it’s literally true. If we show something on-screen, it will change what happens in real life.“
In a 2016 interview with Vulture, she recalled: “Film roles really did start to dry up when I got into my 40s. If you look at IMDb, up until that age, I made roughly one film a year. In my entire 40s, I made one movie, Stuart Little. I was getting offers, but for nothing meaty or interesting like in my 30s. I’d been completely ruined and spoiled. I mean, I got to play a pirate captain! I got to do every type of role, even if the movie failed.”
In 2004, while watching children’s television programs and videos with her daughter, Davis noticed an imbalance in the ratio of male to female characters. Davis went on to sponsor the largest research project ever undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment (resulting in four discrete studies, including one on children’s television) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. The study, directed by Stacy Smith, showed that there were nearly three males to every one female character in the nearly 400 G, PG, PG-13, and R-Rated movies the undergraduate team of Annenberg students analysed.
Davis launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007. The institute’s first focus is an on-the-ground program that works collaboratively with the entertainment industry to dramatically increase the presence of female characters in media aimed at children and to reduce stereotyping of females by the male-dominated industry.
Ava DuVernay (born August 24, 1972)
Ava DuVernay is an absolute powerhouse and here at ITOL we absolutely LOVE her. She won the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature film “Middle of Nowhere”, becoming the first black woman to win the award. For her work on “Selma” (2014) (which came in at number 9 on our top 50 films of the decade list which you can find here), DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and also the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film “13th” (2016) (which came in at number 11 on our top 50 films of the decade list which you can find here). DuVernay’s 2018 Disney children’s fantasy film “A Wrinkle in Time” made her the first black woman to direct a live-action film earning $100 million at U.S. box office.”
During her summer vacations, she would travel to the childhood home of her father, which was not far from Selma, Alabama. DuVernay said that these summers influenced the making of “Selma”, as her father had witnessed the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. Originally her interest was in journalism, a choice influenced by an internship with CBS News. She was assigned to help cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial. However, DuVernay became disillusioned with journalism, and made the decision to follow a career in public relations, working as a junior publicist at 20th Century Fox, Savoy Pictures, and a few other PR agencies. She opened her own public relations firm, The DuVernay Agency, also known as DVAPR, in 1999.
“I made my first film when I was 35, so I firmly believe that you don’t have to be one thing in life. If you’re doing something, and you have a desire to do something different, give it a try.”Ava DuVernay
In 2005, over the Christmas holiday, she decided to take $6,000 and make her first film, a short called “Saturday Night Life”. Based on her mother’s experiences, the film was about an uplifting trip by a struggling single mother (Melissa De Sousa) and her three kids to a local Los Angeles discount grocery store. The film toured the festival circuit and was broadcast on February 6, 2007, as part of Showtime’s Black Filmmaker Showcase.
DuVernay next explored making documentaries, as they had smaller budget than fiction films, and she felt that she could learn the trade while doing so. In 2011, DuVernay’s first narrative feature film, “I Will Follow”, a drama starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, was released theatrically. DuVernay’s aunt Denise Sexton was the inspiration for the film. The film cost DuVernay $50,000 and was made in 14 days. Roger Ebert called it “one of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one.”
Chloé Zhao (March 31, 1982)
Zhao was born Zhao Ting in Beijing in 1982. Her parents were the manager of a steel company and a hospital worker who was in a People’s Liberation Army performance troupe. In an interview with Vogue she described herself as “a rebellious teen, lazy at school” who drew manga and wrote fan fiction. She loved films growing up, and when she was 15 years old, despite knowing nearly no English, her parents sent her to a boarding school in the United Kingdom.
Zhao studied at Mount Holyoke College earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. She studied film production at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. In 2015, Zhao directed her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Filmed on location at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the film depicts the relationship between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister. The film premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival. It later played at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director’s Fortnight selection. The film was nominated for Best First Feature at the 31st Independent Spirit Awards.
“It’s very important for feminism for us to tell our daughters that they should be strong. But to tell our sons that they can be vulnerable, to have these characters on screen that are not perfectly masculine cowboys that never fail, for our boys to change their psyche as well, that’s equally important for feminism.”Chloe Zhao
In 2017, she directed “The Rider” (which came in at number 24 on our top 50 films of the decade list which you can find here), a contemporary western drama which follows a young cowboy’s journey to discover himself after a near-fatal accident ends his professional riding career. Similar to her first feature, Zhao utilised a cast of non-actors who lived on the ranch where the film was shot. Zhao was inspired to make the film came when she met Brady Jandreau—a cowboy who was present on the reservation where she shot her first film— who had suffered a severe head injury when he was thrown off his horse during a rodeo competition. The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors’ Fortnight selection and won the Art Cinema Award. The film earned her nominations for Best Feature and Best Director at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards.
In 2018, Zhao directed her third feature film “Nomadland” which was shot over four months traveling the American West in an RV with real-life nomadic workers. The film premiered at Venice Film Festival where it received critical acclaim and won the Golden Lion award, and subsequently won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was released on February 19, 2021 by Searchlight Pictures. Zhao won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director for “Nomadland”, making her the first woman of Asian descent honoured. She also is only the second woman to win a Golden Globe for directing since Barbra Streisand in 1984. The film also earned six nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for McDormand. Personally speaking, I can’t wait to see what Zhao does next and wish her all the best of luck at the Oscars!